As you may have noticed, over the last year or so, I have become more and more interested in the people behind the brand, the company or the beautiful products that we showcase. Whether it’s someone working from a small space in their home or heading a corporation, they are working towards their dreams and I am always fascinated by what brought them from point A to point D or E. In fact, the magazine has largely focused on the journey of creatives and creative entrepreneurs. In one of our 2015 issues (Feb/March 2015), we talked to Katherine Neumann, the founder of the House of Wandering Silk. I still remember the first time I found an ikat scarf from HOWS (w-a-y before ikat scarves were on every shopping platform) and the colors and the work were so beautiful. I was intrigued by the name and by what inspired and drove Team HOWS. Today, I want to share their story with you, and you are sure to find it fascinating. Enjoy!
“The House of Wandering Silk (HOWS) is a social enterprise based in India and their work is admirable on so many counts. They work with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) from different parts of Asia to produce gorgeous textile creations for individuals and their homes. By partnering with these NGO’s, they provide employment for female artisans, thus empowering them within their communities. In addition, HOWS uses vintage and upcycled fabrics to create their products. They make gorgeous scarves, stoles, bags, clothing and jewelry. The House of Wandering Silk. What a perfect name for an organization that works with beautiful textiles and brings together the talents of so many creatives and from so many parts of the world! Founder and director Katherine Neumann’s extensive travels, her long experience as a humanitarian aid worker and her exquisite design sense have combined to make an organization that is fast becoming a byword for excellent products and firm commitment to issues of social justice. We caught up with Katherine to talk about HOWS and what the future holds.
OUATT: Tell us about Team HOWS.
KH: Team HOWS is made up of myself, and my colleague, Maria. I am from Australia but I’ve been living abroad since 1999 and in Delhi for the last 5 years, Maria is from Manipur. We are based in Delhi. Maria helps me with all the running around, packing, sorting, working on the recycled saris we use for many of our products. I look after the design and sourcing of materials and finished products. I also do all the work on the website, the photography and marketing. We’re a small team, so we’re constantly busy, but on the upside, being small means we can be reactive, spontaneous and flexible. It also helps keep the costs of our products down! Although team HOWS is small, we work with a large network of NGOs, women’s groups and cooperatives who do all the handwork. There are around 100 women working full time with our partners on our products. We basically source the raw materials, design the product, bundle the work packages up and send them off to our partners who do all the handwork before the finished pieces come back to us. For example, one collection we’re working on for our SS15 range is khadi cotton kerchiefs: the very light khadi mulmul has been woven by our partner weavers in West Bengal, it is being block printed in Delhi and now SEWA (self-employed women’s association) members in Delhi are doing Aari work to complete our design.
OUATT: What drew you to design? Did you set out to form an organization that works with textiles?
KH: I left Australia straight out of high school on a Japanese government scholarship. The scholarship covered 5 years in Japan, where I studied International Relations. During my studies, I became convinced that the only work that I would find meaningful would be with a humanitarian NGO, and after graduation and a year of internships and volunteering in London, I began a 10-year career with a large French NGO. I worked mostly on emergencies (floods, cyclones, conflict, etc) across Asia and in the Middle East and Africa. After 10 years though, I found myself not quite as convinced by the whole system as when I started out. The way that NGOs are funded is not consistent with the work they set out to do – organizations have to pander to the whims of donors, not to the needs of the people they’re helping. Increasingly, I was fascinated with alternatives to sustainable development of poor communities – microfinance and fair trade, for example. During my years of travel, I gathered a huge collection of stunning textiles from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Ghana, Palestine, Myanmar, and after meeting a few inspirational women, like Cath from Polly & Me, who had set up their own fair trade businesses, I decided I wanted to do the same with the textiles I loved so much. India was the logical place to set the business up – I knew Delhi well, had friends here, and for textiles, you simply can’t beat India! The skills in weaving and embroidery are exceptional and diverse, and the needs of women, those who can benefit from artisanal work, are immense. I started off with baby steps; working part time as the Country Director with the French NGO that also has an office in Delhi while slowing starting to build up HOWS. We registered in 2013 and I quit my day job. I haven’t looked back since! From the beginning I knew I would work with textiles – I find them fascinating as they are such an integral part of a people’s culture and customs and there is so much you can do with them.
OUATT: In your experience, what have been your greatest triumphs and challenges?
KN: “I think I’ve been very fortunate, as looking back, I don’t see great challenges that struck me at any time. It’s been a lot of hard work and long hours – I basically work all the time! But when you are doing something you love, I think you wake up every morning and relish whatever comes your way! I’m actually preparing to leave Delhi in March. After 5 years, it’s time for somewhere new. The business will continue to be based here, and I’ll be back and forth between our new base in SE Asia and Delhi, but as I prepare to leave and I look at where HOWS stands now, I can say that the greatest triumph is the continued and increasing amount of work we’ve been able to provide to women from very poor urban and rural families and communities. Our work has meant a livelihood for them, and we’re now at a stage where HOWS is a known brand in India; customers appreciate the quality of our pieces as much as the story behind them, and we partner with some of India’s finest stores who carry our collections across India.”
OUATT: What do you hope to accomplish with HOWS? What are your most ambitious dreams for it? Are you looking to start a physical store? Are there other projects/ opportunities that you are involved in?
KN: I would like HOWS to be the go-to brand for ethical, unique, upcycled and handmade textile-based lifestyle products made in India, and perhaps at a later stage, made in Asia. This is my hope and probably my most ambitious dream for now! We’re already working with artisanal groups in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now with the opening of a new office in SE Asia, will be working with weavers in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia. I don’t plan to start a physical store – it’s a tempting idea, but I see a lot of stores really struggling – at least in Delhi – these days. If we were to open a store, I think it would take away a lot of our energy that we would prefer to focus on developing new products and partnerships with artisans. I am working on several new projects; new brands which will be set up under House of Wandering Silk. One is “korakohl” which will be also based on ethically produced fabrics, but with a very different look to HOWS.”
The House of Wandering Silk can be found online at www.wanderingsilk.org. Visit them to find a range of textile-based products for you.
Image credits/copyright: House of Wandering Silk
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