Gun survivors of Northeast India turn to weaving to make a living, and three Australian women and a mobile app show them how
“Obviously buying a shirt doesn’t create world peace, but alleviating the burden of poverty can.”
So says Katie Rose, one of three young Australian women who’ve deigned to do just that by founding a social enterprise that links conflict affected women weavers in Northeast India with the global online marketplace.
Fabric Social launched its debut line of Melbourne-chic shirts on 24 April, made with khadi-cotton and eri-silk woven on traditional handlooms by Assamese women – some ex-militants turned peace activists, some who’ve lost family to the ongoing armed conflict in India’s most remote corner.
Armed with a means of earning a living, the idea is the women will be able to “build peace” in their community – which has been cut off from much of the development in mainland India. “When a woman is making more money she can educate her children and she tends to spend it on the social fabric of her community,” Katie explains.
So how did three Aussie women get to be working in a part of India many Australians mistake for Southeast Asia?
Turns out they met each other in India after studying law and moving there to undertake internships. Fiona and Sharna travelled to the Northeast many times to work with “women gun survivors,” said Katie. It wasn’t long before they began dreaming up solutions to break the cycle of conflict that has long plagued the region, and the idea for Fabric Social was born.
It took time and a few scrapped plans to develop the model behind Fabric Social today. “First we had this brilliant idea that we could teach the weavers how to sew the shirts,” Katie says.
But they quickly learned that “especially when it comes to artisans, the thing is that you have to let the skill lie where it is”. As they say in India, there’s a person for everything and every person does their job – and only their job.
“All women in Assam weave, you have to weave to get married, it’s such an integral part of their culture,” says Katie. “We can do stuff like upgrade the handlooms if they break… but we had to work with what was on the ground — so they weave amazing silk, they farm it themselves, so why change that?”
After the fabric is woven, it gets sent to Kolkata where the clothes, designed by Australian designer Ally Dean, are stitched together, before finally being shipped to customers who’ve purchased them online at: www.thefabricsocial.com.
A specially designed Fabric Social mobile app enables the weavers to manage their small enterprise themselves, with features showing supply and demand data, and tools for production and inventory management.
The women make Rs 550 to 830 per metre, and typically weave 4 to 6 metres a day depending on skill, for Fabric Social. Previously they made traditional Assamese scarves and travelled great distances to sell them at markets, but “often walked home with a profit of about 20 rupees”, says Katie. “It wasn’t enough to weave, so most women did extra work cleaning, cooking and fishing to supplement their income,” she says.
Local conditions mean production will likely not be the most reliable. “We might make more silk one month because the weathers good, but then in monsoon we’re going to make no silk,” says Katie. “You can’t fight it because the weather is the weather and if a festival’s happening no one even picks up a silk cocoon, it’s just holiday time.”
But mass production is far from the agenda. Fabric Social is about “slow, small sustainable fashion… and making customers think about what they’re buying and wearing”. The business needs to sell 80 items to break even each month and hits capacity at 200, with the women weavers getting paid regardless of sales. “Because we’re targeting slow fashion, we grow slow and the project grows slow and then we hit a limit because we can’t produce more than that. It would be irresponsible,” Katie says.
If all goes well they plan to expand and replicate their model to help other conflict affected communities in even more remote parts of India.
Assam “was the safest place for us to cut our teeth”, Katie explains. It’s conflict affected but not as isolated as Manipur, which is “many times harder” to do business in. “If we can sustainably keep Assam going and our program works then we want to expand it out into other areas of the Northeast,” she says.