• Manon Raath

The story behind Vyanni.

More than a year ago my husband and I went to Sri Lanka for our honeymoon. We are suckers for a good adventure and boy did we get one! Sri Lanka is amazing! The food, the colours, the people…

One of our little adventures led us to Olga and Krishan – the founders of Vyanni, a hand-loom workshop enabling women in rural Sri Lanka to continue working with an age old craft, but with a new spin on it.

From the moment I saw their textiles I fell in love with it and when I heard that it was produced in an ethical way, celebrating the skill of artisans with so much to give, I loved it even more. Needless to say I left that day with bags full of fabric and couldn’t wait to start sewing.

Creating Lief has given us an opportunity to work with Vyanni on an ongoing basis, and we are so excited to see what the future will bring.

I have been in contact with Olga (Covid is making it a bit difficult to see her in person) and asked her a few questions about her business so we can share with you what they are all about and the amazing work they are doing.

How did you begin Vyanni?

We launched in 2013, but we started from scratch, literary, we had no previous experience with handloom and had very little money to start with.

What inspired us to venture into an unknown field and start swimming against the tide?

We were roaming the hinterland of the southern coast and came across a handloom workshop in a remote village. It was empty, with just one woman around and 10 or so handlooms, a few obviously in use, others idle. The place looked kind of forlorn but unbelievably pristine.

I was stunned. It was the sort of moment that you experience rarely or never in your life, when you have the feeling that you are transported back to the beginning of time and that you need to do something to share that experience with others.

Nowadays (even before the corona crisis) you can hear a lot of talk about reviving the handloom industry in Sri Lanka. Well, I suppose in the past it was much more widespread, but it never died out completely. The problem is that both the handloom owners and weavers got stuck in time while local designers and entrepreneurs either lack knowledge or the will to venture into a handloom business and elevate it to a higher level. There are several large local companies that have all the resources needed, but for some unfathomable reason they stick to the old designs and patterns that have been reproduced for ages. I believe that by pursuing that approach they simply killed the joy and turned handloom industry into a dead horse.

So we were determined to give it a new lease on life. New patterns, new color combinations, something appealing, something that easily blends with modern interiors while preserving the authenticity and tradition.

Tell me about the workshop, what you do and make.

We have 7 handlooms, 2 workers who roll the yarn and a man who runs the workshop (Krishan's brother in law). He is young and eager to learn, and over the past few years he's become our best weaver.

We use only high quality cotton. We'd like to use bamboo, linen and other natural fibers, but it's very difficult to buy those on the local market and we're too small (and have no money) to start importing bigger quantities ourselves.

Most of our fabrics are shot cotton fabrics with a more or less strong sheen giving the fabric a silky look. The intensity of the sheen depends on the colours used - highly contrasting colours in the warp and weft will produce a very strong sheen that will prevail depending on the viewing angle and light, and will be accentuated with rich folds as in curtains. In three- (or more) colour mixtures, the warp or the weft (or both) is a blend of two (or more) colours producing an intricate overall effect.

Tell us about the weavers and people working in the workshop.

We work in a rural community and all our weavers are rural women in their 60’s. For at least three of them weaving is practically the only source of income. Others have families and children and perhaps have some other sources of income, but probably insufficient.

Our methods of work and approach to improvement are very specific and adapted to our workers’ needs, aspirations and lifestyles. We appreciate the traditional values that guide their lives and take care not to interfere with them, while introducing small but meaningful changes that can improve the quality of their lives. On the whole, we seek to unleash their hidden talents and creativity that have so far been largely suppressed due to a combination of social and cultural factors.

There is another component of this enterprise that I find very important although it may not be so obvious. For rural women life revolves around household chores and raising children/grandchildren. There is not much socializing or entertainment apart from family gatherings on special occasion. A job is a way for them to escape from the monotony of everyday life. Our workshop is a very informal environment, they are asked to come to work at a specific time every day but they are never forced in any way to do it.

Our workshop has a kitchen where they all gather for a meal, morning and afternoon teas and have time to chat. Initially, there were some frictions among workers, but over time the atmosphere changed, and they now seem to be a very cooperative and happy team.

More importantly, they seem to enjoy what they’re doing, I can see pride in their eyes when we praise their work and the value of it. And one detail that I find very moving is that every year in late April they organize themselves and come together to our house to wish us a happy new year (new year is celebrated in Sri Lanka on April 14) bringing a lot of gifts. It’s not gifts as such that are important, but the gesture and the kind of gifts (homemade cakes, flowers and fruits from their gardens etc.) and the way they present them to us, with pride and warmth.

What are your plans for the future? How can we help or get involved?

Our aim is to give a new lease on life to hand weaving in the southern part of Sri Lanka, and to achieve this we adhere to a set of carefully thought out principles.

1) Our weavers should be able to earn an above-average living wage.

2) We will take pains to avoid every form of mass production in favour of unique pieces and limited series

3) Our products will be distinguished for their quality and design.

4) Our customers are our partners in development.

In this way, we hope to attract younger generations to learn the craft of weaving, highlight the timeless value of handcrafts and redefine the general approach to them.

To enable our customers to appreciate fully the products they buy from us, we offer guided tours of our workshop (limited to 4 people per group). In addition to learning about every stage of the weaving process, they also have the opportunity to meet weavers and gain a glimpse into the rural life of Sri Lanka. Our steadily growing customer base is proof that we have chosen the right path.

The biggest threat to the handloom industry seems to be the perception of traditional crafts among younger generations. On the whole, the wages are low, which is certainly one of the deterrents, but by no means the only one and perhaps not even the most important one. It’s rather the perceived lack of prospect that stifles interest in this (and similar) traditional crafts, but it is a problem that needs to be tackled on a wider basis. Our weavers earn 2 to 3 times more than weavers in government workshops (and, we dare say, in other private companies), but we would need to invest in the education and training of younger women.

If you would like to find out more, have a look at their website or Instagram.

Would you like to own a Vyanni piece? All our dresses are made with Vyanni fabrics or check out our homewares section to see what pieces we have that's been made with Vyanni.

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