One of the things I enjoyed most about my recent textile tour to India with the retreatrecreate group was the interaction with local women. We visited formal textile cooperatives as well as women working in their villages and were welcomed so generously everywhere by the women and their curious smiling children. They all gave us small cups of masala chai while we admired their work as they showed us the techniques they use and answered our questions about their work and lives. All the members of our group were craftspeople so we appreciated the work being done and were genuinely interested in the details of the techniques.
At the Sadhna group in Udaipur we learnt how the group trains and encourages women in local crafts such as embroidery, applique and block printing. Over 600 women work on a piece work system and are given the materials they require as well as access to sewing machines. We joined some of them in a workshop where they showed us how to embellish fabric with shisha mirrors, how to work fine applique and how to make small round fabric buttons. I was delighted my teacher praised me for my neat stitching in the applique work as I felt I’d passed the test!
At the Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur we joined the women in their workshop to see their embroidery for cushion covers and fabrics for soft toy making. They were a lively group and were very interested to see photos of our children and grandchildren and to find out about our lives. The Trust is a non-profit charitable organisation which provides free education to women and girls and trains them to earn their own living through stitching. After our time in the workshop we joined some of them for a cookery demonstration and a delicious lunch.
At other times we visited women in their villages sitting in the shade working on their embroidery together in sociable groups. These settings suggest a simple life with no cares but the reality is that these women are supplementing the family income as well as carrying out all the responsibilities women have throughout the world – their life is not easy. They all had stocks of beautifully made crafts for us to buy at what we hoped were reasonable prices and most of us bought pieces at every place we visited. At least the money goes straight to those doing the work and it places a value on women’s work and gives them some status as breadwinners in their villages.
It also allows them to work in their homes while keeping an eye on their children, rather than having to travel to find work or to labour in the fields. Hopefully, the fact that we had travelled specially to see them also raises their status within their community. Despite the differences in our economic circumstances I felt that at the end of the day we empathised with each other as women and stitchers – I hope they felt the same.