Parindey: Avani Pandya
Alivelihood: Textile-design & Livelihood Conservation, Rural & Women Development
Region: Jia, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh
“I’ve worked in various stages of (textile) production, but at the bottom of my heart, I have always been a designer.”
Avani Pandya is a designer and creator of the brand Yoshita Crafts that she set up with a small rural community in Jia, Himachal Pradesh. Having graduated as a designer, she went on to don different robes in her corporate career, varying from designing to sourcing to retail. “I just thought that I will get back to designing when I am older. But in 2017, when my health took a toll, I knew that I could not wait any longer. I didn’t know how much time I had left.” In that moment of realisation, she quit her corporate lifestyle and moved to Jia, a village she was relatively familiar with in the mountainous Kangra district. The village panchayat’s pradhan, Kiran ji, was a woman who was excited to work with another woman and for the women of her village and their empowerment. She was more than welcoming and helped Avani reach out to the local folks to spread the word. “Crafts in other parts of India are flourishing, like Gujarat. But Himachal Pradesh is a state with a lot of potentials that remains unexplored. This is why I particularly chose Himachal.” The state is known for its woollen shawls and stoles, and more so for its distinct border designs, which change from region to region.
When Avani put the idea out there for people to know, about 40 people showed up for a meeting to explore this opportunity. She was surprised and heartened at the enthusiasm shown by the villagers. “But I have been very clear from the start that if you are helping someone, do it thoroughly. So I had to do the difficult task of picking and choosing. But the five people that I started with then are with me even today.” Each person has a dedicated role they specialise in, and are also versatile in the sense of being able to manage other tasks. The workshop is a vibrant little space with a woollen thread of varying colours everywhere, in the form of a fully-knitted sweater or a half-done stole or a bundle of neatly folded shawls, and always rolls of thread. Handloom and handicrafts are the primary modes of creation here, and three wooden handlooms grace the hind space of the workshop. A hand knitting machine along with needles sits somewhere in the middle, and a small table lays stacked against a wall nearby, on which is an induction cooker used to make chai. Near the entrance are a couple of sewing machines, high power and low, next to which is a big table where measurements are usually calculated. Two-three gaddas lay stacked on the floor, sat on for knitting, drinking chai and pulling coloured yarns. Next to this is a spinning wheel. This is where the ideas of Yoshita Crafts come through for output creation.
From a design and textile perspective, Avani’s primary intention is to work with traditional Himachali designs while contemporising them so as to evolve and meet the needs and preferences of the new generation. She stresses the importance of preserving and giving due importance to handicrafts and handloom textiles, which have been on the decline with the advent of machine-made textiles. “The essence of Himachali designs lies in the local raw material and design of the region.” But since it mostly revolves around wool and winter-bearing clothes, she also works on ways where they can cater to the demands of people residing in warmer areas too, since winters aren’t that harsh in all of India. This process is termed product diversification, where Avani combines cotton and wool to make a shawl or makes something else entirely other than a shawl using traditional designs.
Using local wool in their products is a very crucial part of the work they do. The local Gaddi tribe belonging to this region are transhumance people that migrate with their sheep twice a year. “It is a practice that takes a lot of hard work, they have to endure tough climates and terrains. And the price that they receive for their work is very little, so what incentive do they have to continue it?” Avani believes it’s important for their contribution to be recognised and valued. One way to do this is by employing women from the local households to continue working on handlooms and knitting. “Almost every woman knits in her household from sweaters to socks to pattu.” Pattu is a traditional piece of clothing used by the men in their arduous journey over the mountains to keep them sheltered from the cold and rain. It’s a thick shawl that is generally made by a woman in the household using the wool reared from the herd. The practice of migration and handlooms, like most traditional occupations and crafts, are on a decline now, with the younger generation moving to urban landscapes and securing salaried jobs. But Avani believes it is the younger generation who will carry forward the importance of handloom and handicraft to the future, and not let these die. That is why the key target of Yoshita Crafts’ products is the youth, because she wants more and more young people to get involved in the craft and understand what goes into creating it and why it’s important to preserve it. She says that today’s youth not only have the power to buy, but they also have the power to ensure its continuation. Therefore, empowering the people sustaining this industry becomes an important part of the work that Avani does.
