Sally Holkar's is a story of grit and belief. The lady who empowered hundreds of women weavers shares her journey with Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

The name of Sally Holkar's organisation says it all. ‘Women Weave' has turned the traditional bastion of men, weaving, into a viable option for women. When Sally floated the idea of getting women into weaving, there was resistance. Eventually, men were glad. “Men wanted to get out of weaving. They felt weaving was financially restrictive and not aspirational enough. Women were happy to take up weaving as against breaking rocks and other labour-intensive jobs. They were happy to work under a roof, at one place and earn a living,” says Sally Holkar. Clad in an indigo kurta offset with a white khadi stole, she is at home in traditional weaves.

As the co-founder of Rehwa Society in 1978 and then Women Weave in 2003, Sally has brought smiles to hundreds of women in the marginalised sections of Maheshwar, to begin with, and other parts of the country through partner NGOs.

Sally was in the city to unveil Maheshwari saris and stoles at Anonym, Jubilee Hills. The pride is evident when she talks about the weaves that are a blend of silk, cotton and khadi. Training these women to experiment was not tough, she states: “Young women who work with us are not traditional weavers. They have no pre-conceived notions.” Some of the saris have incorporated the ikat tie and dye technique. “It was tricky. Different yarns have different tensions and we'd end up with the yarn getting bunched up. Designer Rahul Mishra, who is good with engineering on the looms, showed us the way. Shankar, a NID graduate based in Chennai, also worked with us in this collection,” says Sally.

Women Weave has its core group of weavers in Maheshwar and Dindori near Kanha National Park. Through other NGOs, the organisation helps kota weavers in Rajasthan, chanderi weavers in Maharashtra and weavers in Kumaon. “The weavers in Kumaon had no experience in weaving anything other than wool. Now they've learnt to weave with cotton and linen. I strongly believe that machine-made fabrics are no match to handlooms,” emphasises Sally.

She is happy that the fashion industry has turned its attention to handlooms. “As the awareness about eco-friendly weaves grows, it's time to realise that India has a world heritage treasure in handloom weaving,” says Sally. More than anything else, Sally is glad that weaving has helped women look beyond their villages. “Many of these women don't know that there are 67 lakh weavers in India,” smiles Sally.

It's tough to imagine that Sally graduated in political science before moving to India from the US in 1966 after she married Richard Holkar, the son of the Holkar Maharaja of Indore. “Political science was a joke,” reflects Sally. “A lot of people, like me, are not doing what they were trained to do.” She started supporting women weavers when she discovered how Maheshwar weaves were dying. “Until 15 years after we founded Rehwa, I wasn't sure if this would work. Every minute I would wonder why I got into it. Murphy's law — everything that can go wrong will go wrong — ruled for a long time,” she recalls.

Now, Sally is ready for the next challenge: “We are working towards setting up an institute through which we can train young handloom weavers across India to use computers, speak English and use alternative yarns. We want to train women to market their weaves through new social media. We will begin with Orissa and West Bengal and then Andhra Pradesh. We are getting the National Institute of Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology and other institutes from abroad to help,” she sums up.

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