5 women handicraft artists who run plastic-free businesses

By opting to pursue sustainable crafts and slow-art in a fleeting world, they are hoping to create as little harm as possible.
Aarthi Sivaramakrishnan
Aarthi Sivaramakrishnan
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When the bright, the easy, and the convenient are all made of plastic, in a world that is literally choking with them, here are some artists who try the best in their capacity to lessen the burden. By opting to pursue sustainable crafts and slow-art in a fleeting world, they are hoping to create as little harm as possible. They are happy to see that their efforts are able to inspire change, even if small. 

Priya Sreekumar: Priya is a handmade artist based in Kochi. She started out with papercraft about two years ago. She has now diversified into embroidery hoops, which includes interactive embroidery hoops. She picked up the slow art of embroidery as the craft allowed her more freedom than papercrafts; she could travel with a roll of thread and still be able to finish her orders on time.  One can be free of plastic-guilt when they buy from Priya.

“The only time I used plastic in my products was when I had to make an international shipment. That required me to wrap the embroidery hoop in a bubble wrap. I couldn’t bring myself to buy one, so I used the ones that had been lying around. Since then, I have always collected bubble wrap, which I love to do!” she says. Even though she knows more customers can be attracted with colorful plastics in her handmade products, she deems them unnecessary. When there are other alternatives before her, she doesn’t see why she shouldn’t rely on them instead.  She gets the drive to be sustainable from the people around her:  “When you keep the company of mindful people, you engage in such conversations, you start picking it up by yourself.”

She believes that as long as you make the ‘why I am doing it’ statement clear, people will come searching for you, the same way as this story, she asserts. “When I make an effort to opt for sustainable alternatives, my customers will also get inspired and start having these conversations themselves. That gives me much happiness,” she declares. Priya is determined to make the differences she can, however small they may be. While sustainability is one reason why customers buy from her, she thinks that personalisation - which can’t be store-bought - is another.  

Aarthi Sivaramakrishnan: Aarthi is the founder and the chief artist at The Color Company (TCC), a Chennai and Bengaluru based decor/gifts company. It was founded in 2016, as an Instagram page when Aarthi was left with several glass bottles that she didn’t want to be sent to the landfill. Aarthi calls herself a self-taught decoupage artist who reconnected with her forgotten interest during her pregnancy. Although she is a full-timer for TCC, she has managed to retain her background in HR, where she independently consults on various HR projects.

She grew up in an environment that valued sustainability, and that has influenced her deeply, she recalls. She believes that it is not just the materials that can be sustainable, the process can be energy-conserving too. Aarthi would rather dry her bottles in the sun than depend on a hairdryer - even if that takes more time; she prefers a bottle varnish over a spray varnish - even when it demands more effort.  She deals in a lot of upcycling, where the raw materials have to be worked on to make them fit for art in the first place - such as the case of a discarded block of wood or a curd bucket.  She aims to break the fear among customers that the upcycled products lack in quality. Therefore she makes sure that her products are on par with her unsustainable competitors.

“It is the joy that we did not let something go into the landfill, for me, joy is in being able to convince someone and being able to sell an upcycled product which is equivalent in quality to a store-bought product,” she affirms. Aarthi finds it very heartening that she is able to influence her clients to the extent that they now save commodities that she can upcycle. However, Aarthi accepts only those that cannot be recycled.  She also doesn’t indulge in a logo, a sticker, or a packaging that can build her brand identity but resorts to reused packaging. TCC is currently venturing into utilitarian art/decor as the next step towards sustainability. 

Aysha Jasrin: Although she was always into handicrafts, it was the lockdown that presented the B.Arch student based in Malappuram with extra time to start Le_arts, an Instagram page that deals in ‘Everything and anything handmade’. She started the page for herself, to exhibit her creation and not with the intention of selling them. However, soon she began receiving orders for her macrame arts and upcycled journals.  

Some of the first things she made include journals made from her torn leather bag and denim pants. There was never a shortage of denim to make junk journals out of in the beginning, thanks to her hostel mates and relatives. However, it has turned challenging now. Aysha was always environmentally conscious. She was always taunting her friends for being careless with plastic and was nicknamed the 'wastebasket’ for always collecting plastic and disposing of them properly. As someone who upheld that behaviour, she couldn’t stand to be two-faced even when it came to pursuing her art, she says. 

