This inspiring duo has been working with women’s groups in countries where work options for women barely exist. Now over 500 artisans in Central Asia work for Caravana applying traditional techniques to highly sought-after contemporary garments.
This lecture was recorded March 28, 2007.
Design quarter presentation at Powerhouse Museum
Kirsten Ainsworth and Cathy Braid, Caravana
28 March 2007
Chris Sumner: Good evening, everyone. Is the sound all right in the back’ Excellent. Thank you. I’m Chris Sumner. I’m Senior Curator of Decorative Arts here at the Powerhouse, and it’s my great pleasure to welcome you all to the first Design Quarter for 2007. At the end of the evening, I’ll tell you what else is in the wings for Design Quarter. Particularly, it’s my pleasure to welcome our speakers for tonight, who are Cathy Braid and Kirsten Ainsworth, standing beside me.
Cathy and Kirsten, as I’m sure you all know, are the principals and the inspiration for the fashion label, Caravana. Since 2003, for the last four years or so, they’ve been resident in Pakistan. The story of their journey in developing Caravana, hand-in-hand with the women embroiderers in Pakistan, is what I think they’re going to be talking about tonight. So I’m really looking forward to hearing them speak, as I know all of you are. Without further ado, I’ll let them tell their story because they’ll do it much better than I will. So welcome.
Kirsten Ainsworth: Cath and I met at boarding school at NEGS [New England Girls School] in Armidale when we were roommates there. And we remained in contact with each other over the next six years after finishing school. And Cathy went to study at East Sydney in Sydney, and then on to Central Saint Martins [College of Art and Design Foundation Studies] in London, and I did Communications at UTS [the University of Technology Sydney] here in Sydney.
Cathy Braid: We met up in Sydney in early 2003 and had lunch sharing university and travel tales. My experience in Pakistan with textiles had inspired me, but I needed a partner in crime. Over the next few months and many lattes, I persuaded Kirsten to come to Pakistan.
Kirsten: We started researching local market opportunities, discussing ideas and writing business plans. The dream was to start a fashion label with a conscience, working with local women artisans to create womenswear for women who want to wear something like no other. But a large question mark remained, and that was Pakistan. We needed to get on a plane and go there to see if it was viable.
In June 2003, final preparations were being made and my mother felt it was important to equip us both with the national dress worn by all women in Pakistan, the shalwar kameez. The outfit consists of a shawl and a baggy dress and baggy pants. She took us to buy a suit each so that we would feel comfortable as soon as we landed. The shalwar kameez available in Sydney are one size fits all, and they swam on both of us and they were made of polyester, boding trouble for the Pakistani summer we were about to fly into. They’re still known as the big lilac and the big green in our wardrobes.
Cathy: We boarded the plane with our life savings in an accessible bank account, three-month tourist visa in our passports, a laptop and a shalwar kameez. We had people waving us off at the airport, calling us to have a good time and a great adventure, and looking forward to seeing us in three months when we would return and settle down. We arrived in Islamabad in the middle of the night and it was searing hot. We drove to the only place we knew where the only people we knew were dozing, waiting for our arrival a young Australian diplomat and his wife working in the Australian High Commission.
The following three days in our shalwar kameez, our lilac and green sacks, we traipsed the markets of Islamabad buying adapters, converters, a mobile phone, and mosquito coils, anything that I remembered I would need, and what I couldn’t buy in Chitral. I started feeling like I should prepare Kirsten a little better for Chitral, and started telling her in detail about what to expect that we wouldn’t have hot water, that we wouldn’t be able to have a fridge in our house, that there would be no chocolate, or fish or ready-to-eat chicken available; they slaughtered it in front of you.
Three days later, we caught a ride with an Australian journalist who was travelling to Peshawar. It was a three-hour journey, and after two hours, there were no women to be seen, but the white, blue, grey ghosts sashaying along the roadside: women in burqas.
It was time to put our shawl on our heads. It had been only an accessory in Islamabad resting on our shoulders but now we had to wrap this two-metre by one-metre piece of polyester fabric around our heads with the aim of having it stay there.
I gave a lesson in putting on the dupatta. First, put it on the head, find the middle of the scarf, tuck it behind both ears and then wrap the left side over the right shoulder. We looked ridiculous but four years later it became second nature.
Kirsten: Peshawar is the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province [NWFP], which is proudly known as the wildest state of Pakistan. The province runs the length of the Afghan border on the west, houses the Himalayas in the north and the barren plains in the south. There are more than four languages spoken by 30 million people in the NWFP.
Peshawar is home to eight million, three million being Afghan refugees. NWFP is a very strict Muslim environment where women only leave their homes in the company of a male member of their family and they will not be seen in the company of men outside their own family. It has been heavily influenced by the Taliban.
We waved our Australian journalist friend goodbye and watched the only face from home disappear into the seething traffic and looked around. The street was full of men staring at us. We checked into a little hotel and booked our flight to Chitral. The following morning we were on a 36-seater plane flying over the most majestic mountains we’d ever seen. We swooped up with engines straining and passed a final mountain and then soon we swooped into a small valley with a river snaking through it.
