Ms. Hari Chandana, I.A.S. (2010)

Ms. Hari Chandana Dasari, I.A.S. (2010)

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How The Humble Sewing Machine Has Returned As A Powerful Tool Amid India’s Fight Against Covid-19

The humble sewing machine, with its subtle contribution in making reusable masks for the masses, has returned as a hero and symbol of self reliance once again.

If the sewing machine manages to make even a small dent in India’s Covid-19 numbers, some credit would go to the humble bobbin.

Earlier this month, District Collector and Magistrate of Narayanpet in Telangana, Hari Chandana Dasari, decided to launch a stitching drive to weaponise the ‘aspirational district's’ fight against Covid-19. The idea arrived after Dasari witnessed a meaningful gesture from some locals.

A tailor and some women from a local self-help group donated to the people working in the Narayanpet collectorate a bunch of home-stitched reusable masks. Looking at these masks, Dasari was convinced that she had stumbled upon Narayanpet's chance to go for a big mask-making project in the fight against the Covid-19 threat.

These masks are made of a local weave that breathes. In spirit and colours, the masks represent the story of the weaving tradition and related culture and heritage identities that Narayanpet is known for.

The gesture from the locals – of donating masks was meant to spread a message of well-being and gratitude towards the frontline workers. Dasari welcomed it.

She decided to widen the stitching drive in order to arm people of the Narayanpet district with reusable masks. The drive and step would go a long way in supporting the distribution of masks to people in the district, who cannot afford to buy masks, especially folks who are below poverty line (BPL).

Among them are people who are not comfortable wearing plastic ones. These are said to be hard to wear through the long hours of social distancing, and often tricky, when it comes to disposal.

The advisory and guidelines from the Union Health Ministry towards the importance and use of reusable masks in India's fight against coronavirus had already spurred some plans and measures at Dasari's end.

The advisory from the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs on homemade protective covers and face masks said: "certain countries have claimed benefits of homemade face cover for the general public. Such homemade face cover is a good method for maintaining personal hygiene..."

The advisory said that the face covering will benefit those people who are not suffering from breathing difficulties or medical conditions; the masks should be made in such a way that they cover the mouth and the nose.

It added: "this face cover is not recommended for either health workers or those working with or in contact with COVID 19 patients or are patients themselves as these categories of people are required to wear specified protective gear".

The Spur Of Team Narayanpet

Dasari wanted to align the stitching drive with the government advisory to help people in maintaining overall hygienic health conditions.

The masks donated by the visitors to the Narayanpet collectorate served as ready and usable samples and provided lessons for work and improvement in design, cutting and stitching.

The drive would be incomplete without the contribution, support and backing with material from the weavers of Telangana. The state is a hub of weaves and stories woven in cotton and silk. Within Telangana's diverse handloom and fabric heritage, Narayanpet is the cradle of cotton saris that women across India (such as this author) feel honoured to possess.

Fans of this weave across India are currently under the nationwide lockdown to fight Covid-19. So is the business of the weavers owing to the snapping of demand due to the lockdown. Dasari thought that it was time to provide the weavers some relief by providing them an opportunity to sell the fabric they create.

Dasari ‘analysed’ that there were around 2,000 sewing machines in the district which include sewing machines given to women in the district under various programmes. The hands that stitch, the weavers who would provide the material, and the tailor who would help push the design and procedure – all fell in place.

The women tailors were provided with machines and other equipment for cutting and working. The music and rhythm of the sewing machines began.

Dasari decided to rope in the local weavers for procuring the cloth after the first order of 2 lakh reusable masks looking at the increase in demand. Today, the women tailors are deft at making single-layer, double-layer and triple-layer masks. Out of these, the double-layer masks are the most in demand and popular.

Dasari tells Swarajya, "I realised that it was not only benefiting the well-being of people in the district, but would also help in firming the livelihood of weavers and SHGs during these difficult times. Officials from District Rural Development Agencies helped in training the women tailors in the stitching of the masks as per the government guidelines”.

There are masks that suit the needs of doctors practising Ayurveda. The women tailors in Narayanpet are creating masks to meet that demand as well.

There were some small hiccups initially pertaining to the stringing and a few stitching and design aspects related to fitting and longevity. The team worked on these issues. Now, all is in flow. "Some people placing orders even fancy the Pochampally weave," Dasari adds.

So, weavers in Narayanpet who know weavers working on the Pochampally tradition of weaves, are helping in procuring the material.

Thanks to Dasari's propelling of the initiative, sewing machines have acquired a new meaning in Narayanpet.

Stamp Of Solidarity From India's First Lady

Sewing machines have become the district's instrument in its fight against the spread of Covid-19 , just as they have in other parts of India – involving women from various walks of life.

The women using sewing machines for making masks have some things in common. They want to extend reusable masks to people who cannot afford either buying masks available in the market; they are driven by social work; they value the role of reusable masks in India's fight against Covid-19; their love for sewing machines.

