AMMA: Creating sustainable and ethical textile products
by Maria Osvalds
The social enterprise Amma produces naturally dyed textile products. Located in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this creative start-up provides training and employment to mothers living on the local tea estates.
The business founder Josie Mackenzie, is a textile designer and graduate of the world-renowned arts and design college Central Saint Martin in London. Harpy Magazine meets Josie in the soon to be old workshop on the outskirts of Nuwara Eliya.
We talk about the creation of AMMA, women’s livelihoods on the tea estates and how to change the global fashion industry by promoting sustainable working conditions and environmentally friendly products.
AMMA has now been running for more than two years. How did you end up in Nuwara Eliya, running a business creating sustainable and ethically made textile products?
My first visit to Sri Lanka was before university. Four years later, a good friend from Sri Lanka approached me and we talked about the high levels of unemployment on the tea estates. My friend works with an NGO that runs a pre-school and she explained how several of the mothers talked about how they desired to work but the lack of job opportunities in the area made this difficult. My friend asked me: what do you think we could do? Which got me thinking.
Throughout my degree I always wanted to use textiles within a social cause. I’ve come across several organisations demonstrating how textile production can help tackle rural unemployment, but several of these projects have issues, such as a poor knowledge of design and lack of effective branding. I began thinking of how to improve the model for employment suited to rural women, in order to create products that were design led and could attract an international audience. The idea of AMMA was born.
Working with natural dye was something I started to do at university, and it seemed to be a perfect skill to base AMMA around. It suits the model for rural employment, as natural dying is similar to cooking. Most of the women we work with know how to cook and follow a recipe. We are therefore building on existing skills, which means we don’t need to conduct extensive training, and the women immediately feel comfortable and confident in their work environment.
In addition, Nuwara Eliya is a densely vegetated area, so there is an abundance of easily accessible and diverse raw materials that we can use in the dying process. For example, we forage eucalyptus leafs, and gather marigold flowers and source onion skins. These skins and leafs turn the fabric yellow, while the flowers dye the fabric orange.
Can you elaborate upon why you decided to set-up your business in this area specifically, and why you think it is mainly mothers that are attracted to AMMA?
In the early days of AMMA, I worked with two mothers in a small facility connected to the pre-school where my friend worked and which catered to a specific tea estate. As AMMA grew we needed more space and moved into an old garage. Suddenly, women from the new area approached us looking for work and most of these women were mothers.
From the beginning, AMMA was intended to be inclusive, offering employment to whoever wanted to work, no matter their background. However, all the women working at AMMA do either live on the tea estates or come from very poor backgrounds. The tea estates and surrounding areas struggle with several socio-economical issues, such as a high rate of alcoholism and suicides, as well as sexual violence.
Two of our early employees recently had babies, and are currently on maternity leave. My hope is that they will return to the team but being a working mother living on a tea estate is not easy.
If a mother can overcome the cultural expectation that her role is to take care of the children, she is then faced with the challenge of finding affordable and high quality childcare. As AMMA grows my hope is that we can further support these mothers through finding family friendly solutions to the issues surrounding childcare.
Today, we also have two younger women working with us. One of them has just finished a diploma at the organization ‘Tea Leaf Trust’ that works to improve education and increase opportunities for young people on the tea estates. She expressed interest in becoming a fashion designer but due to family issues she can’t move away and get a job. AMMA has a close relationship with ‘Tea Leaf’, as they are funding some of our projects so it felt like a great solution for her to be employed here. The organisation also recommended another student, who is an amazing young artist who creates beautiful embroidery. There is such value in having all these brilliant women around!
Nowadays, I only visit the workshop one or two hours a day in order to give the women room to grow. For instance, our manager Meena joined AMMA in 2018 and as the organisation has grown, her own skills and confidence have developed vastly. Now she is far more confident to take responsibility over the organisation, giving me more time to be creative.
Tell us about the process of dying and producing textile!
The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all freshwater pollution worldwide, largely caused by toxic finishing and dyeing processes where the residue is released into the world’s water-systems. We believe that using food waste, plants and vegetative debris to create textile dyes is a feasible and sustainable way to challenge these practices.