We were met by a group of people Cathy knew from her previous trips here and were immediately taken to see three houses that were available for rent. We chose one and moved in that afternoon: a team of local boys carrying furniture donated from various people ‘ a chair here, a carpet here, a cushion there ‘ but no refrigerator. I was concerned about not having cold water but then I turned on the tap; the water was absolutely freezing coming straight from the mountains all around us.
Cathy: Wasting no time, we heard a knock at the door and Jan was there: A six-foot, fifty-year-old bearded smiling man with calluses on his forehead and feet from praying five times a day. He wanted work. I’d hired him to do some shopping, cleaning and making of tea the last time I was in Chitral but as he spoke no English it had been a lottery as to what he would buy in the bazaar for dinner.
We organised for his son to pop around and translate a number of important words from Khowar into English. He wrote them down and stuck them on the kitchen wall: tomato ‘ patingel; scorpion ‘ zingog; sweet ‘ dost.
The following six months we enjoyed settling into Chitral and Pakistan, and did very little work. We travelled extensively in the mountains, visiting hot springs, taking long hikes, camping, polo festivals, horse riding and shopping in the bazaars in the guise of inspiration.
Winter came and we travelled south to avoid the cold of Chitral until March, when our bank account reached a level that allowed only daily rations of dried chapatti, lemonade and coconut sweets. We realised we needed to do something.
Kirsten: We applied for the New Gen[eration] show at Sydney Fashion Week; and, working with four skilled women in the town, we designed and briefed four garments and traipsed the rabbit warrens and valleyways in the village to check on the progress of them for three weeks. We sent the pieces to Sydney Fashion Week organisers who choose six young designers to take part.
Soon after we had a phone call to let us know that we had to be in Sydney in three weeks’ time for the spring-summer collection to take part in a group show.
Our parents supported us with a loan for the sampling and the show costs and Thai sponsored our flights. Before we knew it we were at home, out of our shalwar kameez, in our jeans, standing backstage of our first show, fitting models, briefing dresses, making show bags, mixing music, printing programs and making price lists.
The first collection was welcomed by media as there was a nice story and the pictures were colourful. But we had to get on the phone and knock on doors to meet buyers. A month later we returned to Pakistan with orders for 12 boutiques in Australia with a mission to deliver in September.
Cathy: We returned to Chitral and sought the support of a local non-government organisation with experiences in managing wool and fabric-weaving artisans. Together we set up five embroidery centres throughout the town so women artisans could work together under a supervising manager to produce the goods.
The centres had been strategically placed on either side of a single main road, which divided the town, so women could access the centres without crossing the main road or bazaar. In Chitral, it had been forbidden for women to cross the main road, as this is the domain of men.
Women interested in working with us got permission from their husbands and fathers to join the centres nearest their homes. Their skill level was assessed by a manager and it was determined whether they were proficient enough to take the craft to their home to work. Training sessions were held in all centres to get women up to speed on stitches required for production, and production began. We visited centres daily to check on the work.
The centres are rented houses surrounded by high walls with a couple of rooms, around a central garden. Walking into a centre, often across fields, the sounds of women chattering, laughing and singing would increase and then burst as one walked through the gate. Women sit inside and out doing their work while socialising with their friends and children. It’s a very happy place to visit.
The process of embroidery has three steps: first is to finalise the design with colour on paper. Then the tracing outline is created, and this is used to trace the outline of the design onto the fabrics. The third step is the embroidery. The outline is done first, and then the filling work is done last.
Production was completed and delivered into stores. Clients were happy and we applied to be part of a group show in Melbourne Fashion Week. Approved, we started work on the second collection.
Kirsten: We had gone through our personal savings in the first six months of arriving and then borrowing from our parents to do sampling, pay for the show and do the production. Now we were facing something again and we needed money. We weren’t eligible for a bank loan, but there was an opportunity for me to work in Peshawar with the UN for two months and, thus, inject capital into the business. I rented a flat and moved to Peshawar. Cathy remained in Chitral to sample the first autumn/winter collection, which she would take alone to Melbourne to show in October.
Cathy: Drawing inspiration from Persian mosaics and carpets, Mogul art and architecture and traditional textile techniques, the result was a classic beautiful Boho collection featuring a number of fabrics which have since become signature textiles for the label: including the laborious all-over embroidery skirt which takes six weeks for one woman to make.
Kirsten: The response from the buyers was positive: Liberty in London and Villa Moda in the Middle East, and David Jones in Sydney placed orders.
Cathy: I returned to Pakistan to start production, knowing that the winter in Chitral is unforgiving.
Kirsten: I came home from work in Peshawar, and we both needed to renew our visas. A recurring issue we had was that we were only allowed to have tourist visas for the first year. These visas can be extended within Pakistan for three months, but after that, we had to leave the country and return in on a new visa. The Interior Ministry of the Pakistan Government advised us to travel to Afghanistan, rather than India because the political tensions with India would make our usual one-day process of getting a visa take up to six weeks.
