Re-envisaging community

Re-envisaging community

When you become a mother, you become part of a global community of women who want to do all that they can to give their children the best start in life.

We continually reflect on how we can use the collaborative power of community to build better futures for the next generation….

I was planning to head over to Bangladesh in May, to introduce my just-turned-one year old twin daughters to their Bangladeshi family members, and set up Khushi Kantha (‘Happy Blanket’ in Bengali), the social enterprise I am launching.
Khushi Kantha’s mission is to create opportunities for mothers from the communities hosting the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity, and promote the circular economy, by making and selling ultra-soft, eco-friendly, multi-purpose baby ‘kantha’ blankets, hand-stitched from reclaimed cotton.
‘Kantha’ (which translates as “stitched cloth”) refers to the tradition of mothers crafting blankets for their babies by stitching together their old saris. It is also the name given to the traditional embroidery stitch that is applied over the top. ‘Kantha’ can also simply mean ‘blanket’. ‘Khushi’ is the Bengali term for ‘happy’ – ‘Khushi Kantha’ therefore means ‘Happy Blanket’.
I was excited to reconnect with the incredible colleagues I’d worked with on the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. I spent nearly a year, including the first half of my twin pregnancy, based in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Despite being one of the poorest parts of a very poor country, the local population have welcomed nearly 1 million Rohingya men, women and children who have fled across the border from Myanmar to escape human rights atrocities. I was part of a team providing food, shelter, child protection, education and other essential services. During my time in Cox’s Bazar, I was really struck by how much the host community struggling with the devastating impacts of the crisis on their already precarious incomes, especially as humanitarian agencies were focusing on the refugees.
I couldn’t wait to finally translate my vision into reality, by spending some proper time with mothers from the  communities Khushi Kantha will partner with, to understand how we can most effectively create opportunities for them to draw on their cultural heritage and use their existing ‘kantha’ embroidery skills to earn sustainable incomes.

Time for a rethink:

Then Covid-19 happened. Like the rest of the world, I had to rethink my plans.

In the early days of the pandemic, I focused on using the training I’ve been receiving through Cambridge Social Ventures’ Social Venture incubator, housed within Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, to register Khushi Kantha as a Community Interest Company, and figure out how I could make the best of the situation. I’ve been so lucky to be part of this incredible programme, alongside other brilliant social enterprises, like Little Box of Books and Safe Soulmates.  I put lots of energy into developing Khushi Kantha’s branding, marketing strategy, and financial model, with pro-bono support from some lovely people. 

But I was conscious that what I really needed to do was test the market. Having worked in the international development and humanitarian sectors for thirteen years, the last thing I want to do is raise expectations among the mothers who will create our blankets that I won’t be able to meet if Khushi Kantha can’t find any customers!


Saved by the South London Scrubbers!

My initial plan was to partner with the British Bangladesh community. Unfortunately that hasn’t proved possible, at least for now. Each blanket takes approximately twenty hours to hand-stitch, and it wouldn’t be financially feasible for me to pay the London Living Wage of £10.75 an hour (i.e. taking the cost of producing each blanket to over £200 without even factoring in raw materials or any other associated costs). But it’s been great to connect with some fantastic social enterprises working with these communities, like Juta Shoes and Oitij-Jo, and I’m excited to explore opportunities to collaborate in the future – for example, through running workshops where customers can learn how to make their own Khushi Kanthas…but that’s the subject for another blogpost!

I was just about ready to give up on the whole idea – or at least postpone things until my daughters were slightly older, and I had more time, headspace and disposable income(!) – when the South London Scrubbers came to the rescue!




My family friend Helen (our mums met in antenatal classes, so I’ve literally known her all my life!) is a core member of the ‘Scrubbers’. She has been a vital part of Khushi Kantha from the very beginning, providing me with technical guidance. Sewing is very much not my forte – in fact, I can barely thread a needle! An ex-designer and pattern cutter in the fashion and textiles industry, Helen over 20 years’ experience as a Design Technology teacher, and is passionate about teaching students about recycling and restyling textile products.

