Last month on payday, I decided to treat myself to a new handbag, not just any handbag, but this beautiful hand crafted Kaira Leather shoulder bag from Traidcraft, which I’d had my eye on for a while (and is now in the sale FYI!)
To many women, handbags are a style statement or an extension of their personality, to some they are nothing but a practical necessity, a vehicle for carting around all of our rubbish! I like to think my stance on handbags is somewhere between the former and the latter, I like them, I enjoy collecting them, but I am not impressed by designer labels or high price tags. After all, it’s just something I carry my things in. Personally I think handbags should be less of a style statement and more of a value statement.
Feeling inspired by the recent Fashion Revolution campaign and the #Whomademyclothes hashtag, I decided to look more deeply into where this bag came from. As luck would have it the export manager of Sasha Association for Craft Producers, where this bag is made, was visiting the UK and agreed to meet with me for a chat.
Devika Sonar has worked with Sasha for over 15 years. Sasha work with over 5000 artisans coming from many different workshops across West Bengal, Kashmir, Varanasi, Karmataka. Each employing anywhere between 5 and 50 workers. The workforce is estimated to be around 70% women, headed up by female CEO and many of the managers are female too. The founder was also a woman. Devika tells me that for these reasons, female artisans feel confident in approaching the company and asking for help or advice. They see that other women have been empowered by Sasha and they feel inspired to work with them.
“Buying Sasha products can help to these artisans to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs, we give them a helping hand to get started, and the tools and knowledge they need to help their business grow, we polish their skills and help small rural producer groups from villages to work with big brands and mainstream retailers. We are not about giving free handouts, but more about developing artisans and encourage them to grow and improve.” – Devika.
I asked Devika a few questions...
Tell me more about my bag, how was it made?
The Kiara Bag is made from vegetable tan sheepskin leather and the process is known as E.I. leather. The technique is named after the East India Company, who popularised the technique in this region to cater to the British Army. The process involves embossing the hide and then painting it with ink to hide the flaws in the skin, the colour is applied to the hide using a leather cone.
What challenges does Sasha face?
The biggest challenge is to provide a continued income for all of our artisans, and to carry on receiving orders and supplying them with work all year round. Around 80% of Sasha’s buyers are fair trade companies. Whilst large contracts from bigger well known retailers are obviously helpful, it is the smaller orders from fair trade companies that help to keep us going during the quiet times. So we never turn down any contract, no matter how small.
How have things changed for you over the years?
We now work with many tribal artisans in rural areas. Originally women wouldn’t do weaving, only the men would do this task, and now it is a mix. We are increasingly working with Muslim women, who are not allowed to move out of their family home for work.
One young Muslim woman came to us for help 7 or 8 years ago. She had been thrown out by her husband for giving birth to a girl. She needed an income and we helped her to get started in making simple pouches and bags for us, she later studied clothing design and is now doing tailoring and producing jackets for a well-known UK fashion retailer who we supply. She now employs other Muslim women in her successful workshop and is an inspiration to others in her community.
Every year our surplus profits are given to our producers. We now ensure that these profits are distributed evenly and fairly amongst all of the individual artisans and that people are rewarded for their efforts, not just the head artisans and workshop owners.
Last year we became a certified Fairtrade supplier with FTGS
What are the plans for the future at Sasha?
Obviously we’d like to grow and support and help as many people as possible. But the important thing for us is accessibility, we will continue to reach out to people in their own villages and communities so that they don’t have to move to big cities for work.
Somehow after finding out how much of an impact this amazing association is making on females in India, I feel even more in love with my new bag, and I want to buy one for all of my sisters!