Going by road was our only option as we were on a strict budget. But during that time, to go by road was a dangerous thing to do. So we went to the Afghan Consul to get a visa for Afghanistan. It’s a huge walled complex, which has hundreds of people waiting outside in a long line from its gate every morning. These are Afghan refugees who have no identification and they’re trying to get some kind of permission to cross back over and go back to Afghanistan.
We stood in a 100-long queue, but within a few minutes, we were plucked out by one of the guards and directed to a door, motioned to walk through huge velvet curtains. There was a tall, handsome bearded man, with an American accent sitting behind a huge mahogany desk. After some tea, and living up to the adage that Afghans are famous for their hospitality, he promised his diplomatic vehicle to drive us across the lawless tribal areas to the legal border crossing, where we would walk into Afghanistan.
We wanted to be back in Pakistan for New Year’s Eve. It was December the 29th.
Cathy: December 29th: We drove for an hour through the tribal areas, passed a sign that read ‘Foreigners are not permitted beyond this point’. The houses were all hidden behind 20-foot high walls, which are over one-metre thick. Gun turrets on every corner and Shariah flags flying on a pole from inside every compound. There was not a woman to be seen.
Then we reached the border. People were carrying their lives on trolleys across the border in both directions. Mattresses, buckets, grannies, goats, all strapped down and being wheeled across to a new fate. We walked across the border and hailed a taxi to Kabul, seven hours away. The landscape was punctuated with upturned tanks and deserted villages riddled with bullet holes.
Kirsten: Cathy was eyeing some crisps in Jalalabad bazaar and I could see she was hungry. I told her she had to get out of the car to buy them, but when she refused, saying she wasn’t hungry, I teased her about being scared. We drove on and bought some pomegranates further down the road.
Suddenly we saw a battery of American soldiers doing exercises by the road, rolling their tanks over the dunes and scampering out and shooting at practice targets. They were weighed down by heavy flack jackets full of magazines and automatic machine guns. And each had their name embroidered on the breast of their vest.
I got out my camera, rolled down my window, and started taking photographs. Suddenly, there was an American running towards our taxi. Our taxi driver was quaking in his seat, and stopped the taxi. And then a gang of five soldiers was surrounding our taxi firing questions about our identity, identification, where we were going, where we’d come from’
Cathy spilled pomegranate all over the back seat in an effort to get our passports out. They told us it was illegal to photograph military operations, took my camera, tried to remove the film, worried that maybe I would sell the photographs to Time or Hello and then they’d become targets.
I explained we were two girls going to Kabul, we needed to renew our visas, we’d been living in the mountains with local women and working on embroidery. I promised to destroy the photographs. They agreed, and we were on our way.
We arrived in Kabul late that night, tanks rolling around, and it was snowing, and we had nowhere to stay. We went to the Hotel Continental, which stands on top of a hill and looks down onto the city. It was once a five-star place, but after much bombing it’s now a shell of its former glory.
Cathy: The cost for a night is US$100. We had US$40 cash, and hoped to bargain the reception man down to our price. He told us there was no bargaining, so we handed over a credit card. He handed it back, saying there are no banks in Afghanistan, and credit cards were worthless. We gave him traveller’s cheques, and he handed those back, too, shaking his head.
We begged him to allow us to pay in the morning, and left him with a passport. The bellboy told us to ring reception if we needed a bucket of hot water to bathe.
Kirsten: December the thirtieth. In the morning, we trekked to the Pakistan embassy with relief that we’d be back in Pakistan by the end of that day. But they told us we would have to pay five times the price for the tourist visa. Extortion. We didn’t have the money. Cathy argued with him until she was blue in the face, and then we left, defeated.
We went to the illegal moneychanger’s bazaar in an attempt to change the so-called useless traveller’s cheques, the only way we were going to pay the hotel. Tens of boys ran to the windows of our taxi, with wads of notes the size of bricks tied to their jumpers, ready for business. I showed the traveller’s checks to a boy with a smile, and he led us through the throng of people across the bazaar to a small dingy plaza full of men sitting on the ground smoking and drinking tea.
I passed our only chance of getting out of Kabul to his greasy hand. He turned it over to one man’s greasy hand. He turned it over, and humphed, and offered us an extortionate exchange rate, which we agreed to. He made me sign five times on the front, five times on the back of the traveller’s cheques, and we walked away with the money.
Elated, we returned to the hotel, paid for our room, checked out, and sat in a bistro to work out how to solve the next problem: get the visa. We ignored stomach rumblings as the eight dollar buffet didn’t look as good as it cost.
We tried to call the only person we knew in Kabul, that was a British journalist. There were no local phones. All lines had been bombed or cut, and there were two mobile networks which didn’t call each other. We tried for four hours, and finally he picked up. Ten minutes later, he was in front of us, his hair all wild and woolly, old-fashioned helmet under his arm, and his Vespa waiting outside.
We went to his flat, ate something, and tried to call a friend of ours whose uncle is the Pakistani Consul in Jalalabad. We had confirmation that he’d give us a gratis visa. We could drive there tomorrow. It would take four hours, and we could be back in Pakistan by the evening.