For her macrame art, she uses only recycled cotton. When it came to sending her products to her customers, she couldn’t find paper packaging that did the job. Plastic options were in plenty and were cheap but she couldn’t bear to make an addition to the existing bulk of plastic. Aysha didn’t give in and started making her own paper covers. She also upcycles scraps of old paper to make bookmarks and postcards; pickle bottles and other cans to make plant-holders.  “Plastic makes me really angry. It was when I began traveling that I noticed how plastic was everywhere. I cannot change everybody but I can change myself and the things I do,” she says.

There is a lot more effort, time, money, and energy that goes into keeping plastic away, “but I think it’s all worth it,” she assures. She doesn’t feel limited by the choices she cannot have. Rather, “I just feel that there are many possibilities, but it takes more effort to find them and get started with them.”  Aysha is also planning to add seed paper pens and recycled handmade papers into her collection. 

Urusha Maher: Urusha has always been into stationery and design. It was during one of her projects when she was studying for Architecture that she was disgruntled by piles of used paper lying around in godowns that seemed to be going nowhere. She bought a bulk of those papers which looked like they could still be put to good use. She made a couple of notebooks out of those distributed them among her friends. Her craft picked up from there when more people began to ask her for the customized notebooks she made. For the flaps of the book, she discovered that recycled cardboard papers were perfect which remains a signature style of the company she founded, The Paper Dolphin, in Chennai four years ago.

Picking up the skill was an easy task for her, thanks to those arts and craft classes during which she used to keenly sit on the front bench at school. Two reasons pushed Urusha towards creating sustainable stationery. One is that quality stationery is very expensive and the other is that in that case, it might just as well have some cause behind it. “Rather than just buying luxury stationery, why not have stationery which makes a difference,” she says.  For Urusha, being eco-friendly hadn’t been a priority until she got into this landscape. She is in the process of learning, she says.

“There is a lot to learn, I am just trying to implement whatever I know and try to learn new things. The sustainability drive isn’t something that has always been there for me, but I am always open to learning new things,” she says. Some of the products that The Paper Dolphin sells are half-ticket notebooks, denim book sleeves, drawstring bags or pouches upcycled from used jeans (that cannot be donated), newspaper seed pens, notepads, etc among others. Apart from being a full-timer for The Paper Dolphin, Urusha is also a digital artist, and the organiser of Art Fleamart, a venture to support budding artists.

Nancy Nayak: Nancy is a crochet artist who has also adopted several lifestyle choices to lead a sustainable life that sends the least to the landfills. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, she would have been living in Bengaluru, says the artist originally from Indore. She had almost got a house in Bengaluru before the pandemic forced her back home. Nancy is also a solo traveler who has traveled extensively throughout India. 

Throughout her schooling, Nancy loved gifting cute cards and other handmade gifts to her friends. She was always drawn towards handicrafts. It was her friend who taught her the basics of crocheting. Two months later, she started an Instagram page, Tanabana, hoping more people would share her love for crocheting. She soon began carrying the yarn and the needle wherever she went. She also made a habit of gifting crochets to the people she met on her journeys, sometimes even giving them yarn and a needle if they showed interest in the handcraft.

“One of the best things about crocheting is that you can always open the sieve and do it all over again. Nothing goes to waste,” she says. Even during her travels, she would pull out the yarn and crochet. “It also became a means for me to connect with people. Crochet became a medium for me to connect with people who love handwork and really value it,” she says.

Nancy too likes to keep her craft one hundred percent plastic-free. Her packages are made of used paper and rather than using tape, she likes to fasten them with threads. She also slides in a letter to remind her customers about the sustainability of the art. Once when Nancy was in Himachal and had to send out some orders, she went to all the shops in the vicinity to get a paper envelope. In the end, when she couldn’t find any and buying a plastic-coated-paper seemed like the only option (which cannot be recycled), she chose to make a paper cover by herself to send it out. Although what comes to mind at the sound of crochet are sweaters and mittens, Nancy likes to engage in making what she calls ‘cute and small’, such as hairbands, bandanas, coasters, earphone pouches among many others. 

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