“It’s like being in a normal world for six hours,” says Mona Absalam, looking for the perfect shade of pink in a box overflowing with multicoloured threads to finish a bright shirt she is tailoring. She is describing the world of work that distracts her from the loop of anxieties and worries when we meet on a sunny morning in March, when it was still possible to go out reporting in Delhi, double-masked of course.
Absalam, who came from Somalia to Delhi as a refugee in 2018, spent two years learning knitting, tailoring and quilting at a five-year-old centre in Khirkee run by the Fair Trade Forum, an India-wide network for fair trade, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the non-profit Samarpan Foundation. “I never had the time to stitch back home. Now, I look forward to coming here. It makes me forget about the pandemic, my past life,” says Absalam, 34, who hopes to open a tailoring shop at some point.
The garments she and over 30 other women refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan and Myanmar make are sold online or at exhibitions; each refugee gets a share from the sale. Absalam used to spend five days a week, 9am-3pm, learning the delicate dance of thread and needle and explaining Somali jokes in broken Hindi to women from Afghanistan and Myanmar who have become part of a big happy family. “This is the only time I am not thinking about my son,” says Absalam, who used to work as a translator and guide till the pandemic struck. Her eldest child disappeared from outside their house in Mogadishu in 2018, the same year a militant group killed her husband. “It’s a small thing but stitching pieces of cloth, joining threads, filling holes to create something, a blanket, a quilt, it is so reassuring, so calming.”
Perhaps it was this act of creation and the promise of a refuge from harsh reality that made people across the world turn to knitting, sewing and quilting in 2020. For Absalam, the anxiety may run deeper but for many others around the world, dealing with the uncertainty of the virus, working with needle and thread has been just as calming.
Stitching together fabric can be more than just a need or an art in resourcefulness. If you are creating a quilt using old patches, it can be an exercise in nostalgia. If you are knitting, it can be an expression of care. If you are sewing, it can be a playground for individual whimsy.
Over the years, research too has shown that creative craft hobbies promote a sense of well-being in difficult times. For instance, a nine-year-old study, published in the Journal Of Public Health, says it’s the play of colours, the demands on concentration, repetitive motions, and the joy of a challenge that “psychologically uplifts” people, making them experience a “flow” that boosts self-esteem, motivation and offers a sense of creating something unique.
As another, even more devastating wave of covid-19 wreaks havoc across the country, people are finding moments of joy in such creativity.
Threads of hope
Dehradun’s Shama Dwivedi is one of them. The 50-year-old took up knitting again in March last year, after a 20-year break. With her children living in the US, the HR professional was tired of spending her work-from-home days on Zoom meetings and emails. Her husband had died a year earlier and she had lost interest in socialising with family, even on WhatsApp, but loneliness kept her on edge. A chance visit to a Facebook page, Knitting Club, piqued her interest—and as summer tightened its tentacles, she pulled out her old needles and yarn to create something for the winter season.
“I am still doing it, even in summer. It brings me that warm, fuzzy feeling… reminds me of the time I used to sit with my dadi (grandmother) and watch her make sweaters for me and my brother,” she says during a video call.
Dwivedi, who spends at least three hours every day sipping tea and knitting, has created a WhatsApp knitting group where friends and strangers from around the country share their work. “I have become closer to my extended family now,” she says. “No matter what the occasion, these days my gifts to everyone are knitted socks, caps or sweaters.”
In the Rathi household in Delhi, quilting has become a family activity. Usha, along with her younger brother, grandmother, father and mother, spends two hours daily stitching quilts using old clothes, an activity they started in October.
“I saw an Instagram post where people were making these colourful quilts. I thought, instead of spending my free time thinking about what to eat next, I would do something creative,” says Usha, 29, a sales executive. Her grandmother immediately offered to help. “We grew up doing these things,” says Roshni, 86. “I was just happy to know she was showing interest in learning some household work; she can’t even cook,” she laughs over the phone.
From 7-9pm each day, the entire family comes together to decide, even fight, over which patch to add. “It has of course brought us closer but what I have realised in the past months is that we are creating a symbol, a piece of history with cloth,” says Usha. “I don’t think we will ever be able to do something like this, together, again.”
The art of grat
It was with the idea of creating something different that Taruna Sethi started India’s Karuna Quilt Movement in August last year. Sethi and her staff of about 20—she set up Simply Beautiful Always, an enterprise that focuses on intricate patchwork quilting, in 2016—are creating 1,000 quilts that will be gifted to front-line workers as “a token of gratitude” on 15 August, Independence Day.
“My idea is to show gratitude for the consistent work they have been doing,” says Sethi, 56. To reach the target, she’s collaborating with textile companies, which are contributing fabric scrap, training non-profits across the country to create quilts, and requesting people to make contributions in the form of patches or quilts. “It’s open to anyone and everyone. People can make 12.5x12.5-inch squares. It can be patchwork, sewing, embroidery or painting on a cloth. They can send them to us and we will turn them into a quilt,” says Sethi, adding they are “almost halfway through to the target. Nothing says gratitude better than a quilt and creating something with your own hands has a different kind of magic.”
That’s also something Mona Absalam told me that March morning.
“You know, every morning I wake up and think, why did I come to India? The only reason I get out of the bed is this (showing me a piece of ruffled cloth). It gives me hope for life—no matter how bad it has been in the past, there’s always an option to rebuild. You just need to find the right design, and stitch with love.”