Even as India’s hand woven fabrics are being celebrated on runways and in exclusive shops around the world, compensation among weavers typically remains unreasonably low when compared to other skilled laborers and generally inconsistent with the time and effort dedicated to each piece. For example, an experienced and diligent weaver spends an entire day to finish roughly seven traditional thorthu pieces (54” by 27”) which are then sold for about ₹40 (US$0.70) per piece in the local market, where the commonplace-ness of thorthu and a history of government subsidization have left the fabric unappreciated and poorly valued. The time quoted here does not include the labour-intensive pre-looming process, nor does the price quoted fully illustrate the pittance ultimately received by the weaver after materials costs are deducted. Worse still, the only remaining source of this revenue for the Kanjiramattom cooperative is a government-supported order—one which is characterized by largely mismanaged contracts with the weavers hardly ever being paid on time and often payment is made in the form of raw materials, rather than cash.
Indu Menon (social anthropologist) and Chitra Gopalakrishnan (graphic designer), founded KARA Weaves (“KARA”)—a fair-trade certified, socially-minded venture that seeks to connect the works of handloom artisans in Kanjiramattom to global markets in order to preserve thorthu weaving as an art-form and a piece of cultural heritage. KARA’s strategy to reactivate the artisans and revive the ailing art is to bring design and market intervention to the local weaving cooperative.
We partner with local weaving co-operatives in Kerala (India) to design contemporary home textiles. Each product is made from very ancient local fabrics that are hand-made at traditional wooden looms. We are certified members of the Fair Trade Forum of India, the country network of the WFTO and WFTO-Asia.
Design intervention: KARA recognizes that the weavers are highly skilled and they already produce a high-quality, useful product. What they lack is a critical knowledge of current, global design trends which are key to catching the interest of global consumers. KARA bridges this link between ancient and modern by working directly with the weavers to design a range of beautiful thorthu products, from cocktail napkins to beach towels, whose function is compatible with contemporary lifestyles.
Market Intervention: Beyond design, KARA recognizes the importance of leveraging branding and marketing techniques to effectively communicate the value of thorthu to international markets. By creating an online presence, leveraging social media, and attending trade fairs, KARA has generated greater awareness of thorthu fabrics and weavers among global markets and has begun to establish direct international sales channels to sustain demand.
That is, KARA, as a business model, is positioned at the intersection of social, environmental, and economic sustainability.
Social: KARA has evolved as a personal and purposeful business because its founders are passionate and committed to the social objectives important to their community. Indu, as a social anthropologist who had previously studied the personal, social, and economic contexts of hand weavers in southern India, recognized that the only way to enable these artisans to continue to practice and teach their art to future generations was to restore hand weaving as a financially sustainable and aspirational profession. KARA collaborates with weavers on design—focusing on connecting them with the end user and the value of their creations. Additionally, KARA works with the currently fragile cooperative in Kanjiramattom to make sure that it has the support and resources necessary to rebuild the unit amidst this new phase of opportunity. Along the journey to revitalization, KARA has provided its local cooperative with interest-free working capital loans, committed to paying premium wages for their thorthu products, and worked to feed incoming orders to the local unit in order to stabilize growth and propel development.
Environmental: In the textiles industry, where most players are in a ‘race to the bottom,’ manufacturers seek to cut costs as far as possible through increased usage of energy-intensive automated processes and cheap labour. KARA, however, supports the use of handlooms which consume only fairly remunerated manpower. Additionally, KARA products are lightweight and require very little water to wash, dyes utilized are eco-friendly, and waste generated during production is up-cycled or recycled.
Economic: In the true spirit of social entrepreneurship, KARA is a venture that was born out of a community challenge recognized and confronted by innovative people who cared enough to create a solution. It was initiated with personal funds and since the date of inception it has been sustained by product revenues. According to Indu and Chitra, “Never relying on donations, grants, or subsidies, and still surviving means that we are at least on the right path to establishing a real solution that can be sustained by its own momentum.”