Quilts to Scarves

Transforming the lives of exploited women in India

From quilts to scarves, recycled saris are hand sewn by Indian commercial sex workers, who seek to overcome their situation by stitching together narratives of their lives and their surroundings. 

Anchal Project, a nonprofit organization, works to transform the lives of exploited women in India by providing entrepreneurial opportunities through textile and design production. Launched in 2010 by Colleen Clines and Devon Miller, Anchal serves as a vehicle for social change, utilizing design skills to create unique economic results. The company provides a community of support, health programs, counseling and local leadership that aids in the rehabilitation of this vulnerable population.

Women are taught kantha quilt making, a region-traditional stitching technique that is commonly practiced by impoverished Indian women. Design training is provided by the U.S. based Anchal team. Because each kantha product is unique, the artisans are empowered to perform design decisions on their own. As individuals become more experienced, they are granted the opportunity to move up to leadership positions, where they can serve as senior artisans or project managers. They recruit and support newer artisans.

The root of design training is in creating textile narratives, which teaches the “interpretation and translation of one’s three-dimensional surroundings into two-dimensional quilted fabric collages,” according to Clines. “The goal is to build the artisan’s confidence to express their personal identities through fabric while creating unique works of art that tell the story of their culture and surroundings.” A common sight in Rajasthan is the bougainvillea scaling concrete walls, which has been hand-quilted into a pillow case by an artisan named Renu. 

Each product is composed of layers of vintage saris that are sewn together by hand with the Kantha stitch. The product designs are bi-cultural, made of 100% vintage saris, revealing the hand and heart of their Indian producers while still catering to a Western aesthetic. Each design is a one-of a kind piece of art. 

Every design begins with a sari. Vintage saris are collected from one-to-one vendors to ensure consistent product flow and income. Vendors can range from a collection of independent street vendors to large groups of over fifty. Anchal searches for the “heirloom quality” pieces that tell a story. “They are given a second life and personify the beauty and spirit of the artisans we work with. Much like our artisans, the saris we use over time are developed into a beautiful and bold new identity.” 

Once the saris are acquired, artisan project assistants sort and pair them per design guidelines and training received. Top and bottom layers of the sari are cut to size. Colorful panels of different saris are sewn together. From there the inside layers are formed through the same process. Simple patterns and neutral colors are selected for the linings. Quilts have six total layers while scarves have four or two. 

Stitching proceeds after the layers are determined. Exteriors are basted with a loose stitch to hold the panels in place until the kantha stitching secures them. “All the layers are stitched through with each straight stitch, up and down, for days or weeks depending on the size. The pieces are often sewn on a flat surface, like the marble floor in the workshop space. Bricks are used to help avoid movement in the piece, which aid in straight lines. The corners and edges are very important so the piece is finished with parallel edges. The artisan completes each piece by hand stitching her signature in the corner,” explains Clines. As the rich textile product comes to life, the completed piece becomes invaluable to the maker as well as the owner.

Anchal continues to grow through the formation of new partnerships and design workshops. They recently paired with Urban Outfitters to introduce new stitching and embellishment techniques to over forty new artisans. “I am proud of my work. My daughter is proud of my work. That is something I never thought I would say,” said an Anchal artisan. 

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