Sally Holkar, founder of WomenWeave Charitable Trust is a force to reckon with. A graduate of Stanford University, Sally came into handloom when she married a member of the Indore Royal family, traditional patrons of Maheshwari saree weavers. Our friendship began last year with a mutual drive to experiment with traditional handloom weaves and translate them into more modern, wearable silhouettes. On a recent visit to WomenWeave, we chatted with Sally about her contribution to reviving handloom in Maheshwar, her take on Indian fashion today and her long term vision for WomenWeave.

1. Can you share with us how and when WomenWeave was founded?
WomenWeave was founded in 2003 to give fair work to non-traditional women weavers of Maheshwar and its surrounding areas. Maheshwar is in Central Madhya Pradesh, a two-hour drive from Indore, on the banks of the beautiful Narmada River.

2. Weaving has traditionally been a male-dominated profession across India. Can you take us through your journey and challenges in making weaving a viable source of income for women?
Since I began my journey in handloom in 1979, I have seen that women were considered as ancillary weavers but were actually the primary weavers in many cases, because they had to make sure that the woven piece was delivered and paid for in time to secure food for their family. Often, their husbands were simply not responsible or reliable in this respect; so the burden fell on the woman. This trend for women as shadow weavers has been acknowledged now as a norm in many parts of India and women are no longer in the shadow. In many cases, they can weave as well - if not better - than their husbands and sons; and they are often far more reliable than the men in their family.

3. There are a few different organisations within WomenWeave. Can you tell us a bit about Gudi Mudi, The Handloom School and The Khatkhata Project?
WomenWeave and Gudi Mudi units link organic and non-organic cotton farmers of Central India with formerly unemployed local women of Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh to create a unique earth-friendly textile (Khadi), which is spun by hand-cranked Amba Charkas then hand-woven and naturally dyed. The objective of this linkage is to ensure sustainable income for marginalized women in the area in spinning and hand weaving of the local cotton. Since its inception in 2003, 160 women have been trained by the Gudi Mudi Project - 80 in weaving and 80 in spinning. Thus, a viable source of livelihood for 140 women has been generated through this project. The trained weaver and spinner can earn from Rs. 5000 to 7000 a month depending upon their skill.

In the selection of women for the Gudi Mudi project, WomenWeave favours divorced, widowed, separated, handicapped, and agricultural labourers with no family income. Thus, the project has been empowering the weakest and poorest section of women of the area, while often producing and marketing to very privileged sectors of society. The textiles have a very distinctive design element which places them at the high end of the market.

KhatKhata Project: WomenWeave started this first weaving and hand spinning revival project in February 2010 in the beautiful Bajag tehsil of Dindori district, Madhya Pradesh. More than 35 traditional weavers have joined the project since its inception.

A hand-spinning unit has also been initiated with 13 women of the tribal community so that more people can receive regular employment. At present, 22 women are regularly employed through spinning. Most of them are earning an income of Rs. 4000 per month, working from their homes. 

The Handloom School: With the launch of The Handloom School (THS) in Maheshwar in January 2013, WW has built on its earlier training programs in “barefoot” business, computer skills, English, and design, to begin a more holistic, progressive and formalized curriculum that will support and cultivate the next generation of handloom weavers and weaver-entrepreneurs.

To date, WW has trained 71 young weaver men and women from Maheshwar, Chanderi and Dindori in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Bihar, UP, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. They participate in short term workshops, as well as year-long courses and many of them were recently involved in walking the ramp for the lead shown in the Amazon India Fashion Week in Delhi in mid-March. This was a great ‘high’ for them and also attracted many designers to give them work on their looms.

4. What are your thoughts on the Indian fashion industry turning its attention to handloom?
Partnerships between select, well-trained Handloom weavers and the intelligent, caring Indian fashion industry has tremendous potential. WomenWeave The Handloom School is standing by to inform designers about the vast potential of bespoke woven fashion garments. We hope that in the near future, the focus will be much more on potential than on sad stories of deprivation and decline in Handloom. We foresee much much more direct interaction between designers and weavers, and much less exploitation by ‘middlemen’ in the business.

5. How has your experience been collaborating with young Indian designers? Can you share with us the process of developing a concept and taking it into production?
WomenWeave has had such informative and exciting collaborations with young Indian designers. They are a new breed; excited about handloom, concerned about all the right ‘ethics’, interested in the weavers themselves and highly imaginative in creating bespoke handwoven cloth for the garments they make. WomenWeave The Handloom School has initiated short, four-day classes in Maheshwar where designers can come, interact with weavers, and gain an understanding of the basics of weaving and the exciting potential for a fashion collaboration.

The process begins with the designer sending us their desired colourways and patterns. Then with THS setting up a sample loom to accommodate these suggestions. When the loom is ready and the designers are standing beside it, the fun begins!  Weaver and designer become partners in exploring all the different options available on the loom and in finalizing woven designs that work for everyone. It’s a marvellous journey! Great fun; and an excellent learning experience for all involved.

6. What are the 3 keys pieces in your wardrobe? 
A real indigo heavy linen shirt by Christina Kim from Dosa, several silk and Khadi blend WomenWeave Gudi Mudi scarves in indigo, deep red and natural. I love the texture and the drape of that blend. And lastly, a wonderful multi-coloured cotton coat is woven in The Handloom School and stitched by Kishmish’s Rekha and Nikki. I wore that for our ramp appearance at Amazon Fashion Week in Delhi last March!

7. We’ve talked about the lack of design-driven, good quality yet affordable everyday wear in India. Do you think ANOMALY fills that gap in the market?
Definitely! ANOMALY is what I have long been looking for - classic understated elegance, excellent quality, great fabrics, perfectly easy to wear and ....all the different pieces work together well!

8. Which is your favourite piece from our collection?
I love the short, white jacket with large lapels which I pair with Anomaly’s sleeveless black silk V-neck tank.  Every time I wear it (which is often), someone asks "where did you get that?"

9. We are seeing a shift in how designers are using handloom weaves and textiles in a more modern and wearable form. How do you perceive this change? Does it excite you?
This excites me very much. It is a natural direction in which handloom must grow, which does not mean that classic textiles will not continue. Both can co-exist.  But contemporary, handwoven designer textiles have tremendous potential in the market, provided we can skill the weavers to produce them perfectly and interact directly with their clients very professionally;  both to cut costs and to improve the product.

10. What inspires you every day? 
Watching women weaving, laughing, relaxing and earning together in the wonderful WomenWeave environment. Their spirit and the beauty and quality they create is an unending joy…And the well educated, healthy children who come from school to eat with their mothers in the WW centre are the icing on the cake. We're very lucky!

11. What’s next for WomenWeave? Any interesting projects and collaborations you’d like to talk about?
YES! Very exciting. WomenWeave has set up a small weaving and spinning unit in Balaghat, a tribal cluster in far eastern Madhya Pradesh. Our goal is to provide fair employment to tribal women of that area who do not have alternate livelihood opportunities and also to preserve the skill of fine Khadi weaving with motifs of the traditional weavers of Balaghat. Their skills (almost lost, but now reviving) plus the unique beauty of the handspun yarns and weaves give their cloth a 'forever quality' that we love. Lustrous, soft, almost glowing; it flatters everyone who wears it.

We’re busy just now fundraising for that training project.

Thanks, Sally for inspiring us and sharing your vision for WomenWeave! 

Sally wears our Essential Silk Tank, Flared Single Pleat Pant and Kimono Belted Wrap Top

Visit the WomenWeave website to learn more:
Follow them on Instagram: @womenweave and Facebook: @womenweave.charitabletrust

Photography: ANOMALY Studio