Before leaving India I had prepared my ideas and designs. This preparation involved lots of research (looking at fashion magazines and catalogs), some brainstorming and finally taking pencil to paper as I sketched out my designs. I always do a rough sketch first, then a final sketch that shows every stitch, gather and detail. And sometimes my choice of fabric changes my design.
The first day that I was in Bhopal, the workshop began by showing me all the fabrics that were available, the different stiches they use for embroidery and the different items they have made. I then showed them my designs and I began to explain in detail how to make the first dress. I had to give them all the measurements (bust, waist, hips, length, etc.) and for each size (S, M, L, XL). As I talked away, the manager’s niece, Sanga, translated to the tailor. I only hoped she was translating correctly!
I was in Bhopal for a week and I slept upstairs above the workshop. Every day, I was busy checking the work of my designs. Each dress that was made had to be tried on by me at least twice and then the tailor made the necessary adjustments. Normally, when making dresses the tailor has a dress-form, but this tailor did not, so I was the model for the size small. Once the prototype for the size small was perfected, I than gave the measurements for each additional size. This process was very time consuming as I had to inspect everything before making the duplicates.
Creating dresses in India was a challenging learning experience, mainly because of the language barriers and the cultural differences in garment making. The tailor knew how to make an Indian dress, but a western dress with its intricate details, took a lot of explaining and translating from Hindi to English. Also, the frequent power outages that happen in India, especially during monsoon season, really slowed down the work process. The fun part was picking the fabric from stacks of colorful hand blocked fabrics. It may seem easy to have a few dresses made in India, but in order to get the right design and size, it takes time, careful management and an experienced eye in both dress construction and design.
After visiting with the female artisans and management at the home décor workshop, I had the opportunity to visit the homes of these artisans, which were on the outskirts of Bhopal. They were very excited for me to come and had been waiting all day for my arrival, so I wrapped my face in a scarf with only my eyes showing (not for religious reasons, but to protect myself from the dust!) and hopped on the back of a motorcycle with the manager’s wife.
This little village on the outskirts of Bhopal had narrow streets, filled with flies and goats, but inside, the women’s homes were clean and as well- kept as possible. The houses were very simple with one to two rooms and they had minimal furniture- a stove and a bed or sometimes just a rug and mats for beds. There was no air-conditioning, only a fan (keep in mind that Bhopal summer temps range from 86-104 degrees), but the women were happy and all offered to serve me tea.
The manager’s wife and I brought them all special sweets and they very modestly accepted them. I gave some to the young children and they tried to share their sweets with me! I listened to the stories, not so different from struggles we hear about in the US, and many related to the difficulty of making ends meet. In one family the father had eye surgery and he had a box of medicine he must take. Another family had a child with mental problems and again they had to spend all their money on medicine. Still another mother and father had been working night and day, just so their child could get an English education, which cost more, but gave the child better opportunities for the future.
I asked one of the women, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you have?” Her answer to me was, "Happiness and prosperity for my children.”
Her words touched me deeply. My eyes started to tear up. I was just so shocked, mostly because the people of this village have so few material items. I’m sure if you asked someone in the US or another first- world country, people would say something money-oriented like a beach house or unlimited wealth.
My heart was so touched and I wanted to give them money to help them find happiness. But, through this one woman, I realized that only giving money is not sustainable nor is fair trade.
What the people of this village really need are good, reliable jobs, medical assistance and general community development. The government provides small food subsidies but the amount they provide is not enough and the quality of food remains very poor. Even the manager said that the women would not feel comfortable taking money - they would prefer to have work.
And so I began creating more jobs for these women, designing belts, headbands and bags that could be embroidered. I realized that I can use my design skills and my connections in the United States to create more work for not just these woman living on the outskirts of Bhopal, India, but for all marginalized women across in India who are struggling just to make ends meet.
Click here to read more about Passion Lilie.
At the home décor workshop in Bhopal, India, it was my pleasure to interview the female artisans about their experience, and the salary they receive - mainly to see if they are happy with their work and the working conditions. What I found is that the home décor business has been providing provided embroidery work for over 150 women living in villages on the outskirts of Bhopal, India for the past 10 years. The women do the hand embroidery work from home, usually in the evening after they have finished the household duties. Most of these women are Muslim and because of their religion, many of the women are not allowed to work outside of the home. Embroidery work is one of the few occupations the women are socially and religiously allowed to do.
The women use the money they earn to buy food, medicine or to improve the conditions of the household. Money they earn is usually supplemental to whatever the husband earns, but it is always used on necessities. Some of the women have been left by their husbands and for them the money is necessary in order to take care of their children. Most of the women are in their 20s and have an average of one to three children.
