Interview with Fiona Wright
I met Fiona Wright in March, 2014. As I was preparing my trip to take the template of our growing project to Nepal, my great friend Cindy who had been working in Jaipur for her jewellery range Totomoto told me about this lady she met at the camel fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan. She said: 'You both speak with the same passion about social empowerment through craft, she has a wealth of knowledge in textiles. You should meet and see what you can do together'. A Facebook message later and we arranged to meet under the big tree by the Post Office two weeks later.
Tell us a bit about your background and why India?
Fiona: I was a single parent with three kids, including one newborn, so I had to work from home to support as. I made my children clothes and then later I ended up hand painting women's shirts. After that I became a Waldorf Steiner school teacher, where you stay with the same class for 7 years. Around the same time as my class finishing, my kids started to grow up and not be so dependent. This led to a bit of a freak out, thinking "oh goodness, I need to get a life" as all I had been doing was looking after my kids and my class. I really wanted to go to Paris or Rajasthan but I could only afford Rajasthan. So I got a ticket, a passport and in a few months was getting on a flight out of Sydney to Delhi. I started to cry, thinking what on earth had I done? I had a hotel room for 3 nights and 3 weeks in front of me and a place I knew little about.
Fast forward to Rajasthan and I had met Praveen, my now husband, and wanted to keep seeing him, felt truly at home from the moment I landed and thought I was totally crazy as it was so weird, wild and wonderful. After that I stopped freaking out and discovered I don’t mind wandering around alone and love seeing what is around the next corner.
I had a year off teaching after the 7 year run, I was working on a Master of Visual Arts degree, decided to centre my exhibition on impressions of Fare West NSW and India…. I did have a valid connection for the two AND I got to go visit Praveen again. I then won the Foyle Trust Award from the UK and it included very generous prize money to put be put towards furthering your career in stitched textiles.
I bought an around the world ticket and wrote to every guild, interest group and University I could find, saying I have this award to pay my airfare, do you want to employ me to teach? I worked out a range of workshop based on my exhibition work. Felted wool, silk and stitched textiles I exhibited as Contemporary Quilts or in galleries as Mixed Media work based on textile, you had to be creative about how you labelled your work in those days to get galleries to look at you. I got quite a bit of work in Canada, USA, UK and Australia. So the next year I did it again…. And it went on for quite a few years until I moved to India
What was really amazing on that first trip was discovering India is a place largely made by hand. And the crafts and textiles are truly like being a kid in a lolly shop, so much to choose from. I have been really lucky from the start to meet so many wonderful artisans.
The people I was teaching started to ask if they can come with me to India, so Praveen and I started Creative Arts Safaris and have been running tours for the last 15 years. Arts, crafts and culture - get your hands dirty type experiences, that now wonder to many areas of India, Morocco, Ghana and Vietnam. It is kind of our baby, we started to work together on it and now our hobby and we use it as an excuse to get out of the workshop for a few weeks every so often.
In 2008 we decided I would settle in India. we ended up in Pushkar in rural Rajasthan and rented and ran a Hotel. I had spare time on my hands and thought I could help some local women earn some money by teaching them to stitch.
A very long story but out of it The Stitching Project developed.
What made you start The Stitching Project?
F: We didn’t start out to have a textile business, as we were running hotels. I was trying to teach some women how to make some money stitching and needed Praveen’s help with translation.
I was selling the pieces we made when I went off to teach, then someone asked us to make something else for them, we found a tailor and after some time we realised we liked making things and we hated hotels.
Then we started formally working on a stitching business- we finally became a legally registered partnership in 2011
What started TSP was wanting to make work for local women and that is still a major factor in all we do.
How many people do you have in your team?
F: Right now we have about 25 in the workshop, more women than men!! It has taken years to get women in here. And about 60 home based women we see once a week to exchange work with.
How do you pick your team members and what training do they receive?
F: We let it be known we want people and just see who turns up. We are willing to spend time training and now have lots of systems in place to help with this but ultimately, we are a business and professional in our approach, not a charity and want people who are willing to learn and become a team member. We expect our team members to work together and being willing to learn and look after our work responsibly
What are the biggest challenges with the project?
F: Training people has been the biggest challenge because literacy is not high and organisational skills are not strong. So I have spent a lot of time developing systems to help keep track of all the steps in our production runs and finding the right person for the thousand and one jobs we have.
Recently we have been using tablets to record all the work and a colour coded system to track where we are up to. I am starting to see light at the end of the tunnel and being able to designate some organisational work to others.
What is your biggest achievement with the project?
F: We have more than 50% women in the workshop. Some of the key roles here are held by women who were very quiet and not assertive when they started, now they embrace new ideas, developing ideas and learning new things, pushing themselves to use writing as a tool and now have learned to use a tablet. Huge steps and seeing them grow makes us so proud and pleased.
Where do you see The Stitching Project going in the future?
F: Personally I would like to do more design work, play with new ideas and less administrative work. The need for employment for people and especially women in India is huge, we would like to be able to create more work opportunities.
What are your three main values in life?
- I love what I do and think people should follow their passion
- I love that we create work and training opportunities for people around us
- I love our tours where we visited like minded people and organisations and learn more about how similar but a little different the people are. Fair trade is a choice we can all make in our actions and I love to be an advocate for it through our workshop and tours.
Find out more about Fiona here: