Colleen and Maggie Clines never thought they would have careers in the textile industry, let alone be working in the textile industry together. The two Louisville sisters were once design students with dreams of moving to New York City to pursue their careers in architecture. After Colleen took a trip to India in graduate school and saw firsthand the extreme oppression the women there face, she raised $400 and purchased a new sewing machine, taking it upon herself to make a change in the most innovative and creative way possible. Enter, Anchal Project.
Colleen co-founded Anchal Project, a non-profit social enterprise that works to create employment opportunities and programs for women affected by sex trafficking, training them to create eco-friendly textiles with unique designs that help address the exploitation of women around the world in 2010.
Soon after, her sister Maggie soon joined, acting as Vice-President and Creative Director. Now, the duo works side by side with partners and artisans combining their passions for design and sustainability to help others and make an impact on inequality.
The word anchal, pronounced on-chal, is a Hindu word that refers to the edge of the sari that is used for the protection of loved ones. The sari, a garment that originates in India, is worn by women both as a decorative piece and as a form of shelter, using the anchal to provide comfort and security for their babies. This is symbolic of what Anchal Project aims to accomplish with the women they help — to provide protection and support in all aspects of their lives, whether that be financial, emotional or physical.
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Anchal Project created the groundbreaking Stitch x Stitch program in partnership with the Non-Government Organization (NGO) Vatsalya, stationed in Ajmer, India. Through this project, they recruit women who are involved in sex trafficking and train them through NGO. The training process to become an artisan for Anchal Project takes about six months, and the women are taught a plethora of skills from how to properly use a tape measure to how to hand-quilt and do Kantha (a traditional Indian embroidery technique).
Once they have mastered the fundamentals of the craft, they then have the ability to move from an artisan to a senior artisan, allowing them to create more intricate and unique designs. So far, more than 153 women have been trained in the Stitch x Stitch program, helping to create quilts, scarves and pillows among other home goods and accessories.
The products they create substantially help to combat the exploitation of women. The United Nations estimates that there are 40 million commercial sex workers worldwide and 10 million in India alone. Before joining Anchal, 85% of the program’s artisans joined the commercial sex trade due to a lack of alternatives. Anchal Project’s Stitch x Stitch program provides them that alternative.
Anchal Project also stresses the importance of being flexible with their artisans. Maggie says, “We know a lot of our artisans may not be able to leave their homes, or they have an abusive domestic relationship, so we allow them to kind of flex their schedule.” This gives more women the opportunity to get involved with the program and allows them to get their work done in unconventional ways to adapt to their living situations.
Not only does Anchal Project give these women a job and a stable income, but the artisans and project leaders receive benefits such as bi-annual health check-ups, monthly educational workshops in areas like leadership and stress management, and a safe community where they are able to work and learn.
The products the artisans create are reflective of their individual stories and the message Anchal Project hopes to convey. Maggie says, “For us, textiles allow for so much storytelling within each piece.” Every fair trade product that Anchal Project sells has a hand-sewn signature in Hindi of the artisan on the tag. Each customer can then see physical documentation of who made the item. Additionally, each piece is carefully crafted with extreme detail and is made using recycled materials and organic fibers and dyes.
Being environmentally friendly and drawing attention to the harms of “fast fashion” are other pillars of Anchal Project’s mission. Maggie stresses how they want their products to be eco-friendly and how it is important for them to treat the environment with the same respect that they want for the women they hire. “To be a really sustainable company and to hold yourself to a higher standard, you have to look at every element that you’re working in,” Maggie says. “I think the sustainable, material side plays into being respectful to the earth, and I think that is coupled beautifully by respect for the women who make the products.”
Anchal Project looks to collaborate with brands or companies that have this same vision of sustainability and awareness around global issues like pollution and sex trafficking. Maggie says, “We believe in partnering with brands that align with our values and that see and appreciate the story and the hand-made quality of each product. We want to get our brand out there and have more customers who can make a different choice and invest in a product that has longevity, fights fast fashion and is ethical.” Anchal Project has partnered with Urban Outfitters, Madewell, Anthropologie and the Guggenheim Museum, and is currently in more than 100 retailers around the country, including some in Louisville: Revelry Boutique Gallery, KMAC and Edenside Gallery.
The success of the Anchal Project is seen through their numbers and heard through the artisans’ personal stories. On a financial level, artisans earn 25% to 100% more by working with Anchal Project, and 70% of the women are considered the primary breadwinner of the family. Approximately 65% have purchased their first homes, and 100% of artisans are investing in their children’s education. In relation to health, 98% are able to afford healthy food options, and 90% can now afford healthcare for themselves and their families.
“Knowing that every day there are small changes happening and knowing that we are impacting that next generation is the most exciting part to us because breaking the cycle of intergenerational exploitation and poverty is the biggest and most exciting challenge to be a part of,” says Maggie. One of the most impactful stories for her was hearing that an artisan was able to now afford to buy fruit for her son when she once would have to hide him from the market so that he wouldn’t ask for any. These small privileges are things most take for granted, but make a world of a difference to the artisans and their families.
Fostering relationships with the artisans is also something that Maggie and Colleen have instilled in their brand. Each year, they take a month-long trip to India to interact with the women and to get to know them on a personal level. Not only do they get the chance to physically see the products being made, but they also get to witness first-hand the impact they have had on the women’s lives.
Through their relationships and in connecting with the artisans, Maggie says they are able to grow together and work for one cause, remarking, “It is a mutual bond of love and support, and we all know we are in it together to fight for equality, human rights, and personal empowerment.”
Anchal Project has also brought this sense of change and support to the sisters’ roots in Louisville, creating the dyeScape project in 2014. In collaboration with the Center for Women and Families, this project hires women to grow, harvest and dye fabric using organic dye plants grown through urban gardens located on empty lots throughout Louisville. It currently has two artisans employed, with more than 21 women trained through previous workshops.
Anchal Project wants to continue to grow and impact as many women as possible, hoping to reach a larger audience and bring more awareness to both the oppression of women and the harms of fast fashion. They hope to employ 300 women in India and 10 women in Louisville by 2025. Expanding the current programs that they have created is their main focus for the future.
“I think it is such a blessing to be able to work for this company and have this company. Knowing that what you’re doing has a direct impact on someone else’s life is something that is incredibly valuable and something that we would never trade. I think we’re both very aware of how lucky we are,” says Maggie.
To sponsor an artisan of your own, to donate or to purchase hand-made products, visit anchalproject.org.
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