We Can Be Heroes. Part 1: An Ode to Assam

By Fiona McAlpine 

Photography Courtesy of Srishti NGO

We sometimes think that our actions don’t have tangible consequences. And this is arguably true – all those people who didn’t ride their bike to work today, or who thought the compost bin was too gross to deal with, haven’t halted the earth from spinning around the sun.

But some small actions do have profound consequences. I want to guide you through the supply chain behind the shirt I’m wearing right now and explain to you why you’re a hero when you buy clothing from The Fabric Social.

Let me tell you why your purchasing power is political power…

It all starts with a family of silk worms. Indigenous to Assam in Northeast India, this little guy chomps on his organic castor leaves with his mates, safely indoors so the birds don’t get him. Luckily for him, he’s an eri worm and produces so-called peace ‘ahimsa’ silk. Unlike conventional silk, eri worms aren’t harmed in the silk-extraction process, so this little guy will go on to live another day. 

Me and Sharna getting intimate with some eri worms. 

Meanwhile, the women who spin the silk into useable yarn wait patiently, respecting these critters with great reverence. When the time comes, the worms metamorphise into moths and go off to get busy with their hermaphroditic lovers, leaving the ladies free to pull apart the cocoons and cut and spin the yarn.

Now, I probably don’t need to tell you how most fabric comes into being. If most of your clothes aren’t already made of plastic, they soon will be. Polyester is no longer the double-knit nightmare of the past: It can now imitate almost any fabric, and you would be blown away by how ubiquitous it is. Polyester is made out of the same plastic that is used in Coke bottles (i.e. derived from crude oil), which is a bit worrying when you consider that an estimated 90% of future fibre production will be polyester. And that it takes at least 200 years to decompose

You've probably heard the sound bite that fashion is now the second most polluting industry after big oil. From long and complicated supply chains, the farming of raw materials using hazardous chemicals, to the dyes, treatments and disposal - the carbon footprint of the fashion industry is tremendous

It doesn't take a genius to work out that if fashion is second only to big oil, and 90% of our future clothing will be derived from crude oil, then we are not talking about two separate nasty interest groups - we are talking about one amorphous and rather filthy beast. 

But back to my t-shirt. In Assam, The Fabric Social’s weaving unit work together, setting their own hours and their own prices as a co-op. Everything is hand-woven on graceful wooden fly-shuttle looms.

The end result of this meticulous weaving is The Fabric Social’s flagship fabric – our eri silk and khadi cotton blend. This chemical-free material has a flannelly feel that is breathable in summer and in winter alike. I am always blown away by how many times I can wear this fabric before it needs to be washed. I guess that’s because most of the things I own are made of plastic and I manage to stink them up within a day of wear. 

The Fabric Social’s local partners, Srishti NGO – along with all our weavers – live in an ex-insurgent-held region of Assam called Sivasagar, which was previously controlled by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The ULFA are a revolutionary political organisation that for decades took up an armed struggle against oppression and exploitation by the Indian state. 

From the tea you drink to the cotton you sleep on, it’s likely that at least some of it was made in Assam by people getting paid a pittance, with the profits ending up in the pockets of a pot-bellied, mustachioed middleman a thousand kilometres away in Kolkata. Although we don’t condone armed resistance, we recognise that the ULFA certainly have a point. In Sivasagar, some of the Marxist values of the Assamese resistance remain, despite the group being de-radicalised. 

Our weavers are a combination of ex-guerrilla soldiers and political activists (and a poet to boot). Silk is the lifeblood of this community and one of the only industries that remote villages can sustain beyond the temperamental cultivation of agricultural goods. During recent flooding (the worst in living memory), the community banded together to make sure no one got left behind. The ex-liberation army soldiers sprang into action, working with the local Buddhist temple to build water breaks and look after the sick and injured. 

Believe it or not, you can be a hero to these people. When you shop with The Fabric Social, not only are you putting money directly in the pockets of talented artisans, you are also casting a vote for the world you want to see. Our fabric can go into your worm farm when you’re done with it (unless you’re one of those people who think the compost bin is too gross to deal with). Yes, that means less landfill – but it also means supporting grassroots activism in a forgotten part of the world, and showing your allegiance to resilient women who are forging their own future.

Kaberi, the head of Srishti NGO and general bloody legend

The Fabric Social has two new projects starting in two new locations this year; but our hearts will always be in Assam, where Srishti NGO and our wonderful weavers and partners first showed us what real warriors look like.

Next time I'll walk you through the following step in our supply chain: Kolkata. 

You can find out more about our producers here, and more about Srishti NGO here. You can buy our fabric wholesale by reaching out to megan@thefabricsocial.com

 

Fi is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with women affected by armed conflict, displacement and other insecurity. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here 


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