14 January 2014

Interview with Weaving Destination

When you're handling fabric, do you sometimes stop to think about whose hands it has passed through before yours? Who was involved in its production, and what their story is? Occasionally that story is a very special one. Today, it's my pleasure to interview Debi Fry from Weaving Destination a social enterprise that produces fabric in a very interesting context. You may already know Debi from her sewing blog, which was one of the first blogs I ever read and, in fact, Debi was the first blogger I ever met up with IRL (yes, she is LOVELY). And now she's embarked on a very worthwhile project. Let's find out more about it...

Hi Debi! Please introduce yourself...

"Thank you Tilly for inviting me to talk about the exciting enterprise called Weaving Destination. For those that don’t know me, my name is Debi and I blog over at My Happy Sewing Place. I’m a researcher by day and a vintage sewing enthusiast in my free time. My research focuses in the area of child protection and preventing violence against women. I’m also the co-founder of Weaving Destination UK (alongside another amazing woman named Javita Narang — and our lovely partners David and Digambar) — which is an initiative that builds on my two passions: preventing and addressing violence against women, and sewing!"

Debi and Javita, founders of Weaving Destination
What does Weaving Destination do and what is the objective?

"Weaving Destination is a social enterprise that promotes financial independence and empowerment of indigenous women in Northeast India through the sale of their hand-woven organic cotton and eri silk products. The social enterprise started as a women’s weaving collective with capital funding from the UN to develop a weaving centre (using women’s own home-based looms). Handweaving is a traditional craft in the area (very similar to Scotland, where I am based) and it gives women the opportunity to build livelihoods and generate income based on skills they already have.

All of the women weavers come from the indigenous Bodo communities in Assam, India. Due to the region’s location in the Northeast of India (bordering Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China), Assam suffers very high rates of human trafficking especially among indigenous communities. All of the women employed through Weaving Destination are either survivors of human trafficking, living with HIV/AIDS or are female migrant returnees who are highly vulnerable to re-trafficking, social exclusion and poverty. Weaving Destination provides employment and also housing and support for the women and their children.

We are passionate about creating financial independence for women and also in connecting women globally. Because I love sewing and work in the fields of gender-based violence prevention and child protection, this is the perfect project: it is a way of blending the things I feel most passionate about.

I love that these women are able to gain access to what they need through the employment of traditional skills – that’s a powerful thing. Bodo women learn to weave at a very early age, and they take a lot of pride in their expertise. It’s amazing to be able to expose the world to their handiwork and for them to benefit from it directly."

A social enterprise is a very interesting business model. Can you explain what it is and how it works for anyone who hasn't come across the term?

"Basically, a social enterprise is a business that helps people or communities instead of private shareholders. Social Enterprises can include Community Interest Companies, Limited Companies, Charitable Organisations, Co-operatives, or Industrial Societies. The common thread is that all of these involve significant re-investment of profits into the community or co-operative.

Social enterprises are different from charities or not-for-profit organisations as they are profit-making entities. Usually, though not always, social enterprises sit alongside charities. This is the case with Weaving Destination, which currently consists of two social enterprises (one in India and the partner social enterprise in Scotland) and one charity in India called the Nedan Foundation.

The Weaving Destination is a social enterprise primarily for creating livelihood opportunities for ethnic, indigenous local women. Nedan Foundation - the charity organization, on the other hand, with a few international grants and revenue generated from the Weaving Destination works towards other significant issues in the area such as child protection, education, health, peace building and overall community development aspects in the villages the women come from and where the weaving centers have been established.

The other exciting news is that we are about to start a not-for-profit part of Weaving Destination in Scotland as well, and will develop and register a charity that will seek to build links between women weavers in Scotland and India. The charity will also help support key initiatives related to healthcare, anti-trafficking and child protection. I am super excited about this!"

The weavers produce ethical silk - could you tell us a bit more about ethical considerations we should consider when buying fabric?

"Ethical fashion is a hot topic; there are many problems in the way the fashion industry currently operates, and it’s important as sewists, designers, and consumers that we exercise our ability to influence the market through our purchasing habits. The fashion industry has tried to address concerns such as exploitative labour, animal cruelty, waste, and environmental impact but there is so much more to be done.

As sewists, we often look for fabrics with particular properties, such as drape or “give,” as well as colour and patterns, but often we don’t know where that fabric comes from or how it was produced. In this economy, price is often the chief concern (or at least, a high priority) in choosing fabrics or fashion pieces. Unfortunately, in order to produce inexpensive fabrics, human rights, animal rights, sustainability, and environmental concerns tend to get pushed aside. Nobody wants to wear a garment made out of fabric that has been produced through conditions that cause pain, suffering, or destruction but oftentimes that is the case. Many factories worldwide operate based on child labour or women who have been trafficked. Raw materials are often produced through the heavy use of pesticides or other chemicals that are harmful to both the environment and the workers who come into contact with them. It’s important that we pay more attention to where our fabric comes from and how it’s made.

Weaving Destination is dedicated to employing sustainable growing practices, organically- and ethically-sourced materials, and a safe and humane working environment and one specifically that values and empowers women. Our ethical eri silk is produced without harming the silkworms; they are raised and cared for by individual women in the village, and the cocoons are collected once they are discarded, then separated into fibres and spun. Eri silk fabric is often worn by Buddhist monks throughout India, Nepal, and the surrounding area, and is suitable for vegans, as it is cruelty-free.

This project was originally begun by a member of the indigenous Bodo community in order to address the vulnerabilities of Bodo women due to poverty, regional strife, and sectarian violence. Weaving Destination is a grassroots organisation that has created a safe space for Bodo women to live and work within, providing them the opportunity to become self-sufficient through their own skills and abilities."

What can we do to support Weaving Destination?

"We’ve got some amazing organic cotton fabrics, silk and cotton scarves and bags for sale through our Etsy shop. We have small samples of Eri silk fabric, which only comes in only natural beige/white colours. We are exploring the possibility of weaving different weights of Eri Silk for use in wedding dresses and formal gowns. At the moment, there is no chemical-free way to dye the ethical silk. We are planning some fundraising activities later in the year to support the building of a vegetable-dyeing centre so that we can dye the silk lots of different colours! The great thing about this is that it would allow us to work with more women and build on some of the amazing vegetable and natural dyes (e.g. Indigo) in the area.

We also welcome suggestions and requests for colours and patterns. Our weavers are extremely talented and enjoy developing new designs, so feedback is another way to support our social enterprise. You can contact us through our Etsy shop or through my blog.

Finally, spreading the word is a great way to help us grow. We are dependent on sales of our hand-woven cloth, scarves, and bags to accomplish our goals of providing a sustainable path to self-sufficiency for these women."

Thanks Debi for sharing more about Weaving Destination. Readers, if you'd like to support Weaving Destination, check out their Etsy shop here and help spread the word.