Helen very kindly offered to make the first couple of blankets, to get us started. But a time investment of up to 20 hours per blanket meant it was too much work for just one person! Luckily she was able to convince some other friends to get involved….and a serendipitous conversation with my lovely neighbour Lucinda revealed that not only was she very handy with a needle herself, but she also had a brilliant network of talented sewers who she was able to bring on board.



Stitched with the strength, spirit and story of community

Covid-19 is having a devastating impact all over the world, not least in the communities Khushi Kantha will ultimately be working with. But on a local level, the pandemic has generated a brilliant sense of community spirit, from the hundreds of mutual aid groups that have sprung up all around London, to the incredible Home Community Cafe, who have operated a vital food hub, and the Earlsfield Together network, to name just a couple of examples in my own neighbourhood.

Inspired by Khushi Kantha’s vision of using the collaborative power of a global community of mothers to build better futures for the next generation, they volunteered to stitch our first collection of twenty blankets (which has ended up being nineteen, as one went slightly wrong!)

“When I saw what the people of Bangladesh were doing for the refugees of Myanmar, I was very touched. When you have so little yourself, but are prepared to share that with someone who has nothing, that is a truly inspirational quality. In comparison, I have so much, and I wanted to give something.
I loved the idea of the women sewing a gift to pass down to their children.
And quite by chance, the simple joy of hand sewing came at a time after I had spent many hours at my sewing machine. I think I can safely say I enjoyed sewing every stitch of every line and swirl in the beautiful design.
I loved being part of the Khushi Kantha group, and wish them every success!”

Gill Howe, Volunteer stitcher


Repurposing the ‘kantha’ tradition

We plan to reserve the traditionally-used reclaimed saris for the inside layers of our blankets, and source deadstock cotton fabric for the outside, to which the traditional ‘kantha’ embroidery stitch is applied. Bangladesh is famous for its garments industry. Lots of fabric sadly ends up getting wasted at various stages of the supply chain. This is a particular challenge the industry is facing right now, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We want to collaborate with like-minded companies to rescue this fabric from landfill.

However, given the challenges Covid-19 has posed for our supply chain, we’ve created our debut collection from slightly different materials than we will ultimately be using.

The inside layers are made from a combination of vintage cotton saris from Bangladesh and cotton muslin from my local South Asian market that is typically used by Sikh men for turbans and Muslim women for hijabs, as recommended by local ‘kantha’ expert Surjeet Husain – it’s what she uses when she teaches ‘kantha’ workshops at the V&A Museum.

We didn’t have enough cotton saris to be used in all the blankets, and were unable to source any more from Bangladesh under current circumstances. When I asked my British South Asian friends if they or their family members might have any old cotton saris they would be willing to donate, they explained that in the UK, women tend to only own very ornate saris, which they wear to weddings and other festive occasions. While some of them very kindly offered us these, they weren’t quite what we were looking for!


Then for the outside layers we’ve used surplus cotton fabric from John Lewis (originally donated to the South London Scrubbers and kindly passed onto us, as it proved surplus to their requirements) and purchased cotton fabric from Higgs and Higgs, Wimbledon Sewing Machines and, as we weren’t able to secure enough deadstock within the timeframe we needed it by.

But I’ve been having some very exciting discussions with household name brands who are interested in supplying Khushi Kantha with fabric, as well as exploring opportunities through ‘matching’ platforms like Reverse Resources and Reflaunt. Watch this space for updates!


Preparing to launch

The final step before launching sales is safety testing…..but that deserves its own blogpost – our circular production model has made things quite complicated!

I’ll be selling Khushi Kantha’s first, limited-edition collection of baby ‘kantha’ blankets through an online auction. The revenue we raise will enable us to set up production in Bangladesh, once it’s safe for my daughters and I to travel over there.



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