Handmade: Meet the Makers Auroville Handknits
Journey with us to South India where a progressive project to improve local women’s lives has been ongoing for almost forty years. In this blog series we take you behind the scenes to visit the places and meet the people who make our clothes.
It all started when an idealistic young hippie adventurer Roberta (Bobby) Keeping arrived in the experimental village of Auroville (“The City of Dawn”) in 1980 and decided to stay. The village was founded by spiritual teacher, The Mother, and formed under the philosophies of Sri Aurobindo. The stated goal:
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”
After Bobby settled in the area she noticed that many of the local women and children suffered from the effects of poverty. The women were dependant on their husbands, lacking the means to significantly contribute financially to the home. A friend suggested that Bobby could teach the women how to knit with the purpose of empowering them to be able to make their own money and thus help improve their lives. Bobby reports that she taught one lady how to knit, and then a few others. Over several decades, the project has grown and she has continued to work with the women on improving techniques, developing suitable designs and looking for ways to create a sustainable, life-affirming business that benefits all involved. The numbers of knitters have gradually built up and there are now around three hundred local women participating in the knitting project.
A small group of local ladies manages the village knitting groups with around twenty women in each group. The managers each have five small village areas to visit each week. At these weekly visits materials are distributed, ongoing work is checked and finished pieces are collected. The knitting women are employed on a piece basis with the piece price negotiated by the whole group. On top of this payment each woman is provided with a pension and is enrolled in a health fund which covers things like hospital visits and glasses. Most of the women have mixed employment that includes farming and government sponsored labouring jobs with knitting a source of regular work that supplements their other forms of income.
On our recent visit to one of the village knitting groups the affection and esteem between the women and Bobby was clear with warm greetings, chai, laughter, and news shared. An 87-year-old woman who was part of the original group from the 1980s came by to say hello. A teenage boy came to ask if his mother could re-join the knitting group after returning to the area after an absence of several years. Bobby responded, “Of course!”. The women looked beautiful and happy in colourful saris and with flowers in their hair as they knitted and chatted under the palm trees. The pieces the women knit are used as the fabric basis of our jumpers and these elements are then taken away to be sewn together.
The final knitted product is produced in a factory located within Auroville’s forested streets. During the lunch break most of the women eat quickly so they can take a short nap under the benches in the cool, rattan floor covered work rooms. The airy premises have fans, large windows on all sides bringing in a cooling breeze, and a friendly atmosphere. In this location, there are fifty regular full time workers (mainly women) to tailor patterns, finish the garments, and perform packing and quality checking. The workers work six days per week (as standard in India) from 8:30am-4:30pm with a half hour lunch break and two tea breaks. The unit has been certified for Fair Trade and the business is in the process of obtaining organic certification for the cotton and dying units they use.
We feel so happy to be a part of the Auroville knitting project and share these beautiful jumpers with you.
Words & Photography Meherose Borthwick