Payment in Rupees or Flour?

Employment / Work Place Culture / Social Enterprise

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Whether its the group of older women waiting in the same spot in town for daily adhoc cultivation work or the 19year old supermarket security guard who takes my hand and chats each time I buy groceries, its difficult to resist offering jobs on a daily basis. I know that for AMMA to have long term sustainable impact we need to grow steadily ensuring that we have enough work for our current employees of which their are three + a manager + two on maternity leave + me (founder, Josie.)

Its important to me that AMMA develops a culture of respect, equality and empowerment amongst our team. This means challenging some cultural tendencies like gossipy chit chat and social standing (example: we now have both an indoor and outdoor toilet in our new workshop and I had to make the point that everyone is allowed to use the indoor one.) My longing for AMMA is that we will be able to provide jobs to many women who live on Sri Lanka's tea estates, and in addition to this provide life skills classes tackling some of the social issues prevalent in the area. We are developing the curriculum in partnership with Tea Leaf Trust (www.tealeaftrust.com) who have seen their 12 step emotional health program result in a dramatic drop in self harm and suicide amongst their alumni. 

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This week both of our pregnant mothers are due to give birth. We were informed that one of them was in hospital with some minor complications so over tea break we decided to finish work an hour early and visit her in hospital. The following day two of our mothers returned to the hospital to see how she was doing. I found this so encouraging, that the friendship they had built working at AMMA and walking to work everyday together has resulted in the support they were giving to each other. I feel really proud that these young women (23-26years) work at AMMA. 

AMMA is a social enterprise which means we operate as a for profit business but one which exists for the benefit of society and the environment. Once we start to turn a fair profit we will reinvest that back into the local community. Its a tension knowing when to react in times of need like in a recent situation where one of our mothers' kitchen roof collapsed and when to step back and focus on providing a fair wage, supportive community and good working conditions. In this case we decided to act, and with the help from people in both Sri Lanka and abroad we raised Rs 80,000 (£400) to fix her roof and build a washroom. 

Living in the rural highlands is teaching me each day about the realities and complexities of daily life living on Sri Lanka's tea estates. Truths which I never would have discovered operating from a distance. For example, hearing this week that tea estate workers have been paid this month in flour and tea powder, as they had an advance payment over the New Year. Maybe the tea management need some life skills classes too, they are always welcome to join.

Josie 

 

 

 

 

Wellbeing + Workspace: For the Love of Light

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Last month marked one year of the AMMA workshop being open, and this month saw us move into our new space and out of our little damp garage. We also welcomed some new members to the AMMA staff team, Veni, Kogila and our new workshop manager Meena, who has taken to the dyeing like a superstar and I couldn't be more thrilled. 

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Moving workshops has got me thinking about the importance of space, environment & workplace and how it effects our creativity and wellbeing. When we were in the damp garage I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible, setting up a dye space in my house to work from home in the afternoons. I found it impossible to think creatively in that space, I needed to turn up knowing exactly what we needed to achieve and if anything went wrong I had to step outside to try and find the solution. I noticed that I valued AMMA a lot less than was deserved, purely because I knew the reality of what daily work was like. Creating something beautiful within uninspiring walls is difficult 

Our new workshop reflects where AMMA is at now. It has a dye room big enough to scale up our process and dry white walls to hang our samples on. Its a space which we look forward to holding classes in, and one where I can feel inspired and proud of. We have a sewing room, a cutting room and a room which we are renting out to our friends 'Cloud Forest' who run a mushroom growing social enterprise. 

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The damp garage was a humble beginning but knowing what we achieved in that space has got me fired up for what can be achieved  in our new workshop. We've gone from squeezing past each other to each having a rooms fit for purpose. It means we can provide more jobs to women living on Sri Lanka's tea estates and I wait in anticipation for the day that the number of mama's in this space means we are squeezing past each other again. 

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Wellbeing and workspace are tightly woven, especially so in a creative business. Suddenly our A4 ruled attendance book looks a bit crap on our freshly painted walls, so I replaced it with a printed version. Our hastily put together storage unit looks unthoughtful and insufficient so when the funding comes in I'll replace it will wooden shelves. Its given me a good prod being in charge of creating a space worthy of reflecting AMMA and I've realized its a welcome challenge. 

