Sheela and Chris Adby met at a Zen meditation centre in India. Having run out of funds, Chris returned to England with some scarves to sell – and from there York Scarves was born. Later, Sheela joined him in York and now both travel to India regularly to develop their ranges and for Sheela to visit her family.
Most of their scarves and shawls are made in Bihar – one of the poorest places in India, ruled for decades by thuggish politicians who played caste politics to hold power whilst the state crumbled. The co-operative which makes for York Scarves is unusual in that it has not worked through agents but developed ranges to sell directly to companies in eighteen countries. This means that families working under the co-operative umbrella are paid properly and have a chance to feed, clothe and educate their families. When Sheela and Chris first started to work with them in 2006, they were not exporting at all and the increase in sales to other countries is largely due to their encouragement and strong orders for the UK market.
122 families are registered as members and the general structure is along cottage industry lines with different households specialising in different elements of production including tasseling, weaving, dying and finishing. They now have approximately 200 traditional handlooms, a similar number of power looms and are saving up for digital printing machines.
Sheela is understandably proud of having developed a simple netting scarf which can be made on a ‘handloom’ literally made from two pieces of wood and some nails. This enables people with no machinery resources – mainly single women – to still earn a living. They are the most popular of York Scarves’ range with wonderful jewel colours making them an ideal lightweight accessory.
The York Scarves range is now diverse with Sheela developing many new designs with her supplier. Cotton woven tartans feature traditional patterns in lightweight cotton which are warm, soft, stylish and easy on the purse, while ruched cottons woven at three metres with elasticated threads to pull them up are ultra warm and combine colour and texture in unusual effects.
York Scarves has been active over the last few years looking for new markets and continuing to develop its business model. As part of this growth they have financed a new automatic loom for their weavers. The art of weaving has not changed over thousands of years but the tools used to produce woven pieces have changed radically. The old traditional handlooms still have their place and are a valuable tool but a weaver can only produce two or three scarves a day with this technology. Most of York Scarves’ products are made on fairly rudimentary powered looms which produce about 12 pieces per day. The new automatic loom, although still fairly basic when compared to modern computerised looms, is still a big step up and allows production of more complicated designs at a rate of around 30 pieces each day. Despite the term ‘automatic’, the loom still requires a highly trained weaver to be in attendance at all times and the setting-up work involved is still long and highly skilled. With this new investment, the weavers can make ten times the number per day compared to a handloom, benefiting the workers with an improved income. If business allows, the company hopes to buy a second automatic loom later this year.
Hear Sheela and Chris speak about their range on the video made by one of our talented volunteers, Jonathan Woodward.