Recently, an image of Savita Kovind, wife of President Ram Nath Kovind, flooded social media and news. The image showed Savita Kovind stitching face masks at Shakti Haat at the President's Estate. Her instrument in the powerful activity was a sewing machine – a conventional version of it.

Her eyes were focused on the material, and her deft fingers positioned to run and turn the cloth under the needle. She herself was wearing a bold red and snug home stitched mask in the picture.

The First Lady's contribution carries symbolic meaning and emotion. It speaks of her own pride in roots and belief in roles and gender roles.

The Sewing Machine Sisterhood

During the last one month, several other women have used their own will, their sewing machines and their own material to stitch reusable masks for mask have-nots.

Among them are Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan's wife Mridula and daughter Naimisha, members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Mumbai, members of the Green Group, which is a group of women volunteers dedicated to the fight against alcoholism and domestic violence in Naxal-hit villages of Purvanchal, and several unknown women.

BJP Member of Parliament from Hazaribagh, Jayant Sinha, recently shared a short video of Gita Devi, a volunteer who is leading 25 ‘didis’ in the stitching of reusable masks for the masses. The team had produced 8,000 masks till the time of Sinha's post on Twitter.

Didis for the unknown tailors stitching the masks – and ‘Amma’ – in reference to the First Lady reminds one of an additional association. It is the association of the activity of sewing, stitching and the sewing machine with women in Indian villages and India's middle class. The association of women with the sewing machine lived as an emotion in many Indian households – largely – until the late 1990s.

The Covid-19 scenario has seen the humble sewing machine return as a hero and symbol of self reliance once again.

It has raked out oodles of nostalgia of women and sewing machines making music together. Self reliance, saving and creativity were at the core of the relationship between a machine and women.

The interdependence of homemakers on the sewing machine, back then, would be a bit more than mere occasional mending of clothes and hem-tucking. The sewing-machine blended with the woman's life in the household. It also blended with the family's emotional milestones.

Getting the sewing machine home was a moment of celebration. Some sewing machines would be cradled by women of two generations – even three.

Sewing machines would stand by women during pregnancies. The carrying, bloating and retaining the body shape would be well tucked into and covered by the sewing machine.

In my part of the country, many women, especially single women, or single mothers, would take to the sewing machine for income and additional income. The sewing machine would help them use their skills, creativity and business sense towards a life of dignity.

These were purposes as diverse as the types of movements in a sewing machine – circular, linear, periodic.

Needling The Covid-19 Challenge

The current social context of the use of sewing machines in India's work to defeat adversity is a serious cause.

The field of play is much bigger. It is India – as one household.

The sewing machine is helping those people in the fight against Covid-19, who deserve protection in addition to social distancing, have no access to masks at all. It helps the ‘have-nots’ with masks that breathe, are handy and washable.

The bigger machines are doing their job, braving the larger portion of the burden. Firms in Ludhiana are creating PPE kits for frontline warriors under orders worth Rs 200 crore from the Centre. In March, Suhani Mohan and Kartik Mehta – co-founders of a sanitary pad manufacturing set-up turned to their machines for the manufacturing of masks. They arrived at a design. Help with material arrived from Anand Mahindra.

The founding team produced 3,000 three-ply surgical masks in the first go earlier this month. There has been no looking back since. Similar efforts are on in other parts of India.

I found a thread on Twitter about a team of women tailors meticulously working in Bhopal to make reusable masks reach the masses. The women of the organisation seem to be making an impressive impact.

Currently, Dasari is keeping a close watch on the demand for masks. She has received requests for masks from other districts in the region.

Recently, she received a request from Bengaluru. Going by the demand, the number of women tailors required to stitch the masks swings between 650 and 2,000. The drive has looped in 400 weavers, who offer the exquisite Narayanpet cotton handloom.

Challenges are different in Khushiyari village near Varanasi. Here, Asha Devi, who is one of the volunteers fighting domestic violence in Naxal-hit villages in Purvanchal is wondering how she would find replacements for two out of the four sewing machines the women in the village shared.

The two machines are not working. That is a bit of a hindrance and momentum breaker in their mask-stitching drive.

Procuring material, too, is a struggle. She says, "we picked up pieces of cloth that were lying at home to stitch the masks. The shops are shut, so we are short of material."

Who taught them the cutting of the cloth for masks? Asha Devi says, "we applied our own collective sense. We kept in mind what's required to protect a person from a dangerous infection. It covers the nose and the mouth."

So far, their group has stitched more than 200 reusable cloth masks and distributed it to the elderly and children.

Sewing machines have helped women such as Asha Devi fight domestic violence, and have given them dignity and self reliance. Now, the sewing machine is their instrument in the fight against the aggression of Covid-19.

In India's long and arduous work against the virus, the humble and subtle contribution of the sewing machine in making reusable masks for the masses is likely to remain less noticed.

If the sewing machine manages to make even a small dent in India's Covid-19 numbers, some credit for India's dignified fight against the pandemic, would go to the humble bobbin.