The Red Sari encompasses the spirit of giving back. Their story begins on the streets of Paknajol, a majestic neighborhood within the ancient city of Kathmandu. It was in that city, where founder Julie West began selecting damaged vintage silk saris suitable for felting. From this point on, Julie put her energy into creating a production center and successful social enterprise, turning the recycled saris into gorgeous and wearable line of accessories. Julie states, “We try and incorporate sari fabric, imbued with deep meaning for the women of Nepal, into our designs whenever we can. The Red Sari’s mission is not only to up-cycle as many materials as possible, but to empower the artisan. Their hearts and minds are always thinking of more ways to give back.”
Julie's felted vintage sari scarves have become the Red Sari’s signature product. Julie is grateful for her close connection to the women’s felting group in the Kathmandu valley, which handcraft each and every piece. Together, they discovered the process of fusing wool fibers with vintage tissue silk saris. Julie explains, “We’re taking women’s garments that are damaged, stained, and going to be thrown away and reimagining them as something beautiful."
The process may seem simple, yet a lot of innovation is involved. “At our production center, we cut each sari into 3 scarves, carefully excising any frayed or damaged areas. Each piece is then hemmed, making it ready for the felting process. Placed flat on the table, wisps of wool roving are stretched in a very thin cobweb-like pattern over the sari fabric. Soapy warm water is then drizzled over the piece until the wool is uniformly damp (our water is solar heated since electricity is not consistently available in Kathmandu). Wool fibers have barbs that extend in the presence of heat (the hot water) and the alkaline environment created by the soap. The soap also helps the wool fibers slip together and entangle. Next, a piece of tulle netting is placed over the piece to hold the wool in place during the felting process. Friction is applied by rubbing the fabric repeatedly. The wool fibers migrate through the loose weave of the silk fabric and fuse closer and closer together. For the final felting step, the fabric, wool, and netting are rolled on the table at least 1000 times. The fabric is then unrolled, the netting removed, and the soap is rinsed out. The scarf is shaped and placed in the sun to dry. As the wool fibers dry, they shrink, puckering the fabric as they go. The result is a unique and highly textured fabric.”
The Red Sari is constantly experimenting with fresh designs and felting techniques. For example, their newest collection focuses on their wearable art pieces including scarves, wraps, handbags, and other products for the discerning buyer. “We are now blending a variety of sari colors into one scarf, mimicking a collage pattern. We are using these scraps of sari fabric to embellish felt items such as handbags and purses. These scraps are incorporated into our material using the same wet, nuno felting technique, that was developed around 1992 by Polly Stirling, a fiber artist from New South Wales, Australia. The name is derived from the Japanese word 'nuno', which means cloth. The technique bonds loose wool fibers onto a sheer fabric such as silk, thus creating a more lightweight, more versatile non-woven felt fabric.”
Another recent addition is their Felt and Cotton Collection, which was inspired by Julie’s latest trip to Nepal, where she discovered an abundance of wispy patterned cotton fabric in the local market. Julie adds, “Our artisans began to experiment with merging wool fibers with cotton using nuno felting …the same technique used with our original Sari Collection. What’s really fun about this line is that the cotton prints remind of us 1970’s pop art – full of circles and swirls in bright geometric patterns. It’s quite a different look from the saris and we’re pleased about that! We will be producing fashion accessories and home décor designs in this line.” Lastly, their classic Red Sari Home collection is still being loved and adored as they are using the original felted vintage sari fabric and incorporating cotton fabrics for home items such as table runners, placemats, and pillow covers.
With new collections in the works, they are also proud to be participating in upcoming Artisan Resource @ NY NOW, happening this August 18-20, in alignment with the New York International Gift Show. What excites Julie most is being in an environment with other global artisan producer groups who share the same commitment to design innovation, cultural preservation, social enterprise, and sustainability. “We also want to nurture long-lasting personal relationships with our buyers and retailers. We look forward to partnering with larger retailers and collaborating with them to design private label products. We believe that networking with the community at Artisan Resource will bring us greater opportunities to develop the type of business relationships we value most. We are also looking forward to learning from the training offered by the professionals from ByHand Consulting at the market. These benefits cannot be found in any other trade show environment!”
In the spirit of giving back, The Red Sari just formalized their relationship with READ Global (www.readglobal.org). A percentage of the sales from their new Sari Collage Collection will support women's empowerment programs at Community Library and Resource Centers in Nepal, India and Bhutan. “We are thrilled to help women find their voice through access to education, vocational skills and community.”