That night, we slept on the living room floor, snowing outside with no heating.
Cathy: December 31st. The next morning.
Becoming more desperate to get back to Pakistan, we drove to Jalalabad. We were welcomed with open arms by our friend’s uncle, and we had tea. After the tea, his assistant returned and gave us our passports with gratis visas inside, and then put us in a taxi back to the border.
We arrived at the Afghan gate at 4:50pm, and walked the kilometre across to the Pakistan gate. It was 4:58 when we got there, but they had closed the gate. We begged the guards to let us through, and sang a song about how we loved Pakistan, and they laughed and opened the gate.
It was 7pm, New Year’s Eve and we got back to our Peshawar flat happier than ever to be there. The next day, on the email was an offer for two more months work in London, and I flew out again. Cathy went to Chitral to continue production.
Cathy: In March, I was ready to ship the goods, but the road was closed and I had waited 24 days for the flight to come, and the deadline was ticking and cancellations looming. I made the executive decision to cross the pass, hiring seven porters, buying 15 imitation Samsonite bags and packing all orders into the bags. The plan was to dress as a Chitrali woman in a burqa, and to be escorted by her husband who would answer any questions from inquiring authorities.
The pass was only open to locals, so I had to be convincing. In an effort to make my 5′ 9″ height a little closer to a Chitrali lady, the average height of 5′ 3″, I donned plastic shoes, bowed my head and took strides half-size to play the part. As we reached the border, my husband advised me that it would be possible to walk over the pass. So we changed the plan. Wearing jeans, Blundstone boots, no gloves, sunscreen or sunglasses, I hiked the five hours up and over the pass, in thigh-deep snow.
A trail of porters followed with suitcases strapped to their backs. At the top there was a tin shed with a man inside boiling hot water over people’s thawing frozen hands. Defrosted, I ran down the other side, jumped in a taxi and got to the DHL office in Peshawar to ship the goods to London, Sydney and Dubai. I returned to Chitral to sample the new spring/summer collection to be shown at Sydney Fashion Week in May 2006.
Kirsten: We were reunited in Sydney and showed the War Collection. Cathy having been inspired by the trip to Afghanistan and life in Chitral, embroidered opium poppies, grenades and tanks crawled over skirts, and featured our 12-foot high garden wall of our Chitral house with a naughty goat that used to sneak into our garden to eat from our pear tree. The domestic buyers and media loved the imagery and sales went well. We returned to Pakistan with money for production. We paid back our parents. My mother was handling the day-to-day issues in Sydney, and we felt we were moving forward.
Cathy: The six months living in different countries had taken its toll on the business. We spent the following four months managing production for the spring/summer, and focused on the next move for the label. We felt ready to do a solo show. We applied to Melbourne Fashion Week and were approved. We secured a PR agent in Sydney and got through the big production with a collection inspired by prints from the East.
After the solo show in Melbourne, we were keen to do something different for spring/summer. We did production over the winter with little hassle ‘ now having 10 centres of artisans in Chitral, and a number of suppliers further south, which lessened the dependence on the weather. Feeling the need to live somewhere less isolated, we moved the mobile Caravana office into a permanent space in Islamabad. A huge truck, packed to the rafters, arrived in Islamabad with hundreds of metres of hand-woven fabrics, buckles, buttons, tents, kilos of beads, yarns of elastic, trims, zips, hooks and irons. We sorted it all out and moved into the office.
Kirsten: April 2006 came around and we showed a very different collection. The garments were, for the first time, very light and delicate and featured embellishments that were new to us: metal embroidery; nail head studs and hand-woven silk and cotton fabrics with light quilting. We launched a bag range featuring our signature Caravana embroidery and inspired by local truck art, which we had been quietly working on for nine months. The panels were embroidered by women artisans and then stitched into the bags. The linings are hand block-printed using a hand-carved, wooden stamp, which is dipped into ink and then printed onto the lengths of the fabric.
The collection was heralded as a rebirth and we pushed on. Most promising was an agent who contacted us during the week and showed interest in signing us with two agents in Europe. We had to make a commitment to produce two extra collections in a year: that was the spring/summer to show in September and an autumn/winter to show in February. We were very keen to pursue this and sign the agreements. We were well aware that this commitment would stretch us to the limit, as creating two collections a year and having to manage all of our own production, on the ground, it is a very time-consuming operation.
We committed to doing the fall collections for the next year and handed over the sales to agents. We were able to focus on creating new collections and managing the production of goods. We did spring/summer production and delivered into stores and travelled to India for two months to create the first sample collection for Europe. It was influenced by new fabrics and techniques at our fingertips: delicate chiffons, linens, hand printing and metal appliqué. Presented to buyers through our agents in London and Milan for two months, we secured orders for stores in Europe, the States and Japan.
Cathy: We’ve been so lucky to have such an adventure.
Kirsten: And it’s with the support of our families and friends that we have been able to do these things.
Cathy: If anyone had rubbed a crystal ball and told either of us that we would be driving to Kabul in a battered old taxi in the snow at the age of 27….
Kirsten: What’s around the corner is always a surprise.
