Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Weaving Together Sustainability with Social Justice: Meet Smita Paul of Indigo Handloom

Smita Paul in her Dogpatch Headquarters

"The livery of freedom."  That's what Mahatma Gandhi called khadi.  Khadi means cotton and it is used to make hand-spun and hand-woven cloth.   At the time of India's struggle for independence, Gandhi urged the people of India to wear Khadi garments to show the unity of India and the self-reliance of its people. 

But according to a recent article in The Economic Times (of India), the number of India's handloom weavers who create this type of cloth and others are on the decline due to low remuneration, rising costs and the loss of Government subsidies.

Smita Paul founded Indigo Handloom in 2003 as a response to what she saw as not only the dwindling of India's handloom fabric industry, but also of a way of life for its artisan weavers. 

Coupled with this mission of social justice is another lofty goal for Paul:  make a difference in the fight against global warming --  handloom weavers use zero energy to create their colorful fabrics.

In addition to Khadi, Indigo Handloom also offers Muga and Mutka Silk, Batik, Jamdani and Ikat.  She markets these fabrics to small to mid-size designers and her own clothing line is in the works.  In addition, a selection of scarves made from these fabrics can be purchased from her website.

Intrigued by Paul's crusade and wondering how a former hard news journalist became obsessed with textiles, we met up with her at her small workshop located on the third floor of the American Industrial Building.  Three clocks representing the time zones where Paul spends most of her time crisscrossing -- New York, San Francisco, and India -- were featured prominently on one wall and with Paul due to leave that day for a business trip to NYC, we knew which time zone her eyes would be keeping track of.

The small space has surrendered to Paul's love of color and textiles as the brick walls of her office flow into the blue hued walls and purple window frames.  Hundreds of bolts of fabric in a riot of colors and numerous patterns were stacked neatly on shelves.  A large, ornate mirror reflected it all and made us feel we were in a much bigger space.

Why do you do what you do?

I can literally feel the presence of the weavers when I cut in to these beautiful fabrics that they have created.  And I also feel for them -- the loss that they are experiencing of how they have lived and worked for generations as their numbers and their industry dwindles.  And I guess I am humbled that they have so little in material possessions yet they create such beauty.  I want to bring recognition to them to help them survive but I also want to bring their beautiful fabrics to the awareness of an audience outside of India.

When people think of fabrics from India they think of bedspreads and perhaps of bad quality fabric.  This is the opposite of what I experienced as an Indian-American girl growing up in Tennessee.  The fabrics and garments I saw the women wear were high quality, sophisticated and beautiful.

I wanted to show that sophisticated side of these fabrics to the world. I knew I could help by taking these fabrics the weavers make and change the style to make it more modern, more fashion forward in order to create a larger market for them.

For most of my working life I was a journalist for newspapers and magazines as well as a journalism instructor at Columbia.  I worked for high profile media companies also as a freelance journalist.  I really did have the dream job as a freelancer -- I pitched stories that I wanted to cover in places that I wanted to travel to.  It was on a trip to India to cover a story that I first learned about the handloom industry. I've always enjoyed sewing and loved textiles so no matter where I was traveling to for a story I would make a point of finding local fabrics. 

I was just amazed by these beautiful fabrics that were literally made by a poor, landless weaver living in a mud hut! And when I realized that these weavers use no energy, not even a light bulb to create their fabrics, I knew I had to be a part of this story.  I realized that I could help create fabulous clothing with a very low carbon footprint.  In fact the recent wide-scale blackout in India had zero affect on our production -- zero! 

I knew nothing about design or how to run a retail or wholesale business but I'm proud of how much I have learned and accomplished -- Eileen Fisher is one of our biggest customers -- and I'm excited about a potential new clothing line that I'm working on.  

Why Dogpatch?

Dogpatch reminds me of my favorite neighborhood in New York, Dumbo, where I lived and I first started my business.  Dumbo is also near the water and it has the same great creative energy.

Who is another fascinating person you have met in Dogpatch?

Well, it feels like I work all the time but no one works harder than Gilberth and Julia Cab!  They own several restaurants in Dogpatch and I so admire what they have created.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

Honestly I think I would still be a journalist but a bitter one!  One of the reasons I turned my back on journalism was because I felt that there is such a manipulation of the media these days.  I really felt like I couldn't make a difference in the world by being a journalist.  I don't feel that way now.

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