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New Designs for Benarasi Saris

15 July 2015 Share: facebook share twitter share

Today, 5 new sari patterns come "off-the-loom" in Varanasi - a result of the product development training we've been doing with Benarasi weavers as part of our inclusive weaving livelihood model. The sari patterns have been specially designed to be fresh, unique and modern and will soon be available for sale online.

A weaver sets the loom with the new pattern.

The need for product design support

A 2013 study by Dasra on the sustainability of the Indian crafts sector found that improving product design and strengthening artisans’ skills were key interventions that could help to improve artisan livelihoods. The research showed that building the capacity of artisans in this manner could result in up to a ten-fold increase in incomes.

For the artisan weavers of Varanasi, knowledge of markets is limited due to the feudal structure of weaving societies. As a result, most weavers have little interaction with the outside world and whilst their technical skills are dazzling, they lack new designs that appeal to modern markets.

Our inclusive weaving livelihood model, being implemented by Traidcraft Exchange (U.K.) and the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA), was specifically designed to include product development and design to help address this.

Getting the weavers on board

The strategy adopted in our model for product design and development was three-fold.

Firstly, the weavers had to understand the importance and need for creating new designs for the contemporary market. We held workshops with them, providing them with market information about consumer tastes and latest trends.

Secondly, the designs needed to excite the weavers, as it is important that they own the process and are willing to learn and produce the new lines.

Thirdly, the designs needed to appeal to consumers. Only with sales will these new designs be successful for the weavers.

Exciting new designs

As Varanasi is an ancient weaving cluster, there are already a wide range of sari patterns and motifs. Therefore the new designs had to look unique and fresh. It was also important for the designs to involve a high degree of skill, making it difficult for electric power looms to copy.

We employed a textile designer who was given a design brief, outlining our requirements. After visiting the field and meeting the weavers, he came up with a range of design specifications.

At participatory workshops, the final designs were selected by the weavers themselves.

The loom cards for the new designs are punched. The loom cards for the new designs are punched.

Training and production

It is a big decision for a master weaver to give a whole loom over to a new product. In this initial round of production, 5 master weavers decided to take on new designs, each selecting the design they wanted to work on.

The 5 master weavers have all received training from the designer and have been supported on a day-to-day basis by AIACA’s field coordinator. Although the master weavers have woven the first pieces, they will in turn train other weavers who work under them to continue these new designs.

In order to fully support the weavers, the field coordinator for AIACA spent time with the designer in Delhi to closely understand the designs and minute detailing for each product. This was crucial as a small mistake during the pre-loom process can affect the final product. The designer also visited the field and was constantly in touch with the field coordinator via email and Whatsapp to solve any queries.

Babbuddin – one of the master weavers involved – is excited about the new designs: “The training on new design development has been extremely useful. These designs cannot be easily copied on power looms.”

Next steps

Now the new products are finally off-the-loom, they will be professionally photographed for a trade catalogue for the Varanasi Weavers Hub – a collective of weavers set-up under our model. The catalogue will then be shared with prospective buyers.

The weavers have been introduced to - an online portal selling handloom products. They also attended “The Sari Festival” in Delhi, organised by Red Earth India to meet potential customers face-to-face.

“The whole experience of participating in the event was very enriching,” reflected master weaver Islam Ansari. “We had never seen the kind of crowd that came there. Even if the sales were not high, we learnt a lot.”

New designs for a range of dupattas (stoles) are already in the pipeline. The pre-loom processes are currently underway and they should be “on-the-loom” by 20 July.

In addition, the weavers have been introduced to the benefits of the Craftmark programme – an accreditation for genuine Indian handloom and handicraft products. So far, one applicant has been successfully granted the licence to use the seal on their products and 19 other applicants are in the process of getting Craftmark certification.

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