Over three decades back, a 12-year-old girl wanted to learn weaving as she saw her family members make beautiful woollen clothes on the loom at their home in Kotay village on the shore of Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. She belonged to the Vankar community, which has been practicing weaving for many centuries in the arid landscape of Bhuj in Kutch district.
Rajiben Vankar’s father preferred farming on the family’s small landholding while her uncle and cousin weaved at home. Seeing her interest in weaving, her cousin decided to teach her the family craft discreetly. When her father would be at the farm and uncle would go out for selling his woollen products, the cousins would take over the loom. By the time Rajiben was 14, she was an expert weaver.
That year, in 2000, Kutch faced a severe drought and her father’s rainfed agriculture was left in losses. Since he did not know weaving, there was no other livelihood option for him. “My father was surprised when I told him that I could weave. Given the family’s situation, he gave me the go ahead and I started weaving with acrylic wool,” recollects Rajiben, now 45.
The vagaries of life
At 18, she got married but her in-laws did not allow her to weave given the societal norms and her husband’s good income. Rajiben gave birth to two boys and a girl in quick succession. “But my husband suffered a cardiac arrest at work when I was just 30 and passed away. Our kids were very young at that time (2007),” she says.
With no source of income, Rajiben began to look for work but stepping out of the house was impossible as her children were too young to be on their own. “So I decided to move to Avadhnagar, where my elder sister and brother-in-law were practicing weaving,” she says.
“I didn’t have the money to buy a loom and my mental health had taken a beating due to the sudden change in my life. I was ill-equipped to start weaving,” she recalls.
She worked as a farm labour for two years from 2007 to 2009 to support her family. “But I did not enjoy that work,” she recollects.
From weaving textiles to weaving upcycled plastic
Around that time, Rajiben heard of Khamir, a Kutch-based NGO, which provides a platform for the crafts and heritage of the Kutch region. “Khamir was looking for a weaver. I went there and they asked me to join at a salary of Rs 3,000 per month. The amount was increased to Rs 5,000 after two years and Rs 10,000 from the third year,” Rajiben says.
It was while weaving textiles at Khamir that Rajiben’s life took a new turn. She not only enjoyed her work and had consistent earnings, but she also met people who visited Khamir to learn about Kutch’s arts and crafts. Her work was appreciated.
One such visit was in 2012 by Hetal, a designer from abroad, who had brought a bag woven out of plastic. “Hetal showed us the bag and asked if we could weave something like this,” she says.
Rajiben weaved upcycled bags with plastic and Hetal took some samples and left. Rajiben also made some other pieces which were showcased in the Khamir shop and they received very good feedback. “That’s where my journey with upcycling of plastic bags started,” she says.
Plastic upcycling involves creating new products from waste plastic materials that would otherwise end up polluting the environment. Recycling, however, implies breaking down plastic into its base form to create new items.
At Khamir, Rajiben trained 25 women in cleaning, collecting and weaving plastic for upcycling it. She also travelled to London for exhibiting her plastic weaving skills and upcycled products which received a lot of praise.
Entrepreneurial journey that helps the environment
“After the London trip I felt I could start on my own,” she says. In 2018, she set up her all-women craft enterprise and turned an entrepreneur.
Today, Rajiben works with 30 women from Bhuj, Bhujodi, Kukma, Lakhond and Madhapar villages of Bhuj taluka to create upcycled plastic bags, pouches, trays, planters, spectacle cases and other products.
Rajiben, however, did not have marketing and design expertise. That gap was bridged by Ahmedabad-based Kaarigar Clinic, which connects rural artisans with urban buyers. Founded by Nilesh Priyadarshi, Kaarigar Clinic is an online marketplace and also handholds rural entrepreneurs and artisans to help them find a market and access technology and equipment.
“Kaarigar Clinic also provided me with ten looms,” says Rajiben.
She has trained the women to segregate, clean, cut and then weave the plastic. “Weaving is done at our unit and only by women of the Vankar community as they know the craft. Other women take the raw material from us and cut it at home. They are mostly elderly ladies or those who are physically challenged and cannot do other work,” she says.
The polythene bags and wrappers, which would otherwise find way into the landfills, are used for weaving. Women collect plastic from their neigbours, relatives and public places. “We often go from village to village, asking people to give us plastic,” Rajiben says.
After collection, the plastic is washed and soaked in detergents for a few hours and washed. Then hot water is added to remove oil or grease and it is washed again. It is dried for two days after which it is cut into strips. Thick plastic is cut into half-inch strips while thinner ones are cut into 0.75 inch strips.
“We pay Rs 150 for cutting a kilogram of plastic, which requires about three hours. Women only work part time due to family responsibilities,” Rajiben says.
The plastic strips are then spun into a yarn on the charkha or spinning wheel.
“Weaving plastic is more labourious than cotton or silk. Weaving one metre takes about 2 hours,” she says. Weavers are paid Rs 200 per metre and if they work for 4-5 hours, they can earn Rs 400.
“We make 6 types of bags which include totes, office bag, laptop bag, yoga mat bag and shopping bags. We also make trays, bottle covers, table mats and other products,” she says.
Rajiben’s annual revenues are around Rs 10 lakh. While COVID hit sales, things are looking up now and business is improving.
Her sons now work in the corporate sector while daughter has joined her unit after completing graduation. “We are now also upcycling old clothes to make quilts, mats and seat covers,” she says. After working for years tirelessly, Rajiben today is a content woman. And she is happy that her daughter can now carry forward her legacy of turning waste into useful products.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)