Tea + Garments: The Fashion Revolution

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This week is Fashion Revolution week, a week that marks the 5 year anniversary of the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse where 1138 people were killed. Fashion revolution is a movement made up of people working in the fashion industry- "we are the people who wear clothes. And we are the people who make them." The fashion revolution vision is this, "We believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure".

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I have been thinking this week about where AMMA comes into it, and its taken me all week to come to a working conclusion. 

AMMA was started to be an example to the fashion and textile industry as an alternative way of production. To pay proper wages, provide a safe working environment and flexible working hours for mothers with young children. With our focus on developing natural dyes from food waste, plants and flowers, environment has always been central to our ethos. Along with this we are working really hard to make our supply chain traceable and as local to Sri Lanka as possible. Our most recent step being working with a cooperative of women weavers in the North of Sri Lanka to produce the raw fabric which we will then dye here in Nuwara Eliya. However, there is still so much we need to do, and as a social enterprise that has only been operating for 1 year, i know it'll take time to reach the standards we aim for. 

So, i've been wrestling with where AMMA stands.

Firstly; Like i mentioned above we still haven't met our desired ethical standards in regards to a transparent supply chain. 

Secondly; We don't make clothing and although we make small accessories with the majority of our income coming from orders, (which we are very grateful!) I see this more as work to get AMMA running sustainably, covering costs whilst we grow into a brand producing our own products. And ultimately i am very thankful and happy with this way of operating as we are paying wages and learning on the job which has bonded us as a team and has meant AMMA could launch with minimal financial backing. 

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However, whilst thinking about AMMA in the context of the fashion industry and its impact I was reminded that currently 40% of the mothers we employ have worked in garment factories. In one case the factory was 5 hours from her home, and she was boarding aged 19/20. We get mothers from local garment factories asking for work, saying if a vacancy comes free at AMMA they will quit and come instantly. 

40% of the mothers we employ have worked in garment factories.

All this has surprised me, when starting AMMA I was expecting to employ women who had previously worked in the tea industry, although this is still true and all the mothers we employ live in estate accommodation it looks like for the younger generation, garment work is more appealing than tea work. This could be down to the higher starting wage, and the leech and snake free working conditions. However, the reality of garment work is tough with many women experiencing sexual harassment and having to live a long distance from their children and family. 

I recently spoke to a worker from a local garment factory who told me that the turnover of employees is really high, this is a factory that makes garments for M&S and Next. When the need for employment in the area is huge it makes me wonder why so many women leave so quickly after starting. 

So to conclude i feel like it is important for small start ups like AMMA to speak out and support Fashion Revolution week, although our impact may be small, and not yet where we want to be, AMMA works directly with women 'who have made your clothes' and its only fair and just for their voices to be heard. 

Josie x

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Why, Sri Lanka?

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I often get asked why Sri Lanka? As a British 26 year old woman married to an Indo - Welsh man,(work that one out!) many people's first question when they hear about AMMA is "Why Sri Lanka?"  

I thought I'd unpack some of our journey, answer that question and hopefully reveal how AMMA came into being. 

My (Josie) first connection to Sri Lanka was in 2010, i came for 3 months to live with a woman who has now become a treasured friend, and volunteered for Child Action Lanka- a local NGO based in Kandy. Those 3 months really impacted me and defined the years following. I returned to Wales and did my art foundation, my first project was a screen printed wall hanging dyed with and about the tea making process in Sri Lanka.

 Woven piece using naturally dyed yarn. 

Woven piece using naturally dyed yarn. 

 Screen print inspired by Batticaloa, east coast.

Screen print inspired by Batticaloa, east coast.

I then miraculously got offered a place at Central Saint Martins to study Textile Design. I remember my interview perfectly and the focus was on a page in my portfolio with images from my trip to Sri Lanka and a trip to Burkina Faso in which I explored the textiles native of those countries. That thread kept running throughout the three years of my degree,. In one project titled 'A place of belonging', I returned to Sri Lanka with my now husband Warren and spent time in Killinochchi and Batticaloa and these places became the focus of my woven work in which I experimented with natural dyes for the first time. The images below are examples of my degree show work.

