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Worthy Causes: fancy threads from the slums of Bombay

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When you look at the symmetrical patterns and the intricate, geometric designs, you think craftsmanship. These cotton skirts, dresses, shirts, tote bags, and table mats, are handmade by skilled artisans who obviously take pride in every stitch count. No mass-production shortcuts here--each piece reveals a lot of patience.

Yet the artisans in this case are impoverished Indians, mostly women and mostly from the Golibar slum of Bombay. Some are widows with young children, some handicapped older people, some members of the untouchable caste. In a country where even the healthiest and best educated find employment scarce, these occupants of society's bottom rung traditionally either beg--or starve.

But through an ingenious not-for-profit coalition of cottage industries called SHARE (Support the Handicapped Rehabilitation Effort), a growing number of these people are not only pulling their own weight for the first time, but creating beautiful, marketable products.

The power behind SHARE is a 31-year-old woman named Pushpika Freitas, who has a master's degree from DePaul University and now lives in Chicago. Back in her native India in 1980, she saw the difficult job government-funded social workers had in helping the poorest citizens achieve any kind of economic stability. It wasn't that the poor lacked talent; India has a tradition of encouraging and valuing native arts and crafts skills. In many places employment-opportunity workshops provide fabric, sewing machines, and other basic necessities to those who can and want to work. But the workshops--which are usually overseen by social workers, not business experts--rarely cooperate with each other. In addition, their output is usually restricted to traditional Indian clothing and their marketing outlets are few.

"The intentions are good, but it's difficult when you're combining social work with business," says Freitas. "They have to develop better designs with a wider customer appeal and come up with modern marketing methods."

So Freitas corralled various design, business, and marketing experts and persuaded them to help rethink the workshop concept. The result was SHARE. Though still in its developmental stages, SHARE can already point to one model project involving four workshops in the Bombay area: a patchwork center, where sewers pick up material and instructions to work on at home; a hand-block-printing shop, where designs are produced; a sewing shop, where the patchwork and blockprinted fabric are put together; and a silk-screen shop, where stationery and ornamental papers are produced.

Significantly, the workshops now produce clothing (all of it 100 percent cotton) and decorative items that are, says Freitas, more ethnic than Indian"--and therefore more universally marketable. The items include long, flowing caftan dresses, wrap-around skirts, loose-fitting pants, needlepoint belts, embroidered blouses, quilts, and eyeglass holders. "We don't follow the current fashion trends," says Freitas, "and our emphasis is on one-size-fits-all products."

The benefits of SHARE are felt immediately by the workers, Freitas notes: For example, women who used to make $120 a year working 10 to 12 hours a day as maids now earn $250 to $300 a year--hardly big money by American standards, but enough to put them on the road to reasonable self-sufficiency. SHARE recently sponsored a training seminar--on design development, quality control, and production schedules--for other Indians attempting to set up similar shops.

Nevertheless, foreign commercial importers are still not beating a path to SHARE's door--largely, says Freitas, because these companies want absolute uniformity in design and quality, large bulk orders, and strict timetables on delivery. As a collaboration of small workshops, SHARE cannot promise any of these--yet.

To attack this problem, Freitas established a not-for-profit alternative marketing arm in the U.S. called MarketPlace: Handwork of India, to import SHARE products and find retail outlets. Because labor and middleman costs are relatively low, the prices on the SHARE items are low, too. A long, colorful dress with hand-sewn patchwork and embroidery may sell for $38; many shirts and skirts go for $18; and the most expensive items--huge quilts--cost $200 to $250.

Thus far, most items have been sold through churches, synagogues, and the homes of supporters. But some retailers are beginning to show interest. SHARE's entire line will be available through June 15 at Nomad's, an imported handcraft store at 1102 Davis in Evanston. "I'm sure our pieces will go well in the United States," says Freitas. "After all, what we're offering is capitalism with a conscience."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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