"We want our people to feel welcomed and loved. Low-income, low-caste, rural artisans have experienced the most impact within our organization and we also prioritize these people."
Vanessa and Mike, the founders of Himalayan Valley Knitters, talk about their mission's goal, aspirations and achievements.
"Around 2010, we decided to take a trip to volunteer in orphanages in Northern India. It was a life-changing experience. I met the man who would become my husband and a community that would become my family," Vanessa confides. Since 2015, Mike and Vanessa have resided in India, in a tiny Himalayan village, with no road access and many sheep roaming around them. "It is one of the great joys of our lives to work in the orphanages that we support. We are in love with the orphanages. And best of all — I get to do it all with the love of my life," Mike says.
Mike had long harbored a dream of setting up a social enterprise to help create sustainability for the orphanages. While in the bazaar one day, Vanessa held up a pair of the handmade, local socks and asked, "What if we could not only support the children but the women who make these products too?" Mike whipped up a business plan and, six months later with the help of our partners — the founder of one of the orphanages, along with two of the graduates raised in the homes — we decided to start an organization, 'Himalayan Valley Knitters' where we created our first samples with the brand name Fazl.
"For us, the organization has never been just a business. It has always been personal. We started it for the children and women we love and work alongside. The mission of our organization is to help provide orphaned and destitute children with food, shelter, education, and clothing, and to give Fair Trade wages to artisans who hand-make every item. We are committed to supporting orphanages that care for vulnerable children, and we dedicate a portion of our net profits to this cause. Our organization grew out of a deep love for these orphanages and the sacred work they do. We also provide dignified work opportunities for women in need.
"We are very careful about respecting, preserving, and encouraging cultural identity. Our products are made with designs passed from mother to daughter, with artisanal techniques and patterns that are indigenous to the Himalayan people of Himachal Pradesh. Through our organization we are proud to share Himachali work with our customers and celebrate handicrafts that demonstrate the complexity and beauty of their traditions. By creating fair wage employment, or organization contributes to sustaining this wonderful part of Himachali handicraft heritage.
One of the primary ways by which we have gained trust in the community is that we mostly work with local women who are very involved with their communities, and we always ensure that everyone is paid fairly and on time for their incredible work.
"The ultimate aim of our organization is caring for children and employing women at livable wages. Every time we invest in new products, we do it in review of the well-being of the artisans. We scrutinize and question ourselves how our organization can provide the best opportunity for marginalized Himalayan artisans. This is the very essence of why we founded our organization — poverty alleviation and poverty prevention. This has had a direct positive impact on our organization helping to garner trust among the artisans and villages, further establishing our reputation within the community that we serve through offering employment.
"When a new artisans approach us, we provide a starter amount of yarn to begin with. Usually the artisan creates several samples, which often require adjustments, and artisans are paid for samples, too. This is all part of the learning process, which we provide so that that our artisans can be as successful as possible.
"Our organization takes quality very seriously. We've always stood by the idea that a person will purchase once because of the story but will purchase again and again because of quality. In order to benefit the long-term goals of sustainable fair-trade practices, artisans must meet a certain level of quality. We are very patient and encouraging, and promote learning by doing. This is both a benefit to our organization and to the artisan groups.
"Some of the women artisans could not knit but still need work and income. In such cases, we hire the women to work at our organization and take care of the quality control, packaging, stitching, and preparing orders.
"We're always learning and trying to improve as an organization. An important lesson we learned was to build our business in partnership with local people, not in a power-over structure, while being incredibly attentive to small details and finishing a handmade item. We currently have hundreds of artisans under our umbrella, which means careful maintenance and scrutiny of quality control, while being respectful and patient. Even as we grow, our artisans are our partners, playing a critical role in the development of our project. Working through local managers and local partners, we've been able to expand into new districts in our state, while holding to our quality control processes and demand. Managing hundreds of artisans and making socks with high quality assurances, while meeting demand, has been a challenge that we have overcome.
"All funding comes directly from sales. During the start-up phase, we have often funded the organization with personal funds, but now Himalayan Valley Knitters has become fully self-sustainable.
"Our apparel and accessories are made from long-lasting vegan yarn. We practice Zero-Waste Fashion. We generate little to no waste in our supply chain and production, standing against environmental degradation. We use expensive material for longevity and strong quality control to protect the integrity of the product for a long time to come.
"For instance, in our first year of operation, we commissioned Christmas stockings. The artisans were bewildered at the notion of a fat jolly man sneaking down the 'tandoor' pipe once per year and leaving presents for all those good citizens of the world. When the stockings began to trickle in, we were baffled by bizarre shapes and, despite corrections, they were unusable. Rather than disposing of the material, we paid our center workers to unravel the wool and commissioned hats to be made with the resulting material. We ended up selling those hats to NBC in New York for their staff Christmas gifts. Furthermore, extra wool from production is collected, sorted, and stored to be redistributed in future products."
Vanessa says, "I have designed apparel and accessories around the yarn colors we have in excess, so as to reuse materials whenever possible. And, as a side note, our community and business partners have taken part in village cleanups. We believe that our environment should reflect the values that we represent, as well educate people about the importance of living within a clean environment.
