Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Starting a Start-Up

Folks often ask us about how we started Kara Weaves; so here's the whole story:
Indu, myself (Chitra), Sreedevi and Revathy
We are a small hand-loom weaving project run primarily by Indu Menon and myself, Chitra. Our co-enthusiasts/ co-partners are B. Sreedevi (a hand-loom expert and dearest supporter) and Revathy Menon (a noted Indian film actress and director who is one of our most enthusiastic motivators). We did not intentionally start it as a women-only organization; the fact that we are is purely co-incidental. :) 

A constant source of encouragement for our work comes from Lakshmi Menon, who steps in as a catalyst for our brainstorming sessions, travel to the weaving centers, photo shoot, product design and our invaluable sounding board. Celine George, the Delhi-based HR professional is also someone we connect with, when developing new ideas and strategists. A.R Sathish, an entrepreneur and business professional in Kochi, was also instrumental in providing us advice when we initially started our partnership firm with a lot of insight on managing our finances and paperwork. Our spouses (Indu's and mine) have also, over the years, provided a lot of feedback and objective criticism to help our brand develop and are an integral part of our core advisory group.
One of the weavers at our local handloom weaving co-operative in Kanjiramattom
But current stories aside, how did our brand really come about to be?
I'm going to rewind a bit to the winter of 2005 in New Delhi. Indu and I had just moved back to India after several years abroad: Indu as a social anthropologist in the Faculty of Medicine in Kuwait and myself a freshly minted graphic designer with an MFA from Paris. Almost a decade ago Indu had co-authored a book on Women Weavers of South India while working at the IIM in Ahmedabad. On a whim, she decided to revisit some of those weaving communities in Kerala and was appalled to see how poorly they were doing. Several visits to Kerala and several conversations later, we felt frustrated by how these talented artisans who were ironically languishing for lack of demand for their work.
Mani chettan, the master weaver at our local weaving co-operative in Kerala
Adding together our collective skills of social anthropology, and commercial design + branding, we figured that what this fabric needed was a “shift” in perception. Initially we established a partnership venture between Indu, Sreedevi, Revathy and Suryakala. (Surya has since recently, moved on to other projects, though she is still one of our dearest supporters and enthusiasts).

In early 2006 we contacted several weaving co-operatives in Kerala and started to establish what would turn out to be a long and fruitful collaboration. These government-run co-operatives were set up in the 1960′s across the state to support the hand-weaving industry. The co-operatives were a mixed bag of success stories: some units had hundreds of weavers and flourished whereas others were reduced to a handful of weavers, impoverished and unmotivated. The influx of machine-made cloth in recent times, the lack of demand for this slow-woven fabric and the poor pay in this industry were some key factors bringing down these weaving co-operatives.

Kalyaniamma spins the cotton yarn, at our local weaving co-operative
We decided to engage with some of these dwindling units, a few which were our local weaving centers (pictured above), and started to chart out a plan to uplift them. By working with a combination of the flourishing and the suffering co-operatives, we charted out a plan that we felt would be the most appropriate way to impact the suffering units. 

After several months of experimenting with the design and fabrication of the fabric products, we came up with a variety of pieces ranging from bath item to curtains to bed linens.
The fabrics we initially worked with: Thorthu on the left and Kasavu on the right
We worked with two types of fabrics at the time: the hyper absorbent towel weave and the fine cotton weave with metallic threads. Being our first foray into commercial retail, we decided this variety would help us determine which products were better received than the others. In hindsight this looks like a big risk, but we decided “experiment” was going to be our middle name. The fact that we were outsiders to commercial retail may also have been a big factor in that decision, but we were in uncharted waters with our strange combination: an online store + Kerala hand-loom + a lot of graphic design and social anthropology expertise. (More on this in a later post!)

Since we started this project in a small and self-financed way, our first instinct was to set up a website to promote the work. This way we could reach out to a larger audience at the same time be best suited to the small team we were. Our first site consisted of a simple landing page with a downloadable pdf of products.
Screenshot of our first webpage and online catalog
And thus flickered to life one rainy morning in July, on the new broadband internet connection that had just arrived in Kanjiramattom. Hello world!


  1. hi!

    your posts have been incredibly inspiring!I have followed Kara for over a year now, being here in London and now Im looking to relocate to India. I would love to be part of the sort of work you are doing, therefore do let me know if you require anyone with adequate retail experience as I'd be very happy to offer and learn on the go! My email address:

    1. Hi Akanksha, this reply is so much later than hoped! Hope you are doing well and happily relocated to India by now. We have moved from posting here on the blog to more on our Instagram channel. Hence I missed this comment from you. Email me at if you are still interested in working with us!


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