Focus on Design: Product Development in India
By Deborah Cake

No trip to Tiruvannamalai is complete without a visit to the Shanthimalai Handicrafts shop on Chengam Road, a small compound with pink-washed walls, two 2-storey buildings and a sunny courtyard. From the second floor one can look out through the trees toward the sacred Mountain, Arunachala. Thousands of pilgrims come to Tiru for the full moon every month, bringing a predictable stream of customers to buy the handcrafts made at Shanthimalai.

It's the only Fair Trade store in the area.

The artisans, nearly all women, collaborate with us and with our European friends to design and develop the products that Aruna Designs sells here in the U.S.: handloom weaving, crochet, embroidery, painted leaf cards, tailored bags and accessories, robes, woven baskets, and batiks.

Sometimes product design is a winding road. Other times, there's a straight line from idea to final product. Inspiration comes from many sources: a beautiful piece of hand-woven cotton, something seen in a catalog, a customer's request, a new technique demonstrated by the artisans, or, very often, just the feeling to expand on an existing product line.

An Enduring Design

One of the most popular accessories we have made over the years is the Wristlet. We made them originally in bright, gold-threaded jacquard fabrics, and then in cheerful Indian cotton prints. Unfortunately the gold-colored clips for the closure have been impossible for us to source in India for the last few years. Without clips, the Wristlets couldn't be produced. Then Joni, a Trustee on the Board of Aruna Partnership, came to the rescue by donating a big box of clips. This led to a Wristlet renaissance!

When we were in India this winter, it occurred to us to try using two complementary shades of high-quality silk-cotton. We didn't know what to ask for to get the beautiful two-toned fabrics we were looking for in local shops until Phillips, our Shanthimalai Handicrafts colleague who accompanied us, taught us to say "shadow colors"!

We match the gold clip with a gold-toothed zipper, which is available only in white and needs to be custom-dyed to match the gorgeous tones of the fabrics we use. A small zipper-dyeing order like ours can take months, but it's worth waiting for!

A New Idea

This year, we're ordering cotton Crocheted Hot Pads made in bright colors to match our favorite dish towels. Sounds pretty straight forward, but here's what it takes:

When you buy yarn in India, the threads have to be spun and custom dyed. Unfortunately, minimum order quantities for the heavy yarn we needed are too large for a small women's craft cooperative to afford.

The artisans found a wonderful solution.

They start with a bundle of the custom-dyed threads used to weave the towels, then spin each color onto bobbins.

Ten bobbins are collected and combined, to create a single 10-ply yarn. At the end of this dedicated and time-consuming effort, the crocheting can finally begin.

Different colors and patterns are explored to complement the towels, and then laid next to their "parent" towel for review. Adjustments are made. The final approved versions stay in India, and we take a sample of each pattern to show shops here in the States. Then we photograph them, to make an order sheet.

Lobsters for the North Shore

Living in Beverly, MA, beside the water, and ever observant of the culture around her, Usha Molinari recommended a few years ago that we design a lobster for our Embroidered Hand Towels and pair it with a red checked Handwoven Dish Towel. When the weaving section was reopened in 2015, Martha Daligan worked with the weavers to develop a red and white towel, and Celia Jackmauh took a picture to our friends in India, who had never seen a lobster. We received back a cross-stitch lobster, to be forever cherished, but not ready to be sold. We began charting and developing the design. Six weeks and many samples later, the final lobster was approved just in time to be included in our 2015 Holiday order! On Cape Ann, they are sold exclusively at Lula's Pantry in Rockport, MA:

Designing in India, and later exchanging emails with our Indian friends, then working with each other here in the States, we adjust ourselves to the one constant - change. In the challenges, we discover creative solutions, and delightful products emerge with classic appeal!

Our products are currently available at craft fairs in New England, and at:

  • Common Crow, Gloucester, MA
  • Lula's Pantry, Rockport, MA
  • Mosaic Fair Trade Collection, Eugene, OR
  • One World Goods, Rochester, NY
  • The Herbal Path, Portsmouth, NH
  • The Omega Store, The Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY

Sales of Aruna Designs products help support the Om Shanthi Project with training, counseling, medical care, and housing for destitute widows in the Tiruvannamalai district.