Travel: This Dehradun-based social enterprise upcycles garments of the deceased for families

A heartwarming initiative to preserve the memories of their loved ones

By Neeta Lal

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Published: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 8:19 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Jan 2024, 12:03 PM

Asha Devi, a widowed mother of three, works as an artisan at Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti (PSSS), a Dehradun-based social enterprise nestling at the foothills of the picturesque Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

The 38-year-old stitches and sews ‘memorial quilts’, a unique service that involves upcycling garments of the deceased for families keen to preserve the memories of their loved one in the form of a tangible heirloom.

The project helps Devi earn a steady income even as bereaved families can have a permanent physical connection to their departed relative through a priceless memento. Even better, the sustainable project leaves zero waste while providing financial support to underprivileged artisans in resource-starved villages.

Like Devi, hundreds of poor women have been mentored by PSSS to become sought-after artisans, design assistants, supervisors and quality controllers. The skill helps them lead dignified lives, a far cry from the time they depended on their abusive and alcoholic spouses for sustenance.

“My husband was an alcoholic,” recalls Devi. “He would abuse me and burn up all his earnings in booze. When he died, the responsibility of bringing up my children and taking care of my in-laws fell upon my shoulders. I was also under debt. However, the steady income from the Samiti helps me earn a decent salary and lead a respectful life.”

Founded in 2003 by a local artisan Chinni Swamy, the initiative encourages village women to take up the craft of applique, patchwork, hand embroidery and quilting to earn money. The quilts’ quirky designs and vibrant hues with customised monograms and motifs, different for each family, make them a bespoke product in a market cluttered with me-too items.

Patchwork and applique techniques, say the artisans, further give them wiggle room to piece together fabrics of various shapes, colours and sizes to create a stunning montage. Families can courier fabrics to the organisation from which the customised quilt is designed by designers and then handcrafted by artisans. So great is the demand for PSSS’s exclusive items that from the original quilts, its repertoire has now widened to include bags, notebooks, file folders, totes, as well as corporate gifting items. All products are handmade and no fabric scrap is wasted.

The artisans, who call themselves ‘The Quilters Of India’, say that demand for their cotton, single and double quilts using traditional Indian techniques is the highest. “Each quilt takes 150 hours to make, so it’s truly a labour of love. With growing demand, we’ve expanded our services to include baby quilts, cushion covers, aprons, tea cosies, bags, even pets products like playmats and soft toys. We ship worldwide and also take orders via Instagram DMs,” informs a PSSS supervisor.

All raw materials like fabrics and threads are sourced from India, especially small vendors, she adds. Given the enterprise’s noble cause and brand appeal, renowned global brands like GAP, Kearney, Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines and Capillary Technologies have collaborated with PSSS.

The PSSS brand has ensured prosperity for its workers. “Most of our artisans are the sole breadwinners of their families. With their income, all of them ensure to educate their children, especially the girl child, and to invest in improving their houses, communities, and lives,” informs Aiswarya Enolla Patri, one of the PSSS’ three co-founders of PSSS.

The other founders – Banee Batta and Astha Giri – like Patri, worked in the organisation earlier as designers and marketing managers before its founder handed over the reins to them in 2021. The trio revamped the unit from a non-profit to a social enterprise as they felt “the women artisans did not need grants and were skilled enough to earn well on their own as members of a social enterprise”.

The young designers hope to preserve the founder’s legacy and take it forward. Be that as it may, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The task of mentoring and skilling women is fraught with challenges given the organisation’s limited resources. When COVID19 struck, the unit came to a grinding halt. It was then painstakingly revived by the three founders who were driven by the urgency of providing financial support to the beleaguered artisans. The venture is now bootstrapped by the trio with a primary focus on upskilling women artisans.

Despite the turbulence, the pandemic has been a great learning experience for its founders, they say. PSSS’ business model has now been tweaked to facilitate higher and better production. In the pre- pandemic days, most artisans from 50 nearby villages would come to the PSSS office to do their craft work, but they are now allowed to work from home.

“We’re increasingly sending a lot more work to women so that they can keep flexible hours and work from the comfort of their homes. This also helps them to be more productive while juggling their domestic chores,” explains the supervisor.

Apart from providing financial stability to women, PSSS also takes its role of sensitising them about the importance of savings and managing finances seriously. “We teach our workers about smart saving habits and spending wisely and investing too, as financial literacy is foundational to true empowerment,” sums up Patri.

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