Chris: There is time for us to…. Cathy and Kirsten have agreed to answer any questions if you have any. Has anyone got any questions you would like to ask’ About the collection’s future’ Yes. Down there.
Question: You know the little drawings like the teapot and the birds and the music coming out. Did you guys do those drawings or did you let the women do those drawings for the design’
Kirsten: No, we do all the design. The way that people in this area look at textiles and the colours that they use are very bright often fluorescent and acrylic and they have their own style. We design the pieces and then the women do all the work. The women are amazingly adaptable. We can show them things and they will try it and go for it and experiment which makes a big difference so we can get those results.
Question: When you employ the women, do you employ them directly and pay them directly or do you have to use some men as your intermediary’
Cathy: We work through an NGO and through AKRSP, which is Aga Khan Support Program. So, the way that we were introduced to the women initially was through this organisation. It started off with one family ‘ the women involved in that first family ‘ and it was a very big learning curve for both of us. We didn’t really know how much each piece was worth for them to do or vice versa.
It was a case of trial and error, really, in the beginning but it was certainly us dealing directly with the women in the beginning. Now it’s a case of going through the NGO and having a lady supervisor who speaks to a centre supervisor, who is also female and they negotiate the price now and then come back to us and give us the price .
Kirsten: One thing that’s happened with that NGO which is also something that we are quite proud of is the NGO is now a self-sustaining business in itself, so it takes a cut of the production money that goes into the community ‘ to these artisans. And in that way, it has become a business. So, it is no longer funded by international, sometimes intermittent funding. It’s self-sufficient, which is fantastic.
Question: Has this made a huge difference to the lives of the women that are doing this work’
Cathy: The women were always supported by their families because in Pakistan there isn’t social security like there is in Australia. So, the extended family is very, very important. So you’ll have the grandparents and the brothers and sisters living in one house with the brothers’ wives moving over and living with them also in that household. So you might have a number of different men contributing to the salary. Through the work that we were doing, you will have a case of the women being able to contribute to the household kitty. That’s how it works.
But it has changed. I always thought that it would be a case of’. there would be some sort of backlash, a negative backlash to it, that they wouldn’t be happy about. You know, the women, their roles slowly changing, bringing money to the household. But it really has been embraced.
Question: Is it the women who traditionally do the embroidery in Pakistan’ I did visit a workshop in Mumbai and it was men. And I was told that they’re Muslim men, and they were a group that stayed together and did the embroidery. So the question is did you choose because they were the ones with the skills or because you wanted to actually work with women’
Cathy: Just with the embroidery, there’s two particular techniques that they used. One is done by men, which is on those larger frames with the hook, and that’s where you see the more traditional dresses and also in India with the saris and things like that where they’re putting beads and using gold thread and things like that. So, but with the embroidery that we were doing, the women were using smaller frames and they had always done that in their homes. And so, they had been traditionally done using this technique using crossstitch, that’s a traditional stitch of women. And the stitching that we’re doing is also tradition with the women. There’s different techniques with men and women.
Question: Do you only work with women or…
Kirsten: Yeah, we do work with men as well. Because the crafts are divided by the sexes, usually something that’s more physically rigorous and dirty is done by the men. So weaving of the fabrics is done by the men, because to use a big loom, it’s very athletic and energetic, and the women do smaller, intricate work.
Question: Can I just ask how the communities and how the women and their extended families feel about the finished product’ Do they they find it quite amusing’
Cathy: Yeah, there was one case of… when we were doing the Qissa Khawani bazaar story which has… things like that, Qissa Khawani means storyteller, so this is the storyteller bazaar, a lot of people have been to…. are you taking us back to it’ [to Cathy ‘ about the Powerpoint presentation]
Kirsten: Yeah, trying to.
Cathy: It’s got pictures of like, a horse and a cart and a donkey and then you’ve got like telephone wires and things like that, so that’s an actual place. Some of the ladies had been there. And they were very amused by, oh, that’s what that is, and that’s what that is, that’s what that is, you know, because it’s from, you know, where they come from. You can see that there.
And then they… but there was case of… it also had a mosque in there because you do see mosques with the minarets and things like that… so the ladies were happy to do the embroidery and they didn’t say anything to me when they pleated the skirt, the first sample skirt.
But then when I took it to the tailors to stitch the skirt up they said, “Well, we can’t stitch this up.” And I said, “What’s the problem'” And they said it’s sacrilegious to have the mosque on here and I was just like, “Oh I didn’t realise that” so then I had to change it to a Mogul style building and take the minarets off.
Question: But what about’ do they ever see the finished product modelled, for example, and does that see very farfetched for them because it’s culturally so different’
Cathy: Yeah. We showed them the Foreign correspondent video and also because where they saw each other on there, not that they could understand… oh, they could understand the Khowar section when they were speaking but then all of the English subtitles or anything like that, they didn’t understand.
It is another world though, a completely another world. Some houses do have satellite TV now and they watch a lot of Indian channels. So that’s quite similar to how it is for them, so’..
