How The Butterfly Project built a community for women artisans, one stitch at a time – Style
The company is focused on slow fashion, traditional art and female empowerment.
In a poor area of Rawalpindi, a group of cheerful women laugh and chat while creating hand-embroidered cushions. These talented ladies have worked for Sadia Anwar since 2014, exhibiting a strong sense of community and harmony through their work.
Sadia Anwar is a lifestyle brand that offers exquisite handmade products made by skilled artisans trained under the mentorship project called The Butterfly Project. Thanks to this project, underprivileged women receive vocational training and a chance to earn a living.
Anwar established her eponymous brand in 2012, two years after graduating 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 in a Parisian workshop after graduating, but I found myself working in the Pakistani countryside with a group of craftsmen in home as part of a USAID project. by SUNGHI and SAARC.
According to Anwar, spending time with these exceptional women and observing their skills has been a transformative experience. “The kind of embroidery created by these women was phenomenal. It wasn’t just their work, it was pure art, it was personal. It was part of their DNA. »
She then explained her philosophy. “Craftsmanship in Pakistan is born from artisans who weave myths, folk tales and Sufi stories into various styles of art [specific] to each region. They are the protectors and cultivators of our culture and our traditions, of the market[ing] the knowledge, skills and experience they have inherited from their ancestors to keep alive the essence of Pakistani society,” she says.
“However, the boom in industrialization means that craftsmen cannot sustain the growing demand [for products] and cannot compete with large companies using machines, endangering the survival [of artisans]. So I created my brand to revive these trades and 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 encountered in Pakistan and I knew I wanted our work to be more visible.” Today, Sadia Anwar is a community-building social enterprise that focuses on creating hand-embroidered homewares, fashion accessories and gift items, meticulously crafted by highly talented home-based artisans. The company has customers in the UK, Pakistan, USA and Europe.
For Anwar, it is very important that its artisans receive a fair wage for their work. “When I started the mentorship project, I knew women who worked a full month creating embroidery and yet were only paid 800 rupees. which was shocking!As a woman, I am no stranger to gender inequality in Pakistan, but I was unprepared for what I encountered.
“Currently, there are no laws and rights when it comes to homeworkers in Pakistan and unfortunately many companies have used this to establish unethical supply chains. is no excuse for not providing these women with an opportunity and so I focus on hand embroidery and empowering marginalized women,” she says.
“Artisans earn up to £21 to £26 to embroider some of our signature cushions. Add to that the cost of fabric, inserts and shipping and a £75 price tag is justified. Some items do even better; the Christmas stocking pays between £8 and £10 and sells for £30.
Anwar’s brand advocates slow fashion and cultural revival using artisan skills, as opposed to fast fashion that produces products that are ultimately sold cheaply by the dozens. These products are thrown away as easily as they were made, creating waste and a high carbon footprint. At Sadia Anwar, each piece travels through the hands of several women, hands that imbue these products with a unique spirit. Nothing they create is mass-produced – each piece goes through rigorous quality control and each piece sings its own unique story.
Has it always been so 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 shared my knowledge with them, but [I’ve] also learned a lot in return. Today our approach is to create thoughtful, high quality pieces that can be treasured forever, that transcend time. We buy unused fabrics and use leftover fabrics and yarns. We even use fabric scraps as stuffing.
Saima, an early member of The Butterfly Project, recalls one of his first experiences with the company. “The first time we started working there was a very detailed design of an owl and a total of eight different colors to use. Just look at it [made] two of the embroiderers leave! It was unlike anything I had worked on before. I used to do simple traditional designs in one or two colors. It seemed like a challenge and it was, but we learned. Now I can embroider this owl in my sleep!
Was Saima’s experience working with the brand different from other places? “When we worked for other NGOs and shops, we were paid like peanuts,” she explains. “Most of the samples have still not been paid for. Madame Sadia still pays us, even for samples and work that does not meet the required quality. She also gives a lot of attention and direct attention, there is no There’s no middleman. I’ve worked for some brands that still owe me money.”
After working with Anwar, artisans now know their rights when it comes to commissioned work – they should ask for a percentage of the money upfront, sign contracts, be persistent, and most importantly, they should never be ashamed to ask them what they deserve.
Just like Saima, Shakeela – who has worked with Anwar since 2014 – has also sung her and her company’s praises. “At Sadia Anwar, we are treated with the utmost care and respect. We hope the business will thrive and we will continue to work with her.”
Handmade products always have a story to tell and offer a unique, almost personal experience. The craftsmen have spent precious hours embroidering with the utmost perfection. One of their bestsellers, called The Fountain of Youth, is a fascinating display of fine embroidery, color and design skills. Another customer favorite is the color geometry – with small, brightly colored triangles sewn together, this pillow is made from leftover yarn.
“My products stand out because they are handcrafted using traditional embroidery techniques. When using silk threads, the brilliant luster of hand embroidery is much better than that of machine-made embroidery,” Anwar points out. “It makes a big difference.
The journey after Covid-19 hit
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the business, however, the women of The Butterfly Project are still keeping their spirits up. Given that the pandemic is still ongoing, what’s 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,” says Anwar. “They are independent and also work on other projects. Production had to be shut down during the pandemic but will soon be operational again. In the near future, I want to set up a sewing and embroidery unit for my team and have embroidery poles in all these cities [we’re situated in]. For now though, we’re sticking with what’s worked for us. There is currently a new collection in the works that will be our best yet!
Sadia Anwar now stocks her products at Wolf and Badger, a chain of high-end lifestyle stores that sell luxury goods around the world. It was a proud moment for Anwar and his team to have their products on the shelves in such an internationally renowned store. The Wolf and Badger website features cushion covers and small clutches by Sadia Anwar right now, with each piece a unique showcase of vibrant colors and meticulous embroidery.
While Anwar is known for her cushion covers, clutches and stocking stuffers, has she ever designed clothes? “Yes, I’ve done clothes before,” replies the designer. “I plan to do it again, but it’s just been really hard to produce anything new given the pandemic and all the travel restrictions it’s caused.”
What makes The Butterfly Project special is not just its products, but rather how the project works with and for women. This creates a community of skilled women who might have been forced into domestic roles. The Butterfly Project gives them the opportunity to learn skills like sewing, pattern making and embroidery, while working flexible hours from the comfort of their own homes.
In this uplifting journey, these women are never alone. “They sit with other artisans and work on their embroidery,” Anwar points out. “We always recruit three to six people from the same sector so that they can have a center in the neighborhood. It’s a great bonding exercise – they all get together, put on some music, chat and work their magic on the looms.”
Overall, The Butterfly Project isn’t just about slow fashion or maintaining traditional craftsmanship, it’s about creating a community of female artisans who are always there for each other and proudly exemplify what it means to be empowered Pakistani women.