At HOWS, we take upcycling very seriously. Our entire range of signature scarves and necklaces are based on the concept of taking something old, worn out, stained and loaded with hidden stories from its past life, and re-imagining it in an entirely new form.
Join us on a tour through our value chain as we demonstrate how far one sari can go through the process of upcycling!
gerund or present participle: upcycling
1. reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.
Our story starts with sourcing pre-loved silk saris. These come replete with tears, holes, stains and decades of an earlier life in someone's wardrobe. We select each sari based on its colour, print, pattern and texture. Its reincarnation as one of our products is just another step in its well-travelled existence.
It's worth noting that this tradition of bartering off old saris is an old one. While saris are most often kept for decades, or handed down to people close to the family (such as servants), used or old pieces (saris as well as other clothing) can also be sold to a 'bhandiwali'. 'Bhandi' means utensils in Hindi. A bhandiwali will make her rounds of one particular area on a regular basis. When a woman wants to trade her used sari, she calls out to the bhandiwali who will come to her home and scrutinize all the clothes; the ones she thinks can be recycled will be traded for steel utensils; cups, pots, pans or ladles depending on the condition of the clothing she takes. She then sells them to vendors who buy either to sell them on the roadside or recycle to make new clothes, bags or just fabric.
We source the saris from a community of Gujarati sari traders in Delhi. These sari traders themselves source the saris from a network of bhandiwalis who travel across India, buying and bartering goods for old saris, village by village and house by house.
Woman in a sari. Image Steve McCurry.
Sourcing vintage saris in Delhi.
Saris are cleaned and carefully checked for all defects. Working with pre-loved textiles takes an enormous amount of time in terms of quality control. Where possible, we cut the saris into pieces sized to make our Kantha Scarves and Shawls. If a section of sari has too many defects to make into these larger kantha products, it flows to the next step in our upcycling process.
These saris have been checked, cut to size and paired with its reverse side. They now await matching with the thread before being bundled up and posted to West Bengal for the kantha stitching.
Kantha stitch gives strength to the pre-loved saris. Read more about kantha here.
Shop our Kantha Sari Scarves & Shawls here!
Sari fabric which didn't make it into our Kantha Collection is now destined for our Sari Silk Necklaces. We first select colours from the larger pieces of fabric (full saris and half saris) for our statement necklaces which require more material - the 7, 12 and 20+ String Beaded Necklaces. Smaller remnants are used to make smaller necklaces - the 1 and 6 String Beaded Necklaces, the Jhumka Necklaces and our Sari String Necklaces. We have a total of seven styles of Upcycled Sari Silk Necklaces, and we make several hundred of these a month, requiring huge amounts of fabric remnants.
Shop our Sari Silk Necklaces here!
We're now left with quite small scraps of sari fabric. We send bundles of the brighter and more interesting pieces up to a village in the Himalayas, where we work with a women's Self Help Group of 400 members who do beautiful patchwork and quilting. They sort through the fabric we send them and select pieces that are patched into creating our Dervish Robes and Patchwork Quilts.
Shop our Dervish Robes here!
This is the end of the line for our sari remnants. The last of the pieces are sent to the Self Employed Women's Association, a trade union of some 2 million women working in the informal sector. They stitch our carry bags and pouches, which we use to pack products sold on our online store and at events.
End of the line: the last sari remnants are used to make our carry bags and pouches.
Meanwhile, by this stage we've received our Kantha Scarves and Shawls returned with the kantha stitch complete. Not all the pieces we make are fit for selling though - the fabric gets a lot of wear and tear on its journey to and from West Bengal and in the hands of the artisans. Especially during monsoon, when it rains every day, the sari fabric can become very stained. So what to do with the kantha fabric we can't sell as scarves? First we make these into smaller products which use less fabric and where we can cut out the stains, such as sari blouses, and neck and bow ties which are sold only in the Indian market. The smallest pieces of kantha scrap are sent to our partners who make our Kantha Bead Necklaces and Kantha Patchwork Quilts.
Shop our Kantha Bead Necklaces here!
And there ends the story of our upcycling. This process of using every last remnant is applied to all the fabrics we work with, including new hand loom fabric. The scraps are saved and used whenever possible. For trimmings, self-covered buttons, linings, quilts, jackets, bags - the possibilities are endless.
Creating patchwork quilts from scraps of sari fabric.
Why do we upcycle? Many reasons:
1. We love, LOVE, the pre-loved silk saris we work with
The textiles which make up these old saris are so beautiful - the colours are vibrant, the texture is soft, and there is a huge diversity of print, pattern and weave. Even if we went to a new sari store, we wouldn't be able to find such diversity.
2. It makes ecological sense
Why buy something new when you can buy it second hand? It's saved from a landfill and you avoid all the resources and waste created through the process of manufacturing it.
3. Stories make the textiles richer
We don't know the stories of each sari: Where was it made (sometimes we can guess)? Who bought it? What adventures did they have while wearing it? - but it's enough to know that these pieces have been pre-loved and had lives prior to us meeting them. This makes them richer.
4. It makes business sense
Contrary to what you may think, it's in fact not any cheaper than working with new fabrics. The amount of time required in checking the fabrics at every stage makes up for their lower cost. But ultimately, we spent money on buying the sari, so why would we not use every last piece of it?