Crafting Designer Ritu Patel Empowers Female Villagers through Embroidery

Fifteen years ago, a chance encounter forever altered the course of Ritu Patel’s life, as well as the lives of hundreds of Indian villagers. While visiting family on the Indo-Pakistani border, Patel stumbled into a room where an artist from the remote Indian village of Kutch was creating intricate murals on the walls using mud and tiny mirrors. Struck by the man’s craftsmanship and finesse, she recognized she could help alleviate the villagers’ endemic poverty by translating their traditional handiwork into goods the modern world would consume. And in that room, Craftings was born. 

“I was so fascinated by his work, but I realized that my generation of people doesn’t want to be associated with the villages because they find them very outdated and boring,” she said over coffee in New York, where she’d recently showcased her work through Commit2Change. “That was my challenge. How can I make it modern so that the villagers can improve their livelihood? This artist was dying for work and he had so much skill.”

Patel began her career in graphic design, but after having two daughters, she realized the work left her feeling drained and unfulfilled. “I realized graphics was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something more meaningful,” she said. So she decided to visit the villages and revive their art form. Her Goal was to revive the lost tradition and revive these dying arts by adding a contemporary touch and syncing them with today’s lifestyle.

At first Patel hired villagers to create their customary mirror work on decorative trays and picture frames, but it wasn’t until she discovered their inimitable embroidery skills that Craftings really took off. She began to place orders with the villagers for bolts of painstakingly embroidered fabric she herself would transform into modern garments.

“It started off as a small exhibition, and it became a rage” Patel recalls. “Suddenly, I had buyers from all over the world wanting my goods.” But when business was at its peak, the designer had to make the incredibly difficult decision to close shop. She realized that with the amount of travel and hours she was pouring into Craftings, her own young daughters were being neglected. And so for more than a decade, her work with India’s poor villagers was put on hold. Fast-forward to the present, and Patel, now an empty nester, was free to dedicate herself to Craftings again in good conscience. But when she revisited Kutch, she was alarmed to realize the village women hadn’t had any outside work since she last collaborated with them for Craftings. This is largely because of their isolation, both coincidental and enforced. Patel said, women aren’t allowed to travel from one remote village to the next. A great distrust of outsiders, as well as a deeply patriarchal culture, besets these communities. Patel, though, had earned the villagers’ trust. For weeks at a time, she’s lived among her employees in their nomadic conditions, eating meals with them and gaining their confidence. They now call her "Ritu Ben,” “Ben” meaning “sister.” The fact she’s helped to provide them with regular income hasn’t hurt, either.

“I’m like their Santa Claus,” she laughs. “When I go to the villages, all of them come in hoardes. ‘Give us work, give us work!’ they say, because they know I’m somebody they can trust.” and work she gives them. Patel commissions embroidery from the villagers in certain colors that she then transfers onto pure silks and crepes hand-selected from Bombay, ultimately making her hand-drawn designs as individualized as possible. She and the villagers only make twelve items of each design, and they’re as sumptuously gorgeous as they are unique. Currently, Craftings works with seven villages, including one specializing only in gold thread work, and Patel hopes to expand that number soon. Prices for the collection range from $120 up to $350, depending on the amount of embroidery that’s gone into an item.

“See this one,” Patel says, pointing at a coral dress covered in swirling blue stitching. “It took the woman one year to do the embroidery on that garment. She’d work about two hours a day on it.” When it comes to payment, the designer says she always offers the women the highest possible premium to ensure they’re motivated to work. Between child rearing, housekeeping, and caring for their animals, free time in which to embroider is sparse, but irrefutably worthwhile. Craftings has singlehandedly enabled many of its 120 female workers to bring plumbing and electricity into their homes, and Patel especially hopes her business will help bolster future prospects for girls. Two percent of the proceeds from every garment is set aside expressly for the upliftment of the girl child, and Patel soon hopes to begin paying her female workers partially with bonds so they have more autonomy over their earnings. “I’m just very passionate about uplifting women and giving back to society,” she concluded. “I feel I have a short life left and I don’t want it to be meaningless. There’s much more I can contribute before leaving this world.” Ritu-Patel