A year ago we got a freezer, which has had a really positive impact! Now we can access seasonal products all year long. A tricky thing with natural dye is that there are several factors that affect the colouring, such as water quality. If, for instance, a lot of farmers in our area use lime for their crops, this changes the pH level and this in turn affects the outcome of the dye.
The process of natural dye is quite easy to explain. First, we wash the fabric. Secondly, we dissolve it in alum. Alum is a substance often used in natural deodorant and it helps prepare the fabric for dying. When using alum we leave the fabric to mordant for 12 hours.
We are currently in the process of starting to weave our own fabric. We work with a group of women in the north of the country that provide us with woven yarn, which we then dye. I want to continue working with these women in some capacity, but we need to secure our stock of fabric locally as there are some logistical issues getting the fabric. For example, when the heavy rain hits the north, we really struggle getting our supply.
AMMA is growing and is about to move into a new bigger workshop. Tell us more about what is to come!
I felt strongly from the start that I didn’t want to force how and when AMMA developed. Change needs to come organically and naturally because we cannot progressively expand the business when confronted with a low-income society and the various obstacles this presents. We want to ensure that our employees are central to all that we do and that their needs are prioritised. The main idea behind AMMA is to create sustainable rural employment for women in the region’s economically challenged areas.
Our rural location gives rise to several logistical problems. That is why our focus going forward is to try and do more things locally in order to have better control. One of our goals is to create a circular economy where we harvest rain, we weave the fabric and we plant the dye plants. A lot of tea pickers are given small plots of land and if they started to plant the flowers we need for dying, we could create a small industry that is unique to this town.
Up until now, most of our products have been developed through collaborations. But now, we are finally starting our own cloth line. Clothes are being treasured more than for example table napkins, and we can also charge a more appropriate price for them. It has probably taken us two years to get to that realisation!
We are also starting an online shop where customers can choose which colours to have. Dye to demand is quite unique and we want to take advantage of how central natural dying is to our business plan. Currently, most of our clients are internationally based – largely in Australia and Europe. In these areas people already have an understanding of textiles and the manufacturing of natural products – places where utilising food wastes in fashion has already made an impact. Due to our commitment to paying our workers a living wage our products retail significantly higher than cheap locally made or imported textiles. Therefore, there isn’t unfortunately as much of a demand for our products locally and so we depend on a international market. We are, however, conscious of the environmental impact of our business and so, together with one of our biggest investors ‘Traid’, we are discussing the opportunity of finding a market closer to home – like India. But, at this stage AMMA needs to supply a market that fits our prices. If exporting is going to continue to sustain jobs here in Nuwara Eliya, it is not feasible for us to stop because of the exports carbon footprint. But we continue to strive to reduce our carbon footprint by incorporating carbon neutral methods of production like hand weaving into our process.
What have you learned along the way?
From the beginning, we all really wanted to have so called ‘life skill’ classes. For instance, all the women here earn a living wage: on average they earn £6 a day. By way of comparison the average tea picker will earn just £3 for a full day. One of the main skills I wanted them to develop was that of money saving and management. Alcoholism is a huge problem in the area, mainly among the men, and I didn’t want the women’s increased salary to be spent reinforcing this problem. I wanted to give the women tools to decide what to do with their own income. They all opened their first bank account this year!
During the life skills classes we also discussed nutritious food, mental health, how to communicate and parental advice for new mothers. We have all learned how much these classes brought all the women together, giving them a space to share experiences and discuss personal issues safely.
Personally, I have realised how much there is to be learnt from the women we work with and employ at AMMA. They have so much to offer. The experience has enabled my own professional development and it is incredibly rewarding to be make things from scratch and see the impact on the local community.
In terms of global development, it has become very obvious that the overall fashion industry has to change. The fashion industry needs to rebuild its system, focusing on creating a model where human rights are prioritised and where women could work in their villages and smaller groups produce the clothes. All in all, the fashion industry has to be dismantled and renewed to become sustainable. I hope that AMMA can be part of this change.