A virtual visit to the House of Wandering Silk
Maybe it’s the changing winds of spring (or sprummer?) but I seem to have a serious case of itchy feet lately. As it’s not exactly practical to travel right now, though, I decided to satisfy my wanderlust via a virtual journey, and who better to ask about travel (and textiles!) than someone who has wandered through more than 65 countries – Katherine Neumann from social enterprise House of Wandering Silk.
I met Katherine through a mutual friend when we both happened to be visiting Sydney some years ago but since then I’ve been following her adventures online (if you have a very good memory you may remember this post I did about HOWS ages ago). And what adventures they are, with travels from her base in India through all kinds of places in search of fantastic textiles (that’s my kind of trip!). Anyway, here’s a little interview I did with Katherine to find out what she’s been up to since establishing HOWS a few years ago.
Style Wilderness (SW): What were you doing before establishing HOWS and where did you find the inspiration for it?
Katherine (KN): I was working for a humanitarian NGO for 10 years before I came to India, working across Asia as well as Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, this exposed me to amazing cultures, and their textiles (in which I’ve always held an interest) and on the other made me rather cynical about the ways in which the whole humanitarian/development sector is funded. In terms of my work, I’ve always felt it was important to do something that impacted people – and in particular, women – who haven’t had the opportunities that I’ve had. That’s what led me to humanitarian work, and it was this that made me decide to shift to setting up a social enterprise, based around the textiles I love but still with the main objective of benefiting women in poverty.
SW: Describe your average day at HOWS – what do you do when you’re in your base in New Delhi?
KN: When I’m at home in Delhi, most days are rather unexotic and spent fielding emails from customers, stockists, suppliers; updating the website and social media which are always hungry for more content; photographing stock for buyers; quality checking new stock that comes in. A good day will involve a trip to the market to pick out some vintage banjara embroidery or a visit to the house of the lady I buy recycled saris from. I’ve been buying from these ladies for many years, so they are more like friends than business partners and a sourcing trip will always involve a long chat and several chais. Perhaps a delicious Gujarati meal if I’m lucky! A really good day will involve a visit to one of the cooperatives or NGOs that do the hand work for us. I’ll go in and talk to the ladies about their work and document them in action. And of course drink lots of chai.
SW: How often do you travel to find textiles?
KN: Most of the travel for HOWS is within India, meeting with new partners and auditing existing partners; I travel to West Bengal every so often as all of our kantha stitching – which is the main work done on the HOWS products – is done there, about 5 hours north of Kolkata. I also visit other regions In India to explore the textiles and weaving communities with the aim of sourcing new fair trade textiles or embroidery skills – such places as Ladakh and Kashmir, Nagaland, Varanassi, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
SW: How do you find your producers?
KN: Our producers in Pakistan and Afghanistan are old contacts of mine – made while I was living in those countries in 2005 – 2007. I was already interested in the idea of setting up a social business at the time, and tried to meet widely with local artisans. After setting up HOWS, I returned to those groups and we now work together. Other producers I’ve found through the French NGO I worked with that does a lot on generating employment for women in the region. The contacts I made during those years of NGO work have been invaluable. In other areas that are new to me, like Indonesia, I usually connect with artisans once I’m there on the ground.
SW: You have products from some countries which a lot of people would be scared to travel in (eg Afghanistan). Have you ever felt yourself to be in danger while travelling for HOWS? Or has your previous career given you the experience to deal with tricky situations?
KN: I think what may scare people most is the unknown (not helped by the media portraying countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan as hotbeds of fanatics and war zones). Living in, or even visiting these countries, you quickly come to realise they are not at all what you had imagined. I remember shaking with nerves while waiting in the transit lounge in Dubai for my first flight to Kabul back in 2005. In the plane I sat next to a lovely Afghan woman whose conversation quickly put me at ease; I found that the rest of my experience over those three years was similar, surrounded by hospitable and warm people. I’ve never really felt in danger. Having said which, as a woman, it’s vitally important to act and dress appropriately and respectfully and preferably not to travel alone.
SW: How much design input do you have for the products, do you buy them just as the artisans create them or do you give them some direction as regards colour and pattern?
KN: We have two types of products. Those which are made using the upcycled saris and vintage embroidery – the kantha scarves and shrugs, sari necklaces and bangles and banjara totes – are designed entirely by us. I personally hand pick each and every piece of fabric, select the pairings for the scarves and the combinations for the jewellery, and the material, in ready made bundles, gets sent to our partners who do the handwork. The other types of products – mostly the other scarves and shawls – fall into two categories. The first is small, capsule collections, like the Pakistani justi shawls and the Balinese endek, that I buy directly off the artisans, without any design input from us. I pick the pieces from their stock that I love and think will work with the rest of our collection. With other products that we think have great potential, we sit down with the artisans to design our own style of their product, in specific colour ways and sizes, such as the jamdani khadi scarves. We’re increasingly working on our own designs for products which don’t involve the saris, however. For these, like the knotted slings and some new Spring/Summer 2015 collections, I first identify the skills available among our partner then design products around these.
SW: How do you find your stockists – are people contacting you or do you get in touch with stores that you think might be interested?
KN: Until now our growth has been very organic, with stockists contacting us through our website or finding us at some of the fairs that we do. I haven’t actively sought out many stores, although I keep chasing the V&A museum and Liberty in London! I’ve found this works best, as we don’t want to grow too suddenly or rapidly.
SW: What’s coming up for HOWS? Do you ever plan to open a HOWS store and where would it be?
KN: We have some exciting new collections coming up for SS15, but the next big step for HOWS is opening an office in Thailand. We’ve set up a strong foundation for our operations out of Delhi, which will continue, and we will be adding to this working with new artisans and women’s groups across the Southeast Asian region, which has some outstandingly beautiful silk weaving and high quality handicrafts. I love the idea of a HOWS store, but I feel like it is wiser for us to focus our energies on design and production, and let our retail partners look after the brick-and-mortar side of retail. Limiting ourselves to an online store better suits us as our direct customer base spans Europe, Asia and North America.
*more like about 10, and that’s on a good day!!