It is difficult to fathom the difference that a few quilting stitches can make to a woman in Bangladesh, but for many women in the country, these stitches have changed their lives.
That’s because these women spend their days stitching kantha, the traditional, straight-line quilting stitch found in South Asia. With each stitch they bind together old saris to make something new—kantha blankets. The cheerful colors of saris line their tables and fill their hands, and because these women spend their days stitching they are protected from being forced into doing other things—things like begging, starving, or working as a slave in a brothel.
These women are artisans who make kantha for Hand & Cloth, the nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by Sarah Aulie. Sarah didn’t set out to start a nonprofit that would benefit women overseas, but Hand & Cloth has blossomed into something more beautiful and exciting than she could have ever imagined.
Darling connected with Sarah to hear more about how Hand & Cloth started and how it has emerged as an empowering and life-altering social enterprise benefitting vulnerable women in Bangladesh.
Darling Magazine: How did Hand & Cloth start, Sarah?
Sarah: It evolved organically. I had gone over to India randomly because I had three weeks off from my job, and I ended up volunteering at a home for vulnerable girls in the city. Some of the girls were orphans and some of them had grown up in the red-light district. No matter their story, each of them would have to leave the home when they were eighteen. And because these girls weren’t given an education or job skills, it was likely that most of them could end up being taken advantage of once they were forced to leave the home. It was also during those same three weeks in India that I encountered kantha blankets for the first time—a rich tradition of sewing blankets together from old saris by hand. I wondered if the girls in the home would be interested in creating these beautiful kantha blankets, so I went to the market, bought some old saris and stitching materials, and presented them to the girls. After I returned to Chicago, several weeks later a box of blankets landed at my doorstep. At that point, Hand & Cloth was started as a nonprofit enterprise to sell blankets in the States that would, in turn, provide safe and dignified work to these women back in South Asia.
DM: How did Hand & Cloth end up working with women in Bangladesh, then?
Sarah: I moved to Bangladesh for six months to learn from a woman who ran an organization there. She was working with widows who were making kantha. Bangladesh is just east of Kolkata, and many of the women who are trafficked into Kolkata are trafficked in from Bangladesh because they don’t have dignified work in their own country.
DM: So through Hand & Cloth supporting artisans in Bangladesh, you are trying to stop women from getting trafficked into Kolkata and other areas in the first place?
Sarah: We see our work as preventative. We curate and sell kantha blankets handmade by women in Bangladesh who, without work or an income, are in a position to be taken advantage of. Most of the women are single moms, and without a man to protect her, a woman in Bangladesh is highly vulnerable. But these women [who Hand & Cloth supports] are going to work every day and are safe.
We see our work as preventative. We curate and sell kantha blankets handmade by women in Bangladesh who, without work or an income, are in a position to be taken advantage of.
DM: So what, exactly, do these women do?
Sarah: Hand & Cloth works on a partnership model, so we collaborate with local social enterprise and artisan groups in Bangladesh. They are making product for Hand & Cloth, a U.S. based organization. Mostly, they are stitching blankets. It takes about four days for one woman to make a kantha blanket. They take six layers of sari cloth—no batting, just six layers of sari cloth—and sew them together with the kantha stitch—that straight stitch. These women are so talented. They are artisans who make beautiful products, and we are able to market their products to a customer base here in the States.
DM: How have you had to change your life in order to make Hand & Cloth a reality?
Sarah: I have traveled overseas a lot and I gave up a steady paycheck. When I left my job at the microfinance company, I lived off of savings for a long time, and anybody [who starts a business] goes through that. But, I really feel like it is my calling to create and nurture social enterprises that offer dignified work to women who are the most vulnerable.
DM: What has the response to Hand & Cloth been from consumers?
Sarah: The response has been so, so wonderful. I love our customers. They are the sweetest people, and they keep coming back! Honestly, I don’t know why some of our customers buy as many blankets as they do—how many can you need?—but we are thankful!
DM: The blankets really are beautiful! How do you price a socially-minded product?
Sarah: Included in the price of a blanket is the fair salary for each woman who made it. This often allows her to send her children to school and gives her family a safe and independent life. In addition to the social cause, our products are priced to reflect the high quality that we want to provide to each buyer. Our pieces are all one-of-a-kind works of art, and customers who are focused on the design and aesthetic understand the product. Yes, they want to support the social cause, but they are also buying a blanket because they think the work that the women do is beautiful.
Included in the price of a blanket is the fair salary for each woman who made it. This often allows her to send her children to school and gives her family a safe and independent life.
Our pieces are all one-of-a-kind works of art, and customers who are focused on the design and aesthetic understand the product.
DM: So you’re working in an interesting niche, then—designer-style quality in the fair trade market?
Sarah: Yes. And as we market the blankets, we approach it from the design angle. On the media side of things, we work to connect with bloggers in the design industry, because if a blogger likes Hand & Cloth, their followers have the same taste. In person, we sell at high-end events. Oftentimes, we end up being the one fair-trade option at a designer event. I think it’s really interesting that at these high-end design shows, people don’t even know that their purchase is helping a woman who [has been] living in poverty in Bangladesh—that wasn’t the reason they bought the blanket, which speaks to the quality of the work.
DM: Why do you think these blankets make such an impact on those who purchase them?
Sarah: Both the quality of the work and the story behind it. I think people are often surprised to find such a highly designed piece associated with the fair-trade market. Everything that comes from Hand & Cloth is not only completely handmade, but has taken a woman days to produce.
DM: What is ahead for Hand & Cloth?
Sarah: We are actively looking to create more partnerships and more product lines in other regions of the world where women are being trafficked. We are asking questions like, what textile is to Moldova as the kantha blanket is to Bangladesh? We would love to offer products from different regions in the world, and, more importantly, offer dignified work to women who otherwise might have been trafficked or exploited.
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Images via Kelly Allison Photography