How The Butterfly Project built a community for women artisans, one stitch at a time
In an impoverished part of Rawalpindi, a band of cheerful women laugh and chatter away whilst creating hand-embroidered cushions. These talented ladies have been working for Sadia Anwar since 2014, presenting a strong sense of community and harmony through their work.
Sadia Anwar is a lifestyle brand that offers exquisite handmade products made by skilled craftswomen trained under the mentoring project called The Butterfly Project. Through this project, underprivileged women are given vocational training and a chance to earn a livelihood.
Anwar set up her namesake brand back in 2012, two years after she graduated with a BA in Fashion Design from Iqra University in Islamabad. She laughs as she recalls, “I wanted to work for luxury designers and dreamed of landing a job at a Parisian atelier when I graduated, but I found myself working in rural Pakistan with a group of home-based artisans instead under a USAID project run by SUNGHI and SAARC.”
According to Anwar, spending time with these exceptional women and observing their skills has been a transforming experience. “The kind of embroideries these women created was phenomenal. It was not just their work, it was pure art, it was personal. It was part of their DNA.”
She went on to explain her philosophy. “Handicraft in Pakistan has arisen from artisans who weave myths, folk tales and Sufi stories into various styles of artistry [specific] to every region. They are the protecters and cultivators of our culture and traditions, market[ing] the knowledge, skill, and experience they’ve inherited from their ancestors to keep the essence of Pakistani society alive," she says.
"However, the boom in industrialisation has meant that artisans can’t sustain the growing demand [for products] and can’t compete with large companies using machines, endangering the survival [of artisans]. Thus, I set up my brand to revive these crafts and to breathe new life into them.”
In 2016, Anwar moved to the UK and decided to take her wonderful offerings with her. “There was an appreciation for handmade products in the UK that I hadn’t come across in Pakistan and I knew I wanted our work to get more exposure.” Today, Sadia Anwar is a community-building social enterprise that focuses on the creation of hand-embroidered homewares, fashion accessories and gift items, meticulously designed by some very talented home-based female artisans. The enterprise has clients in the UK, Pakistan, USA, and Europe.
For Anwar, it is very important that her artisans be provided fair wages for their work. “When I first started the mentoring project, I knew women who worked a full month creating embroideries and yet were only paid Rs800. Even big NGOs were not paying minimum wages to these artisans, which was shocking! Being a woman, I am no stranger to gender inequality in Pakistan but I was not prepared for what I came across.
"Currently, there are no laws and rights when it comes to home-based workers in Pakistan and sadly many companies have used this to establish unethical supply chains. This is no excuse for not providing these women with an opportunity and so my focus is on embroidery by hand and empowering marginalised women," she says.
"The artisans earn up to £21 to £26 for embroidering some of our signature cushions. Add the price of fabric, inserts, and shipping to this and a price tag of £75 is justified. Some items do even better; the Christmas stocking pays between £8 and £10 and is retailed for £30.”
Anwar's brand advocates slow fashion and cultural revival using handicraft skills, as opposed to fast fashion which manufactures products that are eventually sold cheaply by the dozen. These products are discarded just as easily as they were made, creating waste and a high carbon footprint. At Sadia Anwar, each piece travels through the hands of multiple women, hands that imbue these product with a unique spirit. Nothing they create is mass-produced — each piece is subjected to stringent quality control and each piece sings its own unique story.
Was it always this easy for Anwar? “Oh no, there was so much to learn but we’ve come a long way, me and my team," she says. "I’ve shared my knowledge with them but [I've] also learned so much in return. Today, our approach is to make thoughtful high-quality pieces that can be cherished forever, that transcend time. We buy dead stock fabrics and use leftover fabrics and threads. We even use scraps of fabrics as stuffing.”
Saima, one of the first members of The Butterfly Project, recalls one of her earliest experiences with the enterprise. “The first time we started working, there was a very detailed design of an owl and a total of eight different colours to use in it. Just looking at it [made] two of the embroiderers leave! It was unlike anything I’d worked on before. I was used to doing simple traditional designs in one or two colours. This seemed like a challenge and it was, but we learned. Now, I can embroider that owl in my sleep!”
Was Saima's experience working with the brand different as compared to other places? "When we worked for other NGOs and boutiques, we were paid in peanuts," she explains. "Most of the samples were always unpaid. Madam Sadia always pays us, even for samples and work that doesn't meet the quality needed. She also gives a lot of focus and direct attention, there is no middleman. I've worked for some brands that still owe me money."
After working with Anwar, the artisans now know their rights when it comes to commissioned work — they need to ask for a percentage of the money upfront, sign contracts, be persistent, and above all, they should never be ashamed to ask for their what they deserve.
Much like Saima, Shakeela — who's worked with Anwar since 2014 — sang her and her enterprise's praises as well. "At Sadia Anwar, we are treated with the utmost care and respect. We hope the business flourishes and we continue working with her."
Handmade goods always have a story to tell and offer a unique, almost personal experience. The artisans put many precious hours into embroidering with utmost perfection. One of their best sellers, called The Fountain of Youth, is a mesmerising display of fine embroidery, colour and design skills. Another customer favourite is Geometry in Colour — with small, vibrantly coloured triangles stitched together, this cushion is made using leftover thread.
“My products stand out because they’re made by hand using traditional embroidery techniques. When using silk threads, the glossy sheen on the hand embroidery is far better than what you get from machine-made ones," Anwar highlights. "That makes a big difference.”
The journey after Covid-19 struck
Covid-19 greatly impacted the business, however, the women at The Butterfly Project are still keeping their spirits up. Given the pandemic is still ongoing, what exactly is next for the small business and its team of women?
“At present, there is a small team of eight to nine artisans who live in Rawalpindi, Multan, Kalar Sayedan and Rawat, and work on The Butterfly Project," explains Anwar. "They are self-employed and work on other projects too. Production had to be stalled during the pandemic but will soon be up and running again. In the near future, I want to set up a sewing and embroidery unit for my team and have embroidery hubs in all these towns [we're situated in]. For now though, we are sticking to what’s worked for us. Currently there is a new collection in the making that’s going to be our best one to date!”
Sadia Anwar now stocks its products at Wolf and Badger, a chain of high-end lifestyle stores that sell luxury products around the world. It was a moment of pride for Anwar and her team to have their products shelved at such an internationally acclaimed store. Wolf and Badger's website features cushion covers and small pouches by Sadia Anwar at the moment, each piece a unique showcase of vibrant colour and meticulous embroidery.
While Anwar is known for her cushion covers, pouches and Christmas stockings, has she ever designed clothes as well? “Yes I have done clothing before," the designer answers. "I am planning to do it again, but it's just been very difficult to produce anything new given the pandemic and all the travel restrictions it has caused.”
What makes The Butterfly Project special isn't just its products but rather how the project works with and for women. It creates a community of skilled women who might have been shoehorned into domestic roles. The Butterfly Project gives them the opportunity to learn skills like sewing, pattern making and embroidery, all while working flexible hours in the comfort of their homes.
In this uplifting journey, these women are never alone. “They sit together with other artisans and work on their embroideries," highlights Anwar. "We always recruit three to six people from one area so they can have a hub within the neighbourhood. It's a lovely bonding exercise — they all come together, put some music on, chat and work their magic on the handlooms."
All in all, The Butterfly Project is not just about slow fashion or keeping traditional artistry alive, it is about creating a community of women artisans who are always there for each other and proudly exemplify what it means to be empowered Pakistani women.