Question: Is your production still in Chitral’
Question: So, how is that working with you guys in Islamabad and all the production being done up there. Are you guys backwards and forwards all the time or it’s running really smoothly’
Cathy: [laughs] The objective of moving from Chitral down to Islamabad was to step away from what was happening… step away from the situation with the organisation we were working with so that they could stand on their two feet because, if we’re still there it’s, you know, you are always going to be there and you’re always going to, you know, “OK! No, you need to do it this way, you need to do this way,” instead of letting someone go off and be responsible for it.
So, even now, we’re still getting calls, you know, “We need this box of 903”, you know, “907 paper” and we’re just like, “You’ve got to take care of it. We’re not going to take care of it. You need to be responsible for it and go and speak to the supplier, get the materials up there, organise it.” And also for us, our own sanity, moving down to Islamabad, so it’s a case of now sending everything by courier, which is still a nightmare because in the winter the pass is closed.
So the only way to access it is via Afghanistan and so I’m speaking to one of our suppliers on the phone, “Look guys you’ve got to organise a boy in Peshawar, someone that can go up to Chitral via this border, take a package up and bring it down, that’s the thing.’ So I mean it happens but it’s all very slow. Yeah.
Question: And the work you’ve been doing in India is that through the same NGO’
Cathy: No the work in India, it was all through manufacturers, and it’s very different from how we work in, it’s very different from how we work in Chitral. The whole process is much more… you’re separated from it much more than being there working directly with the women. You’re working through a middle man who then in turn deals with other people. So you don’t really know what the situation is, yes.
Question: Are these women aware of what these garments are retailing for’
Kirsten: Because there is such a huge difference in the cultures I think it’s very difficult to get the message across on what this garment is from. They’ve worked on it with their children sitting on their knees, you know, making the dhal over the open fire, and then it actually goes down a runway. They’ve seen photographs, they’ve seen stories in newspapers, things like that.
And the reason that they know it’s special, that it’s in the newspaper – is our excitement. You know, like they… they’re reflecting our enthusiasm for something we’re showing them. The women are actually really empowered now. Women have chosen to set up little stores where they make tea for the other women in the centres.
So there’s a woman in every centre, of the ten centres, whose husband is a shopkeeper in the bazaar and he can buy crisps and Pepsi and milk at really cheap prices and so she’ll set up a little store and she’ll be selling to the other ladies and you… it’s.. so that, this entrepreneurial spirit that they have is… is something spectacular and they are… they are very empowered in the way they value their time, so that, you know, we have three women make a sample, and, three very experienced women, and then they sort out how much it costs.
Cathy: So it’s a case of like, I mean, they know, I mean, as far as how much their work is worth. They won’t accept work if it’s not at a certain price. Which is the same situation that is happening with the NGO, when we first came there, and were working with the woollen artisans ‘ educating the women on how much their time is worth, how much their skill is worth, how much this product is worth.
And it’s a unique thing as opposed to down in other parts of the country where you’ll buy things in Islamabad, that you just know, especially with embroidery, that’s taken that long, this is how much this is worth, taking materials and the middle man and the retailer into the equation. The women must be only getting only this much per day for the amount of work that’s in it. So, the women in Chitral would refuse to do that work.
Kirsten: The problem with that as well though is that they won’t do work for the domestic market, because they get paid a premium wage from us. So they… they are exclusive now and they won’t do things for the national market, which is a double-edged sword, you know. Yeah.
Question: Two questions. Is the stitching done by women or by men’ And the other question, how much of the year do you spend in Pakistan’
Cathy: All the tailoring, I think that’s what you mean by stitching, is done by the men. Yeah, we have group in Islamabad that we work with for the sampling. Then we have a manufacturing group we work with down in Karachi.
Kirsten: Yeah, it is all done by men.
Cathy: And then it is pretty much ten months of they year that we are in Pakistan.
Question: Why did you choose Pakistan’ Is that because of their type of embroidery or is it your ideology that took you there’ Why’
Cathy: Well I went, the first time, across to Pakistan at the end of 2000 and it was to look at the work of this NGO to do with the woollen fabric. So as part of my course I was coming across to have a look at labour laws, and Western philosophy labour laws on Eastern culture, so it was at the time when you had a big gap, like the gap manufacturing happening in Asia. There was kind of like, “Well, these people are being exploited.” Dah dah dah dah dah. So I was trying to contrast with a nice project that had the objective of empowering women and that sort of thing. So that is why I first went there.
Then after that I went back again to do my final year collection and thought there is a huge future potential here. Went back again and then September 11 happened so it didn’t seem like the right time to do it. When I was in Australia, it was just hooking up with Kirsten because she’d worked in India and travelled around India to try to find someone who I knew could handle living in a place like Chitral and living in Pakistan.
Even though India and Pakistan are very different, but I knew she could handle it. So that’s how it all came together and that is why Pakistan.
I mean it was the last place I wanted to go. It was just kind of like….you know it’s not on your top ten list where you want to see.
Kirsten: It’s on your top ten list not to go.
Cathy: But, a surprising, amazing, beautiful, just so unexpected and because not many tourist go there, I think that’s one of the really special things about it.
