This Spring we had the joy and privilege of creating a small batch of hand embroidered bag straps with our friends at Ruas; a creative community seeking to provide sustainable livelihoods for rural women artisans, working with them to become independent, creative entrepreneurs.
As we launch this very special collaboration, we caught up with founder, Aditi Dubey Lee to hear more about Ruas, how it all began and the stories behind each hand embroidered stitch.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Aditi! Tell us more about Ruas - where did the journey begin?
I had the privilege of growing up in different parts of India. As a quiet, observant child who found it hard to communicate with others, my attention was often focused in my own world. I marvelled at how each state in India differed from the mountains, forests, vast seas to the people; their ethnicities and even outfits. And in each region there were distinct craft forms that fascinated me the most. Talking to artisans was never a problem for me. They were always kind and keen to share and in their stories you could understand the connection between their culture, history with the things they created. It was inspiring to see their deep reverence for their environment and history.
I also grew up being the oldest of three daughters, and very early witnessed why that was not a favourable thing in India. My parents never thought less of women but everyone else seemed to think so, and wherever I travelled I saw women fight for a place in their own homes. Many were not in favour of my mother having a third child, as it could end being a girl. But we fought against them and now my baby sister is completing her PhD!
In my twenties I was working as a writer, I loved it but I knew something was missing as I still hoped to work with women and artisans. One day, I looked at my camera strap and wondered if I could make a beautiful design instead of the plain black. That’s when the idea struck me. What if I worked with artisans to create one of a kind straps, embroidered completely by hand in traditional patterns?
I taught myself design & spent six months researching in the Kutch district of India with traditional women artisans from varied communities. It opened my eyes to so much beauty and talent that it encouraged me even more to work with the artisans. Even though most of them had not had much opportunity to have access to formal education they were passionate about their craft and keen to make their own mark rather than be seen as poverty stricken women in need of help.
So I co-created the first designs for camera straps with them and that’s how Ruas began…thankfully people really loved them and were quite shocked by their beauty. I then created guitar and bag straps too.
Tell us more about the women you work with?
I work with three communities of women artisans in Kutch, Toda artisans in Tamil Nadu and Chikankaari artisans in Uttar Pradesh, India. They are all from different faiths, and cultures but have the common need for being recognised as artists in their own right and being financially independent to support their families and themselves.
We love how the very purpose of Ruas is to empower rural women artisans to become independent creative entrepreneurs? What are some of the challenges that come along with this goal?
Most of the women I work with have led sheltered lives, so often they lack confidence in their own abilities creatively and in figuring out how to run their own business, so there is a need for a lot of conversations on many topics such as designing, pricing, customers, service and why doing things on time matters.
What does the word ‘empowerment’ mean to you? What’s your personal definition? And how does your work empower the female artisans that you work with?
My personal definition of empowerment is leading a life where I can make choices that make me and others feel loved and valued.
Apart from the need to bring income to artisans, Ruas has always focused on creating designs along with artisans. I believe that they are custodians of traditions and I have a lot of respect for their knowledge. Their work carries their heritage, successes and failures. Each embroidery motif on a Ruas straps has a meaning behind it, depicted in the form the artisans' ancestors determined and she improvised. So, the process of co-creating is enriching for both of us, and this has led to things you can probably never quantify accurately. I can see the confidence the artisan feels when she creates her own pattern and as the years go by, the confidence builds enabling them to become creative entrepreneurs in their own right.
We love how each embroidery motif has meaning behind it, how each stitch tells a story. What was it about embroidery that you were drawn to compared to other art forms?
Embroidery has been one of the main craft forms that women have had access to across the world for thousands of years. Their creative expression for so long and yet it has been greatly ignored and still fails to be recognised as an art form sometimes…
It is vibrant, each style is unique and each artisan’s work carries it own mark. It takes so much precision, practice, intuitiveness and an innate understanding of design. I have simply fallen in love and hope to someday work with all the embroidery forms in India.
And why this particular product? What inspired you to combine these hand embroidered works of art with leather to create beautiful bag straps?
Leather often gets a bad rep in our world and it comes from the right place. But one experience in Kutch, changed my perspective on how we can use it well. Communities in Kutch who are cattle herders shared with me that they would often give away or sell the skin of their animals that have passed on to another community who would use it to make products for their daily lives such as covers for their bottles or sandals. What a wonderful example of using our resources well.
Leather is a beautiful material that adds to the strength, longevity and quality of our straps. I am proud that our straps (after the artisans embroider the fabric) are sent to the JOYN workshop for finishing, as JOYN focuses on using leather that would have otherwise been discarded and landed up in a mine.
It’s the perfect, stunning and sustainable choice for us. I was inspired to create bag straps as I like to create beautiful things we can use in our daily lives. It can change the trajectory of our day when we stop to take a look at a flower or pour tea from a handmade teapot.
Bags are such a personal choice for women and represent where they are in their life. I am mom to a little girl of my own and carry bags much bigger in size than I would have earlier. Too many diapers to fit! So an accessory that you can use to easily step up your outfit seemed like the perfect idea.
Ruas is part of the global fashion industry, an industry facing constant scrutiny, particular in terms of ethics, social justice and sustainability. What role do brands like yours have to play here?
I think being conscious of how we create & how much we create is important. What we create should honour the one who makes it and who we make it for…otherwise it’s kind of owning a soulless item.
For me, each part of the journey a single Ruas strap takes is important and meaningful. If you own a strap you can use it for a very long time too. That’s important to have and is incredibly uplifting for the artisans to witness too. I remember a musician who owns one of our straps has been using it for several years, and the artisan who made it showed his picture with it to everyone at a wedding. They couldn’t stop talking about it and were amazed at the convergence of their world with his.
Finally, what are you excited about for this coming year? What are your goals for 2023?
I am excited to see Ruas straps being worn by many women around the world. I am keen to bridge this gap between women artisans in remote corners of India and those in cities. How cool is it that I can wear something a woman in the far corners of a village embroidered just for me. My goal is to grow Ruas more and work with even more artisans this year!