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Knitting a new career with hill communities

  • Swati Seth in 2010 quit her corporate job in Delhi to work with the traditional crafts and set up her enterprise, The Color Caravan
  • She was overwhelmed by the beauty of handmade products, and met a lot of craftspersons on her travels

The Color Caravan's Swati Seth (extreme left) works with the artisans of Naggar.
The Color Caravan's Swati Seth (extreme left) works with the artisans of Naggar.

While studying commercial arts at the South Delhi Polytechnic for Women, Swati Seth realized two things: She wanted to run her own enterprise, and make the mountains her home.

Her plans changed after she finished her diploma course in 2001. The next nine years were spent in the corporate world, working in the fields of design, marketing and content. Whenever she needed to take a break from the corporate grind, like many, Seth would travel, often to the hills. It was around then she developed an interest in traditional handicrafts.

“I was overwhelmed by the beauty of handmade products, and met a lot of craftspersons on my travels. What I later realized was that these crafts were dying because the artisans weren’t getting the money they deserved. The next generation was hesitant to take up the work because income opportunities were less," says the 40-year-old.

Change is here

In 2010, Seth quit her job in Delhi to work with the traditional crafts and set up her enterprise, The Color Caravan. She started collaborating with artisans and weavers across nine states, who created everything from home décor, furnishing, fashion accessories, handicrafts and apparel.

Seth knew establishing a venture with her own savings and some financial help from family would require a fair share of sacrifice. “I knew that I would have to make adjustments to the kind of lifestyle that I led. The income wouldn’t be steady for sometime. I realized that I would be leaving behind a very comfortable life," she says. Her greatest fear, however, wasn’t the fear of failure. I worried that I would have to go back to the corporate world and work for somebody if it all didn’t go as per plan," she explains.

In 2012, she moved back to her hometown of Lucknow, where she planned to sell the products created by the artisans through an online store and exhibitions.

But after four years, she was forced to shut operations. “There were mass produced, cheap imitations in the market. Quality control was difficult because the craftspersons were too scattered and the overheads were very high. So I took time off to introspect and moved back to Delhi," she says.

The road to success

After some stints with non-governmental organizations and social enterprises, besides teaching at a design school, Seth decided to move to the mountains.

Before making the move, she made a trip to Sarmoli in Uttarakhand to meet social entrepreneur and activist Malika Virdi, and understand how she could start an enterprise with the hill communities. Finally, in the summer of 2016, she shifted to Manali. “While my family supported my decision to leave the corporate world and start my own venture, they couldn’t understand why I was moving to a village from the city, when most were transitioning the other way," Seth recalls.

Once she reached Manali, she saw the ugly side of tourism. “The town was taken over by greed. My landlord suggested I move to the nearby town of Naggar, which was more community driven."

There, she learnt that almost everyone in the village was into knitting and crochet. They mostly did this for their own families and were unsure how it would pan out commercially.

Seth decided to work with them to make their creations popular. She worked on refining their skills so that the products would match the retail market. For starters, they only made sweaters and woollen essentials that would cater to the urban market in the winter.

“They were all very eager to work. However, it was hard to get them to understand that they had to stick to measurements and the kind of finishing that was needed to compete," she says. Seth was unsure of how long her savings would last, considering that she had not only invested money in the venture, but also had cover the cost of living in Naggar.

Another challenge was that the winter apparel season lasted about two months and it was hard to keep the women busy and motivated for the rest of the year. That’s when she arrived at what she considers to be the game-changer for The Color Caravan.

“We introduced crochet toys to keep the venture sustainable. They got really popular over time and started retailing in the metros. In fact, we’ve got a few export orders as well, besides making toys for other brands," she says.

Since the introduction of the toys, the finances have stabilized at The Color Caravan and Seth hopes to get into corporate gifts and nursery décor in the months to come.

“It’s been slow but it’s working out for us. And with the festive season coming up, busy days are ahead of us," Seth says. Detour features people who quit their 9-to-5 jobs and made their passion work.

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