"We've gone to extensive lengths to find the right raw material suppliers, which are often sourced from Punjab. We have personally walked through their production lines and made sure that they supplied environment-friendly materials to us".
Himalayan Valley Knitters is composed of five partners. Two of the partners, Anand and Tsewang, are married and both alumni of one of the children's orphanages that the organization supports. Another partner, Mawiteii, is the founder of one of the children's orphanages. Lastly, Mike and Vanessa — also married — are shareholders, who founded Himalayan Valley Knitters.
Anand oversees everything and is actively involved in the day-to-day operations. He is a direct liaison with many of the artisanal groups, artisanal managers, and shareholders. Anand helps to create new products and helps to oversee their production. He often identifies artisans who need work and are able to create the required designs. He handles other duties, which include inventory, stock management, sourcing new materials, prototypes, payroll, and finance.
Under the shareholders, there is one Operation Manager — Promilla — who governs the activities of the organization. This is the location where artisans collect raw materials and return the finished work, where all quality control is done, and products are packaged and packed in preparation for export. Promilla oversees these responsibilities, including recording the details for all artisans. Some of these records include the full names and addresses of the artisans, phone numbers, and the amount of raw material in weight taken from the center. She can communicate in Hindi, the local language, and English.
Next comes the community center workers. They are responsible for organizing raw materials for the artisans, sorting completed work that has been delivered, and making quality control inspections. Once a newly-arrived product is ready for packaging, they package and box it, preparing it for export.
The Himalayan Valley Knitters group also has regional managers that handle the order requirements. They collect raw material from the Community Center, distribute it to remote villages and ensure the orders are being met as per the required specifications, such as size and consistency with colors in the designs. The women form knitting circles among themselves throughout rural villages and, upon completing the product, return it to either the regional knitting manager or the Himalayan Valley Knitters Center.
"Our group managers started organically when certain artisans noticed that others in their villages wanted the employment that center offered but were unable to come to the Center. These artisans began transporting the wool and managing the orders for them, and we decided to reward these women for their efforts to help their communities. Additionally, it has proven to be of great benefit to us, as they ensure quality control within their own knitting groups and often communicate in their local dialects. They provide our first level of quality control by inspecting each product before it is brought to the Himalayan Valley Knitters Center for further inspection and payment," the couple continues.
"We are always striving to offer more subsidies and higher wages to our artisans. During the spring of 2020 — at the height of the pandemic when the organization was forced to close for two and a half months — we continued to pay our Center's staff 50 percent of their income, even though all sales and operations had ceased and we had no understanding of when the end will come.
"This year, as our new fiscal year approached, Himalayan Valley Knitters will be offering permanent staff a matching retirement savings plan. We are always searching for ways to help our artisans and community.
"Recently, one of our staff who is a widow was struggling with her home life due to family problems on her in-law side. We offered, should she need the assistance, to pay for her to move and a minimum six months’ rent. Our heart and soul — literally the reason for Himalayan Valley Knitters existence — is to help the poor. As we grow, our staff and community will grow with us. This is truly a family endeavor, and we love that family is fluid and evolving into a truly family-community oriented operation.
"We also invest in orphanages and higher education, as we believe they are our future to poverty alleviation. We have partnered with a Canadian charity to assist in the care of orphanages located in Himalayan Valley Knitters artisans' home state, especially with food, shelter, education and clothing. We have also taken on interns and hired graduates and alumni from the orphanages, and now they are being employed because of our direct sales and efforts.
"The aim of Himalayan Valley Knitters is to advocate for the most vulnerable people in our region, especially women. Recently, a widow who we'll call Asha came to our attention through another Himalayan Valley Knitters community artisan. She had lost her husband in December and had never been employed And she had never performed duties outside the household such as banking, shopping, etc. She was left with nothing, and was even borrowing food from neighbors. When she came to our attention, we asked her to come to our Center so we could meet her. We hired her on the spot, and now she's working full time in the Center doing quality control, corrections, and packaging. She is able to support her two daughters. We hope that more of these ladies will come to our attention and we can help them with a stable living. We also hope that the sales continue so that we can keep providing employment for vulnerable people.
"We want our people to feel welcomed and loved. Low-income, low-caste, rural artisans have experienced the most impact within our organization. We also prioritize these people first.
"Himalayan Valley Knitters' short-term goals are increasing sales. Sales help us to grow, which has direct impact on the poor, providing for vulnerable women and income generation for orphanages.
"For long-term, we want our organization to become a premier handmade, knitwear company. We hope that people all over the world will regularly purchase Himalayan Valley Knitters socks, mittens, and hats. We are Fair Trade certified and hope to provide significant job creation at Fair Trade wages, helping to literally alleviate poverty through employment and funding of projects for orphanages, schools, hospitals, slums, etc. This is our dream.
"The number of orphans in India is nearly the entire population of Canada. In 2010, a third of the globe's exceptionally poor — those surviving on less than a $1.25/day — lived in India. Furthermore, India is home to more than one-third of all underweight children and 25 percent of the planet's hungry people.
"We are seeking to respond to this crisis. And it's working! Bit by bit, sock by sock. We are so grateful to you and your dedication to helping provide meaningful and fair sales channels for the poor. It is because of you that we can all continue to create a better planet, with more hope and greater opportunities for women and children. We're so excited to begin!"