Growing up in a Pakistani-American household I was surrounded by traditional outfits and was curious as to why I could never find certain embroidery and embellishment techniques incorporated into contemporary western clothing – something I saw as beautiful and desirable across design cultures. After studying abroad in Delhi for 6 months and focusing my efforts with local NGO’s, I soon came to realize that a majority of artisans producing this beautiful work were living under the poverty line. “Madam, help me get higher price!” is what I would hear when artisans figured out that I was American. Understanding the market opportunity that exists for South-Asian hand-embroidery in western retail apparel as well the need for artisans to find global sales platforms for their work, my partner and I began chipping away at Project Sina. After nearly a year of planning, networking, and fundraising, we were ready launch our initiative.
In Karachi, it is women from the slums who are the main agents of the skill’s cultural reproduction. The slums of Karachi are also the destination for Pakistan’s retailers to source their embroidery work. Women are often paid no more than 3 USD for three days of labour in their home – the garment is then sold for upwards of 100 USD. Project Sina is breaking this paradigm by offering these same talented and motivated women access to the global marketplace. Through the sale of their hand-embroidered shirts, we are able to provide them with a monthly fair wage literacy development, and skills training programming hosted at our women’s centre.
Aside from the chance for these women to advance their livelihoods through greater economic and educational attainment, the sense of community and support that the women provide for one another has been an unexpected and delightful outcome. During the educational component of our programming, women keep each other motivated to aim high through a bit of encouragement and a bit of competition. During the skills training component of the program, our supervisor offers those women with lower skill levels some advanced guidance, criticism, as well as positive reinforcement. Without any formal mandate, women gather at the centre for holidays to celebrate one another’s progress with dancing, music, good food, and their nicest outfits!
Our designs are collaborative. We ask program participants to create embroidery work for our t-shirts with direction as to what techniques to include – “sheesha ka kaam” (traditional south Asian mirror work), “gothay ka kaam” (thin gold ribbon fastened to create a myriad of shapes and motifs), “dabka ka kaam” (a thin gold spring-like material used to make small ornaments and motifs), as well as basic embroidery stitches used to fill modern shapes. We then take these designs and tweak them as necessary to fit current trends and the demand for our young, trendy, western target market.
My motivation to do this kind of work stems from my academic roots in community development, passion for beautifully designed garments, and the case for greater gender equality in South Asia. The region’s artisans are highly skilled – boasting a rare expertise in what has the potential to be a lucrative craft. Project Sina is bridging the gap, creating opportunities for women and communities to fulfil their talents and truly become empowered. With Project Sina, women who graduate from our program will have the skills, education, and understanding of business operations to rise above the poverty line and create a greater livelihood for themselves.
This project has attracted a humbling amount of individuals who are interested in getting involved – whether it be through media or PR support, photography of our products, business relationships, the creation of multi-media marketing materials, or becoming a brand ambassador. Project Sina remains open to partnerships and collaborations that will help manifest our vision of dignified livelihoods for all female artisans in South Asia.
Amena Mian is co-founder of Project Sina – see www.projectsina.com