Design and collaboration
The Red Sari, a relatively new international design and import business that creates and sells products made by artisans and women's handicraft groups in Nepal, has a lot going for it and benefits everyone involved. Founded by Julie West in the fall of 2009 and based in Little Rock, Arkansas, it is already a success and growing, having placed merchandise in more than fifty specialty stores in eighteen states, and most recently in the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. In the Hindu culture red is a sacred color and a red sari is a dress of honor and respect for married women, so the name Red Sari was chosen as a mark of honor for women.
Red Sari has various positive attributes. It beautifully melds felt and silk. Additionally, a large part of the sari scarves are made from recycled material, pieces of traditional sari dresses that were old and damaged and ready to be thrown away. Very importantly, the company has allowed its Nepali women creators to attain a critical new measure of financial independence. It is a successful fusion of old and new, contemporary design and ancient handicraft techniques. And last but not least, it produces lovely and colorful wearable art and accessories.
Sari scarves are Red Sari's signature product. Thin, fragile pieces of used and discarded saris are combined with strong wool fibers in complementary shades to create appealing new patterns. In Kathmandu, Nepali women manipulate the two materials by hand hundreds of times with hot water and soap until they have bonded. They are then rinsed with water and put in a giant spinner, then unrolled to be shaped a bit and then set out to dry on bushes or ladders or tin rooftops. The finished scarves finally emerge to take on a vibrant, new life.
West is emphatic about the success of the business having come from a collaborative process. "It's important to me that I wasn't some Western designer coming in with a preconceived notion and dictating new designs to the women," she says. She had gone to Nepal for her Clinton School of Public Service international project (the school trains participants in how to promote social change), "wanting to work with handicraft groups at the intersection of my love for handmade, color, texture and the idea that artisans can support themselves and their families with their work." The Nepali craftswomen taught her the wet felting process, and after she learned that one could felt with fabric, she and the women tested various fabrics but nothing was "receiving" the wool readily. It was an interactive, incremental four-month process of trial and error, failure after failure. Then, West explains, "One of the women said 'Oh! Let's go to Birendra's place, he sells old saris!'" They went, selected some for testing, and while not all worked, they found that the tissue silk saris gave the best effect. None of them had any advance idea of what the end result would be. "We were amazed at the puckered texture and layers of colors!" And so, "through a little magic, arising from 'didis' (sisters) working together, the felted vintage sari scarves were born."
West spends several months a year in Nepal, working closely with the artisans, so she and her cohorts "know their lives, their goals, their needs, their traditions, and their materials and methods." She stresses that one of Red Sari's goals is to help the women better their lives, to allow the women artisans to gain new measures of financial independence, status, individuality and self-worth in a country where women rarely have the opportunity to work outside their households.
The company seeks to be socially responsible and environmentally aware. It offers fair wages, and profits are put back into the company to allow for expansion. The Red Sari story is about how "the sari scarf came out of an 'us' situation. And I think that's the beauty of it," says West, and she wants people to see "how something new and exquisitely beautiful comes out of collaboration and a willingness to see old materials and processes in new ways. It's a celebration of the marriage of innovation in daily life in Nepal---they reuse or upcycle almost everything--with traditional handicraft techniques." As stated in its brochure, Red Sari's mission is to "celebrate and support the creative work of the people of Nepal and to share it with the world." They seem to be well on their way.