East meets West: Regenerating the ‘kantha’ tradition

East meets West: Regenerating the ‘kantha’ tradition

Part One: The Initial Idea

This quote from Swiss-born, British-Iraqi designer Walud Al Damirji encapsulates the ethos of kantha – it’s all about regeneration.
Khushi Kantha (‘which translates as ‘Happy Blanket’) is reworking the kantha tradition of mothers repurposing their old saris into blankets for their babies to meet global hygiene and safety standards and bring the cultural heritage of Bangladesh to a new audience.

Opi and Mahi swaddled in their traditional Bengali kantha blankets hours after they were born
When my half-British, half-Bangladeshi daughters were born, we were gifted a large collection of more than twenty traditional kantha blankets, lovingly handmade by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, with help from the wider community.
I was so touched by their generosity, but slightly baffled about what to do so with so many blankets! However, I soon realised that they could be used for just about every task on my daily parenting ‘to-do list‘ – while their striking kantha stitching and vibrant colours drew compliments wherever we went.
I began to think that there could be a market for them – and that this was how I could create opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity.

Not just a blanket – Khushi Kanthas make great mini playmats, Moses basket liners and breastfeeding cover – and they can help keep little ones snuggly in a sling!

Taking the first steps

I started doing some informal ‘customer research’ with friends and family who represented my target market.

Their enthusiasm was encouraging – but several pregnant friends raised safety and hygiene concerns. It was clear that people thought the blankets were beautiful, and they loved the story behind the kantha tradition, but some had reservations about wrapping their precious newborn in a secondhand sari.

And when I spoke to my in-laws about the original blankets that inspired the idea, they explained that many of them were actually made from new cotton purchased from a local market, because they felt that this would be more appropriate for me as a bideshi (foreigner) mother.

This made me realise another simple but important point: whether simple or elaborate, block-printed or woven, saris are all about the pattern.

But my favourite blankets from my daughters’ collection – the ones that I’d always reach for first – were those made from plain fabric in a single colour, with more elaborate stitching.

Which do you prefer – the plain or the patterned blankets?

Following the initial conversations with family and friends, I created a target customer survey, so I could get a broader and more objective perspective on my plans.  

The findings revealed that there was a strong overall preference for the plain coloured blankets over those made from the traditional patterned cotton saris:

‘”Fairly plain but with a bit of colour in the stitching is my favourite, especially in the more forest/natural colours.”

“The very detailed, busy prints are not to my personal tastes. I prefer the bolder, block coloured blankets.

“The plain ones are more versatile, as they wouldn’t clash with patterns on clothing’

Those who liked the patterned ones best REALLY liked them  – but the majority of people I surveyed said they were much more likely to buy the plain ones, whether for their own babies or as a gift for someone else.  

“Give the people what they want!"

This made me think back to my interview for the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator, which has been instrumental in helping me turn my social enterprise vision into reality.
The first thing my interviewers stressed was that if I wanted to generate sustainable incomes for Bangladeshi mothers, I couldn’t rely on ‘pity purchases’. I had to offer something that people wanted to buy on its own merit – the social impact associated with the purchase was important, but it would not be the crux of my customers’ purchasing decisions.
Their advice really resonated with me as I reflected on the various well-meaning initiatives I’ve encountered while living and working in Bangladesh and other countries around the world that ultimately failed to gain traction because there wasn’t a sufficient market for what they were selling.
I realised that I needed to come up with a product I could sell at a scale that would enable the Bangladeshi mothers Khushi Kantha is partnering with to provide for their children month in, month out. My fourteen years of experience in the international development sector has shown me that predictability of income is vital in order for families to make the kind of long-term decisions that really lift them out of poverty – like investing in sending children to school.
This meant that if I was going to sell the blankets in the UK and other countries where ethically-minded customers would pay the prices I’d need to charge in order for Khushi Kantha to be sustainable, we would need to adapt the traditional approach.
In Part Two of this blogpost, I’ll explain how I’ve been putting this realisation into practice, by regenerating the kantha technique in order to meet global hygiene and safety standards and respond to the design preferences of our target customers, while retaining the design principles of reclaim-repurpose-reuse.

Our one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly, multi-purpose baby blankets are now available for pre-order  –  drop me a line on laura.rana@khushikantha.com for more details. Every purchase helps create opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity.
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