Empowerment is a domain that is close to Avani’s heart and when she initially came to Jia, she came with the mindset of helping people, empowering women, and generating rural employment. “And I still have those values, but I have realised that I am also doing this for me.”
This realisation has come after the struggle of starting a textile design brand at a small scale in a rural area with a focus on handloom and handicrafts. Having worked in the corporate field for years, Avani came with a certain manner of professionalism that is common in the corporate world. But things work drastically differently in a sustainable, rural set-up. Here, the employees at Yoshita Crafts do not feel the need to inform her before going off on a 3-4 days holiday. If she questions such an act, they casually respond with “Mai kuch din nahi aayi toh kya hua.” “This used to frustrate me in the beginning, but I eventually understood that even if I hadn’t come here, life would go on for them. Accepting that this was my idea and I am doing this for myself has helped me make peace with myself and help others better.” In fact, Avani is very happy with the person she has become today. If given a choice between the person she was four years ago and now, she firmly says she would choose her current self without any hesitation. “It has been a day-in-day-out struggle for the last four and a half years, but it has made me a better person.”
The challenges at Yoshita Crafts are many. One such struggle is to explain to people why handlooms and handicrafts take so much time because people expect things instantly with the mechanised world enabling instant gratification. Just the warping process, which involves combining yarns together to get ready for weaving, takes about 3-4 days. After this, the artisan sits at the loom to start making the shawl, which takes a minimum of 10 days for a simple shawl. Sometimes, if the roll of thread used to create the product runs out without prior warning, Avani has to rush out to find a roll of the same colour which is a hectic process that can delay the manufacturing time even more. But most of Yoshita Crafts’ consumer base is aware of the work involved and willingly cooperates with time. If a customer demands products to be made and sent instantly, they prefer not to take the order at all. New and unaware customers generally also question the pricing of the products. They are more expensive than machine-made shawls, but that is how much time and effort it takes to source the material locally and make the product with one’s hands, and there is a need for awareness to be generated among consumers on this.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had a huge impact. “We had to shut down for four months straight, and this happened just when we were receiving a good number of orders,” says Avani. She thinks that if she had not chosen to keep Yoshita Crafts small-scale, she would have had to shut shop. Since Yoshita Crafts is not yet at a stage where the revenue is more than the cost, managing finance is a critical aspect. “I was speaking to a friend who works in a similar fashion and she said to me, “Avani, I had to work for at least 8 years to make more money coming in than going out.”
It is Avani’s aim that the consumers know the person who actually sat on the loom to make their shawl, rather than just knowing the designer which is the case with most high-end boutiques. Avani dreams of going with her team to shows like the Lakme Fashion Week to present the people at Yoshita Crafts and their work. She believes that people need to make this conscious switch of consuming sustainably not just to promote the handloom industry, but to empower the person that is making it. “The work is amazing. When I joined, it was the first time that I was working outside my house, and it feels good to be an independent, earning woman.”
Ever since the journey of Yoshita Crafts began, Avani has found the creative freedom that she feels she had to suppress for years working for other brands. The brand intends to create a unique design for each one. “We do not make more than 3 pieces of each design,” she says, “but even then, since customers mostly view the catalogue and place an order, there is always some degree of customisation that takes place and the end product is unique always.” On the new-ideas front, she has already started playing with natural dyes to enable the transition to products that are completely natural and nature-based. She realises that such a transition will take time, since making them would involve a lot more energy and hours, thus also increasing the price, which people should be ready for. Avani is working on upcycling textile waste too, by making cute little things like funky borders where she mixes and matches colours to make vibrant designs. “The least I can do is to not create waste. And it is also something I can hold myself accountable for.”
Avani can be reached at: [email protected]
Follow them on social media: https://www.instagram.com/yoshitacraftsstudio/
First Published by 52 Parindey on 18 October 2022.