Lakshmi Meera provides free tailoring workshops for rural women at her South India Institute of Fashion Technology.

The sound of 34 feet working furiously on the pedals of the sewing machines greets you at the South India Institute of Fashion Technology. It is a school for fashion that offers many courses to students interested in fashion designing. But there is more to it. The 34 feet are of rural women who are participating in a free tailoring programme, offered by this institute that teaches them how to tailor frocks and shirts. Lakshmi Meera, founder of the institute, walks around suggesting alterations and making corrections. Lakshmi knows a lot about these women. “Many of them face so many hurdles,” she says. “Often they do not have the money to pay even their house rent. This tailoring class means a lot to them, as they can earn right from home. It is a huge opportunity for these women to earn. Some of them never handled a machine. Seeing how successful this workshop is, we have also started a similar programme in Pollachi. Eighty-two women have joined, there,” she says with pride. “Fashion is a labour intensive industry. No matter how mechanised everything gets, you always need tailors to keep it going.”

The institute has collaborated with the Government of Tamil Nadu, which funds these free tailoring programmes to make the rural women self-sufficient. And Lakshmi is upbeat about how the programme has turned out.

Even though her specialisation was in applied science and computer technology in college, Lakshmi was always interested in business management. In fact, she assisted her husband in his textile business.

That was when the idea for setting up an institute for fashion technology came to her. “I was handling the exports segment. Once my two daughters started going school, I felt I should do something of my own. ”

The institute began with five students in 2005. Lakshmi recalls the reaction of some parents who wanted to enrol their children in the institute. “‘Can a boy study fashion?’ and ‘Will you make my daughter walk on the ramp, wearing skimpy clothes?’ were frequently asked questions. I had to convince them that fashion was not just about ramp walk, and that some of the greatest designers in the world were men.”

Ten years down, she says things have changed. “Coimbatore has changed. The parents allow their children to experiment. Also, people are willing to invest. We watch television and we are up-to-date with the latest trends in fashion.”

The fashion school has a theory classroom, computer lab, tailoring unit, a small library, pattern-making lab and an in-house boutique, where students sell their garments.

“We sell clothes under the brand name called Zarah. The boutique is a testing platform for their marketing skills. Marketing is now the most important thing. You might have ideas and skills. But if you do not know to showcase them smartly, you will fail. ”

Lakshmi is also an avid traveller. “I take off occasionally to visit ancient temples and heritage structures. It allows me to think and reflect.” And she often travels alone. “I am used to travelling alone. I was the eldest daughter in my family and brought up without restriction. We used to live in Chennai. Since my father was a government employee I have travelled across the country.”

Building new contacts is crucial for the modern entrepreneur, she notes. “Especially women work through a huge network. That’s why local exhibitions and online platforms have turned out to be great business platforms for women.”

Lakshmi is currently pursuing her Ph. D in business management at Avinashilingam University. She also finds time to take lectures at Business schools in the city and spend quality time with her family.

But she does not think that is difficult at all. “How does it become work when it is your passion? If you figure out a good work-life balance in your head, there is nothing to worry in life. ”

Stitch in time

Muthupandiammal, N. Kanageswari, Jayamala and R. Deepa are beneficiaries of the free tailoring service

N. Kanageswari, Kanuvai

We do not have to take orders from anyone. l feel empowered and confidant, after learning a new skill. We have learnt to stitch blouses, handkerchiefs, summer frocks, shirts, nighties and churidars. We have learnt different stitches and new patterns. This job will be a big boon to us. We can stay at home and work and depend on no one.

R. Deepa, Karamadai

I want to set up a boutique in my house. I always leave late. That is because I spend extra time to clear my doubts and learn new tailoring techniques from the teachers. I have already stitched for my cousin. She wore the dress to school and every one said it was good. I was happy and motivated. My father is an electrician. But he hardly gets work these days. I am the only hope for my family.

Jayamala.M, Kanuvai

I worked in a factory. The job was not secure. They would call us only if there was work. The salary was meagre. Life was difficult. Moreover, we had night shifts. The bus journeys would be dangerous for women. With this training, I have developed hope and confidence. I know I can make something of my life.

S. Muthupandiammal, Kanuvai

I dream of setting up a tailoring shop at home. It will help me earn, look after my children and cook for the 19 members of my family. I come by bus every day to attend the workshop. It takes at least one hour for me to come to the institute. It was the councillor in my area who informed me about the free tailoring service at the institute. I used to work as a daily wage labourer. I could not feed my children with the money I got from that job.