Our interview with Penny Cantle. Founder of our garment workshop.

Tomorrow is International Women's Day. And for us, that is a cause for celebration. Women are heavily involved in garment production globally. In fact, the figures speak for themselves:

75 million people work in the fashion industry and over 80% of garment workers are women. This is a global figure. Statistics from Fashion United and Cleanclothes.org.

Our garments are no different, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some insight into our workshop with an interview with Penny Cantle. Penny is the superhuman that founded the workshop where my garments are made. Her mission was pure, To be socially sustainable. The organisation was started in order to do something, no matter how small, about the poverty and exploitation her and her husband saw during two years of living in Lucknow, North India.

Their business model is that of a social enterprise: rather than generate financial good for shareholders, their goal is to generate social good for their employees and their families. The profits are totally dedicated to this purpose.

Carlie: How many women to men work at the workshop?

15 women, 4 men (and managers are all women of course)

Carlie: How many women have progressed from embroidery?

Only 3 … most choose not to, no matter how much I beg, though it’s also a function of how much work there is. Kiran actually came to us as a seamstress – as a married woman, she’s a good role model for the embroidery workers, showing them that a woman really can be a professional seamstress.

Carlie: What are the benefits they receive for working at the workshop?

5-day working week, flexible hours, encouragement to train in new skills, children welcome, interest-free loans for such things as school fees.

Carlie: It's a good sign when employees have been working with the company for a long time. How long have some of the employees worked at the workshop?

Pragya, our workshop manager started in 2007!!! The first embroidery workers to join who are still with us are Sarita and Soni, who came in 2010. Suman also came in 2010 – another married woman who has continued to work with us ever since.

Can you tell us some stories to celebrate the women in the workshop?

Nahid and Akhtar are two I’m proud of. They both married very young (17), Akhtar for love and Nahid in an arranged marriage. Within a few months, both had been abandoned by their husbands, and they have come back to AIF. They are both learning to use the machine, aware of how valuable their financial independence is. I admire them because they could have stayed home with their shame, but they toughed it out and came back to work.

Pragya (workshop manager) and Arsh (Assistant manager) deserve recognition too. It’s because of the environment they’ve created that Nahid and Akhtar felt they could come back without being judged. As working mothers, they too are role models, showing it’s OK for women to work after marriage and motherhood. Being a female senior manager in a business is most unusual in India still, especially outside Delhi/Bombay/Calcutta. Pragya has to be quite strong at times in the face of male suppliers who don’t believe women can or should be bosses. And she really does care for the poor women who work at AIF, helping them out financially and with legal/medical help when needed, and all the time with counselling. After Shabnam died (after she left AIF to get married, fatally burnt in a kitchen ‘accident’, likely by her husband) Pragya organised a friend to come in and talk to everyone about their rights as women. As a Hindu married to a Muslim, this woman can connect with both communities, and it was a wonderful way to bring the domestic violence issue out into the open. Pragya’s brilliant idea.

Carlie: Hearing of Shabnam was so hard, but it certainly crystalised yet again the reasons we as designers choose to have our garments made at the workshop. To support and nurture the women who make it their safe and supportive workplace should be the mission of all garment factories. Is there anything else you would like to add Penny?

I also just love the atmosphere of the workplace. There are internal politics and tensions, but as you know it’s a happy place with men and women working side by side, a great deal of mutual respect and support. You have to like our men too – they cope with this women-centric workplace with good cheer.

If you would like to read more about Penny and her story of founding the workshop you can head to her page here.

Kindest in adventure,