Community weave, fashion wave

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A stitch in time… how Caroline Poiner from Sydney helps the women weavers of Uttarakhand—a land devastated by flash floods last year—rebuild their lives

When Caroline Poiner visited Kedarnath seven months after it was devastated in last year’s Uttarakhand floods, she saw what looked like a “mass gravesite”.
“The landslide had literally buried the village in rubble and the rivers burst and carried many of the villagers down the valley,” Poiner said. “It really looked like a moonscape, with the remaining buildings semi-buried.”
While she lives in Sydney, Poiner has ties to the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Her social enterprise Artisans of Fashion sources handloom weaves, beading and embroidery from rural artisans across India, including Panchachuli Women Weavers in Almora, which is nestled high in the mountains above Kedarnath.
When the disaster struck, the women of Panchachuli were determined to help. They donated their Diwali bonuses to purchase 100 spinning machines and raw wool, and transported the goods from Almora to the Kedar Valley. They then set about teaching the female survivors, many who lost husbands and are now the sole breadwinners, to hand-spin yarn, giving them a source of income.
“With my close association with the Panchachuli Women Weavers I was compelled to do whatever I could from a distance to help these people rebuild their lives,” Poiner said.
In February Poiner travelled to Kedarnath and visited some of the roughly 300 women from seven villages taking part in the Panchachuli training program. “We travelled as far as we could go. However, the roads were terribly unsafe, with continued rain fall and landslides along the way,” she said. “In some parts roads were blocked by large boulders.”
Poiner heard tales of people suffering severe post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression in the wake of the disaster. “There were reports of very little support actually getting to the people and that even the number of deaths were not disclosed to avoid having to pay compensation,” she said.
She visited three villages taking part in the spinning project and was encouraged to see, “a strong sense of solidarity amongst the women
and elderly”.
“It seemed to me that the project provided hope and a vision of the future,” she said. “The capacity for these women to learn seemed extraordinary, the skills they had already developed through the training program is quite remarkable.”
Artisans of Fashion is collaborating with Sydney-based fashion accessories retailer Sambagon for hand spun and hand knitted scarves as well as handloom cashmere shawls supporting the weavers in Uttarakhand. The products will be available in Sambag stores around Australia.
Meanwhile, Panchachuli founder Mukti Datta is busy setting up a sustainable business for the flood victims under the brand name Mandakini Women Weavers of Garhwal. Local residents have donated land for three production units to be set up—the women are currently working in a temporary shed set up in a field.
The Mandakini brand will be promoted through exhibitions and talks in major fashion capitals including Sydney, Paris, New York, Munich, Los Angeles and Delhi.
Renowned Indian designers Abraham and Thakore are working on a special collaborative collection to give the brand a boost with Indian fashionistas, while Poiner is raising the profile of the brand in Australia.

Those wishing to donate to Panchachuli or find out about opportunities to collaborate with Artisans of Fashion can contact Caroline at info@artisansoffashion.com

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