A small woman-owned company that sustainably sources gorgeous sari fabrics from India and pays their workers a living wage so they can improve their own lives and their communities. Sound familiar? But I'm not talking about us here at Darn Good Yarn, I'm talking about the fantastic ladies over at Lallitara!
Bijal Shah started Lallitara in April of 2013. I recently got to speak with her about her journey into the reclaimed sari business, how it began, and where she plans to go.
In India, there is a very informal community of sari recyclers. These people go around to the more affluent parts of town and collect saris that are no longer worn. They would usually then go to re-sell these saris, but the market for these recycled saris in India has been dwindling. However, they would soon find a better market for their wares when Bijal Shah took a year off from her job and went to live in India for a year, working closely with a non-profit group there.
At first, Bijal had trouble really becoming integrated within the community that she lived in while in India. Then she got the idea of taking a sewing class with some of the local women, aimed at teaching people how to make their own saris. "I actually knew the basics of how to sew already," she told me, "But I pretended I didn't so I could learn as much as possible from the women there." As she learned more about sewing and how to use the machines available, she wondered where they obtained the gorgeous fabrics they were using. "That is when I first found out about sari recycling," she recalls. Bijal went to meet with some of the people in the recycling community, and felt bad they got such little compensation for their hard work. "I bought 30 or 40 saris just to take home with me," she admits. At the time, she didn't yet have a firm idea of what to do with those saris. Meanwhile, the ladies in the class knew Bijal would probably not be wearing traditional saris back home in California, so they taught her how to make western-style dresses. Those dresses got taken home in her suitcase along with all the sari fabric.
Once she returned home, she started wearing the dresses she had made. The comments suddenly came flooding in. "Where did you get that?" "Can I buy one?" Enough people were asking that she really started to think there could be a market for sari-fabric western clothing.
Bijal soon found that working with the sari-recycling community could be a challenge, but can also be tremendously rewarding. Timing can be the trickiest part of the equation. She is working with an informal community that has no desire to be organized, so getting all the saris she needs can be a problem. It's also a community where family always comes first, before work considerations. However, providing families who had fewer and fewer places to sell their fabrics a ready market and repeat business is very fulfilling. A lot of the women they were first working with couldn't really believe that people wanted to buy products made from the sari fabrics. Bijal remembers, "It was really rewarding to go back to them and say, 'We sold everything!'" While there haven't been major changes in the community yet, their confidence is growing now that they have a steady market to sell their goods. Lallitara also works with non-profits that provide life-coaching for the families involved.
The sari recyclers in India aren't the only people employed by Lallitara, as all the production of their products happens right here in the US! All of the piecing and sewing of the garments and accessories is done at Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned company in North Carolina. It's a great place! Read all about them here. They were very excited to work with new fabrics and expand their business.
For two such similar companies, it is somewhat odd that Darn Good Yarn and Lallitara didn't meet sooner. Bijal hadn't heard of Darn Good Yarn until she was doing some social media research on Twitter. "I looked up "#sari" on Twitter, and Darn Good Yarn came up! I sent an email and asked if we could talk, as the "#sari" audience was growing," she says.
Bijal is always torn about which of the saris she receives to keep and make into products, and which ones aren't quite right for the company. "I am always the most critical of the saris!" she admits. She did not yet have a destination for the saris which she had decided not to use. Nicole took one look at them and said, "Darn Good Yarners will love those!" and a happy partnership was born. Lallitara is now a no-waste business, and we here at Darn Good Yarn get to offer gorgeous sari fabric with fantastic color and pattern to inspire even more craftiness! I asked Bijal about the emergence of more businesses with a "mission" like Lallitara and Darn Good Yarn. She thought it had to be the right combination of having a mission people want to support, but most importantly having a great product. She mused that, "A customer might buy once because of a 'mission', but they don't become repeat customers unless they really like the product - it has use and utility for them." Lallitara tends to focus more on the product - but they do include a little note with each shipment informing their customers who they have supported by making their purchase.
Lallitara continues to expand in many ways. They are trying to expand their social media reach (you can go ahead and check out their Facebook here!) and mailing list of customers. They are also producing their products in larger quantities, though only releasing a limited number of them at once. That way, they can refresh the designs and patterns often, and everything on the site can stay new. Make sure to visit their website here. They have a select number of boutiques that carry both their accessories and clothing; find that people are hooked as soon as they feel how soft and sumptuous the fabric is in their products.
They have some brand new Rickshaw Tanks on the site now, so be sure to check them out!
Bijal is very happy about the growth they have seen thus far, "For me it is really exciting. Nicole and Maggie have been really awesome about business coaching and encouragement. Nicole is even on a small board of advisers for the company." We are so happy to help support such a great business!
I personally am really coveting one of the tote bags they have in a "beta testing" period right now. Make sure to support Lallitara however you can, as great businesses with a great mission and practices are not always easy to find!
Many thanks to Bijal for telling me all about the sari business, and Happy Crafting!