The Kottapuram Integrated Development Society (KIDS) is empowering women’s groups economically by helping them craft attractive products from natural fibre

A handful of women are bent over their work in a long, wide hall. The doors and windows open out to sunshine, green and silence. Clicking of needles and the occasional banter of the women resonate. These women are giving finishing touches to some products, all made of natural fibre.

The Craft Based Resource Centre for Natural Fibre Craft at Poyya, near Kodungallur, the only resource centre for natural fibre craft in the country, helps in the development of women artisans working with screw pine and water hyacinth among other natural fibres.

Implemented by the Kottapuram Integrated Development Society (KIDS) established by the Diocese of Kottapuram, this society aims to ‘promote and coordinate the developmental and social welfare activities of the poor and marginalised’.

“The screw pine and water hyacinth craft project was part of the intensive effort to motivate the marginal groups, especially the women’s self-help groups. And we have been fairly successful,” says Rev. Dr. Nixon Kattassery, Executive Director, KIDS.

They got together women from Thrissur and Ernakulam districts and selected around 3,000 to form a cluster. “These women were organised under different governmental schemes as Self-Help Groups (SHGs). We conducted training sessions and divided them into broad groups depending on their skill sets. For some we allotted work like collecting the fibre, splicing it, work at the dyeing unit etc. For the artisans or designers we imparted training enabling them to learn how to make value-added products,” says Sarathkumar, coordinator, KIDS.

As someone rightly said when women thrive, society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. And this is exactly what has happened in the areas where KIDS centres operate. “We have five centres in Thrissur district and four in Ernakulam. There are around 10-20 women employed at each of these centres. So we have around 200 women employed directly and more than 2,500 indirectly engaged in this work. Those who work in the dyeing unit, or those who help in splicing the fibre earn anywhere between Rs. 3,000-4,000. The artisans earn, on an average, around Rs. 7,500-10,000. It has empowered women to look at the society and life much more confidently. The products have begun to find a firm market, fetching good prices and today a new generation of women is ready to learn this craft,” informs Nixon Kattassery.

Weaving mats with screw pine (thazha) is a traditional craft. “The traditional screw pine mats lost out to the cheaper plastic variant and this art was grinding to a halt till many centres like ours got into making other products out of this fibre. But, I think, our intervention into water hyacinth crafts was a turning point. This aquatic plant was an environmental hazard. It was blamed for clogging and flooding some areas. Creating products from water hyacinth is part of an environmental solution to a local problem, turning a pest into an asset,” adds Nixon Kattassery.

The research and development wing of KIDS has worked hard to find many ways in which water hyacinth can be used. “This natural fibre can be woven into making wall matting, door mats, cushions, hats, purses and more. We now blend it with other materials like coir, banana fibre, jute etc. We have added value to the products and they have a good market. Design experts have helped us and we have plans to try out new designs,” says Sarathkumar.

Supported by the Ministry of Textiles, KIDS has been able to promote natural fibre crafts and also help artisans gain a sustainable income. “We conduct regular skill up-gradation training, design development workshops and participate in exhibitions across the country. We have identity cards, health cards and scholarships for high school children of our artisans,” says Nixon Kattassery.

The resource centre at Poyya is equipped with a hygienic dyeing and drying facility, it has an effluent treatment plant, a museum for handicrafts, a compact auditorium, library with books, journals and reports on the craft. “We have regular visitors and teams who come here for training. With no board or corporation for the promotion of natural fibre in the country this centre assumes greater significance,” Nixon Kattassery adds.

The products marketed under the brand name ‘Gaya’ are sold through two outlets in the State – Muziris Emporium at Kodungallur and one at the Sargaalaya – Kerala Arts & Crafts Village at Iringal, Vadakara.

KIDS is now aiming for the export market. “Inclusion of screw pine crafts under the Geographical Indication Registry is certainly a boost for us and our efforts. We use dyes that are permitted in Western Europe and the United States. We have set strict quality control standards and we hope that we can make an entry into the export market soon,” says Nixon Kattassery.