 Hand Woven + Dyed Lambswool blankets, 

Hand Woven + Dyed Lambswool blankets, 

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AMMA first developed as an idea when my treasured friend in Sri Lanka asked if I would be interested in starting a social enterprise with a group of mothers in Nuwara Eliya. At this point I had just graduated and six months later myself and my husband returned to Sri Lanka to trial the idea. It was then followed by months of fundraising, making and sharing ideas with friends and family back in the UK. This lead to some key moments, when we had returned to the UK. Sri Lanka felt a long way off, as did our experience of working with the mothers in the highlands. Trying to convey this to the people we loved back home was difficult. Trying to convince them that this was a good thing to do was even harder. Myself and my husband are financially supported by friends and family from the UK, (some we know well and some we don't) all these people believe that AMMA has a future, and that investing in social enterprise and job creation is the best way to end poverty. Thats an encouraging statement to wake up to everyday, and one I need to keep remembering. 

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Those key moments; the first was sitting with a close friend in a London coffee shop, she's graphic designer and thinks in a way I never could. She pulled our experience and ideas apart and then pieced them back together. 'AMMA' came out of that conversation, and she doodled our logo whilst at work a few weeks later. 

Another was discovering Joyn India. I watched a video series on their process and life and knew then that we had to live in the highlands amongst the mothers and families that we worked with. At the time I was finding ways to live in the city close to our friends and manage AMMA from there, but it was at this point I knew that it would never become what I envisioned it being. So we had to swim in the deep or nothing. 

Along with those moments there have been many more defining AMMA altering decisions and wise words. Writing this I realize that I want to encourage anyone reading to muster up the courage to seek within you what it is that your heart, soul and body call you to do. March has been a shit month for us. Stuff happens and you have to keep going but it dosen't overshadow all the good, another thing to remind myself of! Whatever it is that your whole being longs for, it'll be harder than you expect but you will also realize that you are a hell of a lot tougher that you thought too. 

 "Why Sri Lanka?". Its been a long journey with this country and maybe i could have picked any country to visit at 18 and that would have lead me on a similar path, but it just happened to be here. Its just what happened. 

Josie x

 

Behind the Harbour Blanket...

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Our online shop is live! Hooray. Its taken us a while to produce a collection of products that we're proud of, and feel reflects AMMAs simple aesthetic. To celebrate this occasion, (we've learnt to celebrate the small things here at AMMA) - we are going to take a look into the process of producing some of our products, and the thought behind them. 

Introducing The Harbour Blanket.

We had been thinking and exploring the idea of throws/blankets/quilts for a while and nothing really worked. May it be the size, colour or composition- the harbour blanket has evolved from a lot of trial and error. 

Made from two layers of finely woven cotton which was then dyed using eucalyptus leaf for the front piece and nelli fruit for the back. Both these plants have high levels of natural tannins which act as a natural mordant and bond well to the cotton fabric. They have become our favorite and most reliable dye plants and thankfully we are in no short supply with the vast eucalyptus forests surrounding our workshop and the popularity of nelli fruit both for eating and for its medicinal benefits used in Ayurvedic medicine. 

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The Harbour Blanket is then made up of a patchwork of AMMA colours. The beauty behind this blanket is that nothing goes to waste. Natural dyeing takes time and a lot of care, so to discard quality pieces of fabric dyed with donated produce isn't an option. 

After a lot of deliberation about where each piece of coloured cloth should be placed, our mother maker star seamstress Priya then stitched it. 

 

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The harbour blanket is then lovingly embroidered using naturally dyed cotton yarn to give it a beautiful texture. This takes many hours and aching hands, but we think the finished effect is worth it, & it gives us the opportunity to employ more mothers and hand out more salaries which is what we are all about. 

Named "harbour" because blankets have always provoked a sense of security and shelter, which is what we hope AMMA has become for the mothers we employ. It is also the feelings in which we hope this blanket will provoke to the person who places it in their home. 

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- Two weeks spent at AMMA -

[This guest blog has been written by Sascha Pare. Sascha spent a few weeks with us working in our Nuwara Eliya workshop, the mums loved her being around and the following words express her experience.] 

The AMMA workshop is a little wonder, hidden away amongst the leeks flourishing in the vegetable patches this time of year. A visitor would step into a world of bubbling pots of water brewing with madder root or eucalyptus leaves, a rich tangy smell hovering in the air, the hammering of sewing machines overheating under a confident woman’s hands and the purr of the washing machine whirling colourful fabric around. It’s a small room for the number of things going on at once, the atmosphere is balmy and cheerful.

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It’s astounding how many shades can be extracted from food waste. The process is lengthy and unpredictable and Josie quickly realised that giving out colour samples for customers to chose from was a promise bound to go unkept, but what a pleasant surprise when an expected grey turns out taupe! Josie tried out carrot tops this week, which gave out a vibrant green, and here lies the beauty of respecting nature’s swings.

