Weaving Freedom in Rural India


Traveling to Rural India is like walking into a living  National Geographic article. Men walk past wearing straw hats and carrying large bales of hay on their head. Women wear bright saris and keep their heads covered to passers-by. You are greeted everywhere by cows and goats. (and sometimes monkeys!)













The main two crops grown in rural West Bengal are rice and jute.

Rice paddies.


Jute crops

This week, I was visiting with Freeset Fabrics in Murshidabad. These factories, which train women in traditional weaving, were created to help impoverished women in this area, which is one of the greatest sources of sex trafficking in the State of West Bengal. Most of the families here survive off of subsistence farming, which only provides for a few months of the year. Weaving means that these women can provide for their families year-round without having to worry about selling their bodies.

“If I did not work here at Freeset Fabrics, my family and I would all die from poverty.” – Aruna

20170708_105546Within 2 years of weaving scarves, Aruna is now one of the best weavers at Freeset Fabrics in rural West Bengal. She’s able to buy nutritious food for her two daughters, pay for her mother’s operation, and install a water tap in her home. Now, she plans to build a new home; she has dreams! Despite being in a culture that struggles with seeing women as equal to men, Aruna realized for herself that she is equal to a man. She understands her value as an individual and as a woman now. (1)

We cleaned up the whole factory!

In India, “Every stage of existence – birth, betrothal, marriage, death – is marked with gifts of cloth. . . As a result, women’s wardrobes are like fabric archives of their lives, recalling significant relationships and events. Gifts of cloth forge new relationships and sustain older ones.” (2) Thus, it makes sense that Freeset would choose the path of textiles to offer freedom to women in rural West Bengal.


(1) “Freeset Fabrics: Our journey so far.” Freeset – News. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2017. <http://freesetglobal.com/news/98/80/Freeset-Fabrics-Our-journey-so-far&gt;.

(2) Tarlo, Emma. “Life’s Great Pageant.” V & A MagazineWinter 2015: n. pag. Print.


The Red Lights of Bowbazar: Freedom through Craftmanship

In my continuing journey meeting with social businesses around Kolkata, India, today I visited the Loyal Workshop, an ethical leather goods business in Bowbazar. Bowbazar is less infamous internationally than Sonagachi, but it is still the second-biggest red-light district in Kolkata, harboring around 1500-2000 women. It is also more thinly spread out in little pockets, making legal enforcement more difficult.


The company employs 18 women, all former prostitutes from Bowbazar. They are trained to hand-sew high-quality, ethically-sourced leather for leather goods during 6 months of paid training. For the first 3 months, they work part-time, and then in the afternoon they go back to working in the streets. Then, for the next 3 months, they work full-time. The hope is, based on positive feedback from a similar structure at another local freedom business, Sari Bari, that these women will be drawn to the respect they receive at Loyal Leather and want to choose a new life.

Machine cutting the leather for the women to sew
Goodstead satchel
The finished product

As we sat on the floor of the factory with monsoon rain gently trickling outside, one of the employees told us about the challenges of measuring the economic impact of leaving or staying in prostitution. Age is a consideration, as well as ethnic background and the nature of their pimp, for how much they can really make. As with many “freedom businesses” in Kolkata, women at Loyal Leather are all paid the same wage regardless of skill. Because of this, of the women working their some gain a pay raise while others make less than they did as a prostitute (on paper, that is). But, he continued, there are other economic factors to consider. Because prostitution is illegal in India, these prostitutes are often not able to open savings accounts, get credit from reputable sources, or have state healthcare. They often find themselves in a cycle of debt to local pimps and others who take advantage of them. Having reliable, legal income allows them yet another degree of freedom.

Shop Loyal Workshop: https://www.theloyalworkshop.com/store-selling-ethical-leather-goods/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theloyalworkshop