Recycling silk saris has led Julie West from Kathmandu to Kolkata. Whether it’s transforming scraps of silk saris and wool into felted art-to-wear scarves, or kantha hand-stitched silk saris into colorful wraps, Julie is rooted in collaborating with women artisans and helping the environment along the way.
Repurposing Old Saris
Julie went to Nepal after graduating from the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas, for a four-month stay, working side-by-side with the women artisans in the Kathmandu Valley. She recalls, “It was through a collaborative process of testing, failing, and testing again that we designed our signature product, the felted vintage sari scarf. After that, we continued to collaborate on many other products. In the fall of 2009, I launched The Red Sari.” Why The Red Sari? The color red is both auspicious as well as a symbol of transformation in the Nepalese culture and the repurposing of old saris is also transformative.
In April 2015, the earth shook Nepal twice in a few weeks. The felting group’s building was structurally unstable so they became nomadic for six months, working out of smaller spaces for triple the previous rent. Now they’re in a space that’s bigger, with walls on three sides and open air on the other which is perfect for making the wet-felt, art-to-wear scarves.
During Julie’s visit with them last March she worked on new designs and, now that they are stable and catching up on production, she knew it was time to collaborate on another project.
The Kantha Project
The Kantha Project began through a conversation Julie had with a fellow vendor at a trade show. It turns out that her booth neighbor was representing the Craft Resource Council in India and as they chatted, the seed idea of collaborating with the Council’s craft group in Kolkata was planted.
Kolkata is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, located on the east bank of the Hooghly River. About a few hours from there, rural Bengali women stitch kantha cloth, one of the oldest forms of hand-stitched embroidery. The word kantha means “rags” in Sanskrit, reflecting a tradition of using discarded clothing or garments to remake old cloth into bed coverings and other household items. Kantha also refers to the indigenous quilt form and to the running stitch itself, which gives the cloth the wrinkly appearance that is characteristic of kantha. It’s this simple running stitch that holds the recycled layers of silk cloth together to form The Red Sari’s kantha scarves and shawls. Read more about kantha here.
When Julie was with the group last year, she worked with the women on designs but left most of the color combinations of the silk layers and thread choices up to them. As she’s learned from that experience, she’s seen combinations that are striking and others that clearly need the imprint of “The Red Sari.” Some of her advising can be long distance but she always prefers to work directly with the women and looks forward to a return visit. We do too because it means more meaningful and creative work for the women who otherwise wouldn’t have a channel for their traditional stitching.