Question: When you started off, when you went there first, did you have a vision of how big it was going to get, like this, and did you get overwhelmed when you thought about all the different systems and organisation of all these people that you would have to have now’
Kirsten: You just have to break it down into what is manageable. Cath’s got a really good attitude of… there’s no point in getting worked up about things. That’s a really helpful attitude to have in a place like Pakistan. They have no idea about time and they have a very different idea about quality. So, to just deal with what you can at that moment saves you. Just taking every step and doing what you need do at each step. Sometimes it’s really difficult to think in the future and try and imagine where we need to be and what we need to do because that can be overwhelming.
Question: So you just learn, one step”.
Kirsten: We so learnt along the way. Yeah.
Cathy: It was very much like ‘ the first thing that Kirsten and I did was like a series of smaller pieces that were these really dodgy looking bags. You can’t believe how bad they were. It cost us something like $2,500 dollars to go into this trade fair in Sydney, so we sent them back to Kirsten’s mum. Kirsten’s mum, bless her, was at this store with these awful products.
And then we were calling up and asking, “How’s it going'” like every two hours and she would be having to give us the bad news: ‘Nobody’s bought anything’. So we went away and didn’t even break even on the expense of going into this first thing. That was it. So, that was a big learning curve.
It was a case of the New Gen, Kirsten and I, she said, “No. We’re not ready. We’re not ready. We’re not going to do it.”
And I was just like, “We have to do it. We have to do something.” It was very much just going for it. It’s on such a big platform. It’s not like we’re just knocking on a few doors in boutique and saying, “Well, do you like this'” And then going slowly, slowly like that. Particularly because ‘ yeah, that was quite scary.
Kirsten: That’s what it’s all about, I think ‘ just going for it. We’ve been so lucky we have someone to bail us out if we get in trouble. If we couldn’t afford a flight back to Sydney. I know that our parents would put the money in the bank account. We could buy one and get on the plane and come back. It’s just a reassurance in your mind, but then what the hell’ And when you’re in a country where no one knows you, and you’ve got nothing to lose, no one knows what you’re doing. If you fall flat on your face, no one’s seen it. You just get yourself up and just keep going.
Cathy: I think after that, a big thing that really helped was a journalist that was in Pakistan at the time. He writes for the [Sydney Morning Herald] Good weekend, and there was an article in the Good weekend called ‘Two of us’. And that made such a big difference because when you’re calling up the boutiques after the show saying, “Can I come and show you some of our products,” you would get like, “Well, oh, you’re the girls from that Caravana story. You’re the girls from Pakistan. Yeah, yeah, come and show us that stuff. Come and show your stuff,” which is as opposed to, “Oh, send us a look book,” and they never get back to you. That made a huge difference just to put the product in front of the buyer and let them have a chance to look at it and take it from there.
Question: Having worked in Pakistan for four years, what sort of responsibility do you feel towards the local economy in Chitral’
Cathy: That’s one of the reasons that we continue to work in Chitral. Because we’re doing a fashion product, we have to change the product. It has to keep new. You have to keep doing something new from season to season. So, we look into making the collection and adding to the collection by working with suppliers down in Karachi, working with suppliers in India, to diversify the product, because there’s only certain things that can be done in Chitral. There’s only certain things that the women can do.
So what we decided, with the bag range that we would do, that we would use the skills of the women with this particular technique, the all-over embroidery technique, for that collection and keep using it so that we can continue to use this skill base and continue to produce these types of products. And also because you’re just sending up rectangles for the embroidery to be done. So it’s simplified it down for the NGO that we’re working with, that they don’t have to think, they don’t have to make however many skirts from sizes eight through to 14 and do it in this timeframe and get it down to us. It’s a much more manageable process for them to take care of.
Kirsten: We do have a commitment to them. That’s why we stayed there.
Question: How did you overcome language barriers and different cultural views’
Cathy: Well, Kirsten’s much better with the language front than I am. And I would struggle with it a lot more than she would. The conversations that you would end up having were all the same, particularly if it was, “Hi, how are you'” and “How long until this is ready'”
Kirsten: “That stitch isn’t straight. Pull that out, that’s rubbish. I don’t want that. I’m not paying for that. Do these again. That colour’s wrong.” It does all get the same.
Cathy: And then just questions about the family and colours, so we’ve got a certain amount of expressions that we can use. And then if other things come up, we look blankly, unless there’s a child nearby that might have a few English skills that can translate.
It’s also a confidence thing, because a lot of people have learned English at school but then they haven’t had a lot of chance speaking it. Just that practice, they’ve really come up. There’s always someone there to translate though. It’s not like China. I think China would be a lot more difficult. But in Pakistan it’s certainly been manageable.
Question: Can I just ask about the materials you use’ Are they all locally produced’ In the future are you interested in organic cottons and making your business not only for the economy sustainable but for the environment as well’
Kirsten: Yeah, absolutely. We do make choices in regards to the environment where we can. The fabrics that we make are all hand-woven and hand-loomed so we’re not using machines there. And we choose organic dyes when we can. It’s all hand labour so you’re not using electricity. Organic cotton would be wonderful but it’s finding a reliable supplier of top quality stuff. That’s the age-old question, the problem that we have.