As I talked to these women, I could tell by the smiles on their faces that they were happy. The manager’s wife sat in the middle of all them like a big sister and they laughed and talked as they showed each other their work. There was even a sense of healthy competition, like a family, seeing who can stitch faster. Those who had young children (too young to be in school) brought their children with them and as they worked, they took frequent breaks to hold or play with their child. They said that they enjoy earning their own money, and that the extra money makes them feel like they are a not burden to the household.
I learned from the manager that the business, like most businesses, is struggling with bills and, at the same time, customers who want discounts and an increasingly lower price. One of their biggest problems is a lack of enough work for all who want it. The workshop gives work first to those who are desperately in need, and to those who are working the hardest. I believe this business would benefit from fair trade certification, which the owner is working towards. They need more customers and more awareness of what their mission is, providing sustainable jobs with fair wages to marginalized women in the outskirts of Bhopal, India.
Click here to read more about Passion Lilie.
Anyone who knows a little about India, may ask why visit Bhopal. Bhopal is the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, it is known as the City of Lakes and it is about 40% Muslim, but is not a tourist destination. In fact, while I was there I could count on a few fingers the number of foreigners I saw. An Indian friend who owns a home décor business invited me there. And since I had always wanted to go to India, I replied with a big ”Yes!”. I imagined that my visit would be a great opportunity to source and design products for the fair trade organization I worked for.
My first four days in India were spent in New Delhi getting acclimated to the climate, food and overpopulation. On my fourth day in Delhi, I arrived at the train station at 6:30 am to catch the express train to Bhopal. I was shocked by the smell and by the sight of so many people, young and old, sleeping on the floor. It made me feel terrible. I thanked God for my life, but my sorrows went out to the innocent children, born into this world and forced to sleep on a dirty, hard floor with little or no blanket, and no understanding of the comforts we take for granted.
In Bhopal, the manager of the home décor workshop, Sudhir and his niece, Sanga, were eagerly awaiting my arrival. As the passengers got off, there was a mad rush of people pushing through and trying to get out of the train station. I didn’t understand, if half the people would wait a little bit, the whole transition out of the train station would have been a lot smoother, but that is the way things go in India. There is no order and lots of chaos!
Sanga showing me hand embroidery work Sudhir proudly wearing a New Orleans t-shirt I gave him
Sudhir and Sanga took every precaution to get me out of the train station safely, including telling me exactly where to walk. They were very worried about protecting me and wanted to make sure they were treating me like a princess. In the Hindu religion, it is said that you should treat guest like Gods and that is exactly how I was treated. Sanga, who is a sweet, young girl, likes to dress in modern clothing and speaks only the best English. And even though she does not work in the workshop, she acted as my personal translator during my visit.
When we arrived at the workshop, everyone was eagerly awaiting my arrival. Most of them had never met someone from outside of India. I can only imagine them telling the story to all their friends as “the time a foreigner came to visit the workshop and bought products to be sent back to America!” The next few days were spent getting to know the ethics, values and products that are made by the home décor business.
After visiting parts of South and Central America, Europe, Northern Africa and South East Asia, in the summer of 2012 I had a wonderful opportunity to visit India. I made the trip in order to source and design new products for the fair trade organization I was working for and to see first hand the many benefits of fair trade. I was in India for 5 weeks visiting Delhi, Bhopal, Mcleodganj and Rajasthan.
The arts and culture of India fascinate me, but India has a problem with overpopulation from the crowded streets of Delhi to the mountains in the North. However despite India’s population problems, Indians are always willing to accommodate one more, and India was without a doubt accommodating to me.
In bustling Delhi, I had a list of fair trade stores, but with only their addresses it was a challenge to find them all. Locating the stores was like a scavenger hunt. I would take the metro, get off at the nearest stop, call for an auto rickshaw driver, who didn’t always take me to the right place, and then I sweated profusely in the 105 degree weather as I walked around looking for the right location. I laugh about it now, but when my feet had two layers of dirt on them and I was dehydrated, I wasn’t laughing.
In Bhopal, I visited a friend’s home décor workshop that employs village women with fair wages to do hand embroidery work. And I even got to go to an Indian wedding. Click here to read more.
In the North of India, in Mcleodganj, not only did I see beautiful mountains, but I also visited the Louisiana Himalayan Association, which has helped bridge the gap between US volunteers and Tibetan refugee aid since 1977. There I purchased products made by the Tibetan refugees. The income from the products supports their unimaginably tough journey of relocation from their homeland to India.
In the state of Rajasthan, I visited a rural village that practiced organic farming. In Jaipur, a city in Rajasthan, I enjoyed my favorite part of my trip, learning The Art of Hand Block Printing. It was an amazing trip, please read on about how my visit to Bhopal led me to start my own company.