The Fabric Social is fundraising microloans for a new project in Mizoram - Northeast India. You can pledge $25 to support the project here.
Sharna de Lacy
Take a moment to consider the objects that inhabit your home. Crockery, bedding, clothing – the bits and bobs decorating the shelf above your heater or hidden away in the back of the cupboard.
I bet you’ve not thought for a moment about that Ikea bookshelf in the hall, or the polyester trend wear withering away in the bottom of your closet. I bet your mind turned warmly to the clay crockery handed down from your grandmother. The tailored velvet black dress your mother wore like a second skin for the entire winters of ’78 through ’82. The pure wool jacket that you spent more than usual on, but has survived five long years and shows no indication of giving in.
It is important how things are made, and that they mean something to us – and to the people who made them. Otherwise, we are left to drown in tasteless polyester. Aesthetics are left to off-the-rack trend forecasters and hulking, faceless factories in Guangzhou.
That’s why I have the best job in the world: I have a very legitimate excuse to travel to places where off-the-rack trash has yet to completely displace the art of creating things.
I recently travelled to Mizoram, India, a place known for blending contemporary fashion with the traditionally woven wrap skirt called a puon. In fact, where I live – a ‘short’ 20-hour bus journey through the mountains from Mizoram – the Mizo women are well known for killing the Sunday attire game. A soft cotton crop tee that relaxes off the shoulder paired with a tightly wrapped puon with dense motifs –and six inch heels. Ever since I first saw these exceptionally dressed ladies stomping the pockmarked pavement like it was a runway, I had been dying to visit Mizoram and to spread our Fab Social wings over the mountains.
I found the perfect excuse when I met Siami, a Mizo designer, 12 months ago. I first noticed her because of the bag she was carrying (almost everyone does, apparently). It’s a piece from one of her older collections, when thick geometric patterns and heavy purple designs were trending in Mizoram.
Since then, we have continued to meet regularly for tea and to talk about fashion, textiles and the history of Mizoram. It’s culture, language and history are unique, but like many other states in the far Northeast, Mizoram has witnessed a violent incorporation into India, prolonged by decades of rebellion and economic isolation. Like many other places too, throw a stone, and you’re likely to hit a weaver struggling to turn a livable income. It is with these women weavers that Siami has developed her designs.
Mizoram is home to some of the most original (and in fact, most plagiarised) textile designs in the world. Imagine a place where hand-woven fabrics that carry long histories are continuously reimagined by design-savvy weavers. Imagine perfectly tailored original garments, conceived with a pen and paper over hot tea with the local tailor. These dying crafts are the secret to the Mizo ladies’ fashion fame.
Traveling with my business partner, Fi, and Siami, we spent an extended week meeting weavers and tailors, exploring markets and sketching out designs.
In the small weaving town of Thenzawl, we met with weavers and saw the precision and skill that goes into creating intricate Mizo designs. We met with Pi Piani, a senior weaver who was volunteering at a workshop to upskill new workers. Pi Piani raised 11 children and sent them to school on her small weaving income. We easily hit it off and we thought out the beginnings of a weaving collective that would bring together the town’s most skilled and most financially insecure.
In the capital of Aizawl, we took a stroll down the winding streets to meet the tailor Siami worked with for her last collection of bags. Te Te is a single mother who built a small tailoring workshop and trained a team of weavers from scratch. Though the quality and skill of her work is evident, Te Te makes a piecemeal income repairing bags. We laid out our bag production plan with Te Te and described how our work might bring some stability to her business.
These encounters are where the magic really happens. Sitting with women over tea and thrashing out the beginnings of mutually beneficial business relationships built on gorgeously made products. In a world overflowing with cheap and disposable junk, these are the ladies who make the things that come to matter to us. The chance to be a small part of this process of creation is what makes my job the best job in the world.
The outlines are all there, and with Pi Piani, Te Te and Siami, we are ready to dive head-first into the hard yards of sampling, producing and selling some seriously design-savvy accessories. To get this project off the ground, The Fabric Social is now live on Kiva – an online lending platform for crowd-sourced, interest-free loans. Check us out at this link, and stay tuned for some deadly bags that will be hitting our online store this Spring.