Products cannot travel from India into Pakistan because of the problems, the political tension. So that really means that we get certain products, a lot of them, and others, none at all. So it’s very difficult to find top quality chiffon, and we get that from China. But the best stuff’s in India, but we can’t get that. But it’s all about compromise, and working within the parameters that you’ve got. We’d definitely love to work with organic cotton, and it’s just doing some research and finding out about it. I know it’s super hot right now. So yeah.
Cathy: Also with the worker supply down in Karachi that does it. Their objective is to use the hand, the natural dyes, to rejuvenate the craft of block printing. And it’s with the work that they do, it’s a bit of a fine edge because we’re trying not to be too herbal hippy but you still have got to create a fashion product, so it’s using these materials, but still doing it in a very fashionable way.
Chris: Any more questions – let’s say one more’
Question: I just had two questions. Just in terms of the team and what sort of experience did you bring to it, and how does that work’ Like is one the designer, or one administration’ And also do you think with the women and is there is any goal of them being self-sustainable away from the fashion label’ I just wonder what are your plans for the future’
Kirsten: Yeah, the first bit. Cath studied at East Sydney and Central St Martins, so it’s six years learning how to be a designer and studying design. She’s definitely the designer and I did communications so that’s just a whole lot of waffle really.
I’ve worked in PR and journalism and so when we came to this together it was interesting. Before we had the business, to run the business which was going to be my job, Cath was doing the designing and it was difficult, until the business actually became a business. And now the business is a business, Cath does the design and I run the business. And it works well because we cross over really well creatively and share ideas. In an environment like that you do need to share ideas. Make sure that you’re on the right track and, and not going a little bit mental. So yeah, that’s how the partnership works.
Cathy: And the second one was…oh yeah. It was about the future and the women being sustainable. Now this is something that I think is’. working with development and working in a region like Chitral, which is cut off six months of the year. And trying to work with’ the reason that we came down to Islamabad is to get the organisation we work with to stand on their own two feet.
And it’s their responsibility to get to broaden their horizons with the market that they’re in, to get new clients. That’s a big learning curve for them.
Kirsten: Which they’re doing.
Cathy: Yeah. You know, it’s something that takes a long time. It’s also changing them from being an NGO, which is a bottomless pit of money. Which is something that you have funding for this project for three years, then you get an extension. And then you change the project so that it’s running for another however many years.
And it’s not a small amount of money, you know’ It’s enough to buy, you know, Land Cruiser vehicles to drive around in and office space and to pay salaries of $800 a month to management staff. So if you’re turning something into a business which is what we’ve done with the work in Chitral. You can’t take this Land Cruiser vehicle and this box of thread down to the centre.
Kirsten: Without being accountable for it.
Cathy: Yeah, without someone having to pay for it. Oh well, the project will pay for it. Well now the project’s not going to pay for it now, so who’s going to pay for it’ So you know changing that mentality is very, very difficult.
Kirsten: The organisation that we’re working with is now a self-sustainable entity, has become a public company. So it’s taken its funds, divided it up into 10,000 shares and the women have the option of buying the shares. And so every three months they will either get dividends, they’ll get paid dividends or not. So that it’s in their interest to be working for that now newly formed company. And to work hard and to do a good job and then they’ll extra money four times a year. So I think that’s a really nice way of making it self-sustainable. And that sense of ownership that the women have over their work and over their products.
Cathy: But again it’s something that ‘ and this goes back to the section of things that has to do with the woollen fabric ‘ that they are producing. But because you’re in a place that doesn’t have a lot of tourists and after September 11th I think you were already looking at about 50 people that went to Chitral in that first year after September 11th.
I think it was at the peak time around 2000 people. So as opposed to India, where you would have’. you know, the artisan can be the entrepreneur, and be on the street and sell their wares at this market or whatever it might be. Or they’ve got access; I was so surprised at Jaipur, how many foreigners go into Jaipur to purchase homewares, I mean to purchase these kinds of things and they just don’t have that there. And so, linking the entrepreneur to the market, is a very, very difficult thing. It’s completely different to what it’s like in India. So it just takes time.
Question: I just wanted to get a sense of how many pieces are being made each season… and exported each season’
Cathy: That varies greatly. Some pieces are definitely more successful than others. We wouldn’t make more than a 100 pieces per style. Because it just, the price point at the end of the day is something that not everybody can afford ‘ these pieces that are quite labour-intensive. So it’s not mass market. It’s very boutique.
And also the being able to produce certain quantities – we just wouldn’t be able to produce more than a certain amount – at this time it’s just not manageable.
Chris: Thank you very much Cathy and Kirsten, and that was a really fantastic account of what it’s like to realise a vision. And I was very taken with your comment that you’ve just got to get up and go….. And do it. I applaud your courage and your commitment to the vision. And I’d like to ask you all to join me in thanking them Cathy Braid and Kirsten Ainsworth