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On the ‘to do’ list written out in the workshop is a set of 100 golden turmeric pouches for the Wunder Workshop, a food brand selling everything turmeric based in London. The process started last week with the making of the bright yellow drawstrings, and Josie is now waiting for the AMMA labels to be printed in Colombo before the serious sewing begins. In the meantime, the focus has shifted to embroidery, a task I have become enthralled with. We came up with the idea of embroidering the fruit, vegetable or plant used to dye the fabric on the finished product so I have been practising stitching avocados and nelli berries at home. The result, Josie and I agreed, is very sweet indeed. Besides the embroidery being adorable, who doesn’t want to know the exact recipe for the dye used on their scarf? On my last day at AMMA, the mothers stitched pomegranate after pomegranate, hardly pausing even at tea time, to perfect their embroidery.

From what I have seen these past weeks, AMMA seems ready to expand. From employing more mothers to moving to a larger space, to registering as an independent NGO, to setting up a pop-up store and an online shop, Josie hopes and works hard to see AMMA bloom in 2018. For me, this little workshop has been a comforting cocoon, the opportunity to unleash my creativity and appreciate the effort that goes into producing sustainable textiles.

[This post was first published on Sascha's personal blog, to read more of her work follow the link.] 

-Honest Lessons But A Very Real Joy-

 

It has been 10 weeks since we welcomed our first two mothers into the AMMA workshop. Next week we move down the street to open 'workshop 2', so it felt like a fitting time to share some thoughts, lessons & disasters that have influenced the beginning of AMMA. 

I (Josie) work daily with the mothers and oversee the running of AMMA along with my husband Warren. Our names don't sound very Sri Lankan, because we're not. But i'll save our story for another post.

Perfectionism lives Around the corner. 

During the first week i was so overwhelmed by having to teach two mothers, that just to get through the morning felt like an achievement. The ability to think on my feet had gone, and brain freeze became an annoying companion. For week 2, I arrived with detailed lists of each and every job that needed doing, in order, and ticked off once completed. I am still doing this at week 10 although not quite as obsessively. 

 

You keep coming back?!

Day by day we are getting better, growing stronger as a team & overcoming challenges with a clear mind. I have been stunned by the mums' commitment. One of them even shared with me that she wants to save to buy her own sewing machine, she didn't know how to sew before AMMA. I ask their opinion on colour ways & designs and once everything is finished we choose which ones are our favourites, usually the brightest. We have sat in that tiny workshop, with the power out, sharing a chair, drinking our tea and to my surprise they continue to come back the next day. 

Just watch in wonder. 

As I am still learning the language and adapting to the culture, at times I've had to step back in wonder at the event that is playing out before me. My favourite is when the workshop lock broke. I had spent a while with a screwdriver blindly twisting about when one of the mums disappeared and came back with a machete! She started hitting the lock with all her bodily force and a few minutes later it was fixed. She is our fixer, she fixes everything, she's 23. 

 
 
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When nature dosen't play ball. 

We have been really privileged to start working on jobs since the start. This has silenced our cash flow worries but meant we had some quick learning to do. This whole social enterprise / natural dye stuff has a way of bringing all your insecurities to the surface, and when nature dosen't play ball there is nobody to blame but yourself. I was confident in the colours we could achieve but scaling that up to dye 2.5m worth of cotton fabric in each vat was all a big experiment that was very hit and miss to put it kindly. Thankfully art school taught me well how to handle disappointment and to not give up when you experience it. Actually this whole journey is like working on my final degree show every single day, except this time the purpose makes it worth the pain. 

 
 

The fear of white is real.

I will never win the clothing battle, but i won the one with the shoes. I turn up everyday wearing jeans and my mother's old tunic. Hair in a clip and hilariously to our AMMA's my short,  practical, wellington boots. They turn up looking beautiful. Thankfully they stopped wearing saris and after a short health and safety talk we agreed they keep their shoes on. Even so, fear gushed through me when one turned up wearing a cream polo neck jumper, i haven't worn white in years because i spill everything everywhere. The whole morning was spent thinking up jobs away from the dye vats. 

A very real joy.

The other day in a moment of stillness i experienced the very real joy that we are employing two mothers. It might be a small start but that is a great thing. AMMA exists because other people believed in the vision, so I invite you into a moment of stillness to experience that joy with us, because it belongs to you too.