In 2017, SP Ponmani, a fashion design graduate from Madurai, then 24 years old, visited Cuckoo Forest School near Puliyanur village in Krishnagiri district to attend an event hosted by Nurpu, a handloom weaving society founded by C Sivagurunathan. That year, Ponmani would herself be inspired to start something new, an initiative that would not just be novel but also empower rural women. She started the Puliyanur Village Tailoring School with the intent of teaching a new skill to women in the village.
The idea was backed by a strong resolve to prevent women from migrating from the region. â€śWe wanted to provide a livelihood for women who are the sole breadwinners of the family. Krishnagiri district has the most number of labourers migrating from here to other parts of the country to find work. In most families, both parents tend to leave in search of jobs. If there are children at home, they get to live with their parents only up to the age of three, maximum. They mostly grow up with relatives, with their parents visiting occasionally,â€ť Ponmani tells TNM.
â€śAs for women, mothers in particular, who tend to stay back without their husbandâ€™s support, life is extremely difficult,â€ť she continues. â€śThey are forced to borrow money for sustenance and end up with a lot of financial problems,â€ť she adds.
A year and a half later, the tailoring school slowly turned into a sustainable brand called Thuvam, which at first exclusively made cotton undergarments for women. â€śWhen we thought about starting the initiative, we didnâ€™t want to make garments that were already available aplenty in the commercial market. Cotton panties are something that most women donâ€™t have access to. What is available in the market are the run-of-the-mill knitted fabric kinds,â€ť Ponmani explains.
In addition to introducing cotton underwear, setting it apart from knitted fabric ones, Thuvam also focussed on zero waste. The undergarments are made using machine-spun, unbleached cotton fabric sourced from Erode. They are available in two kinds â€“ with elastic and with drawstring. Ponmani, along with a group of women, worked on different designs and cuts before zeroing in on the standard size.
â€śWe first used hand-spun cotton but that turned out to be too delicate for use. So we chose to use machine-spun, handloom finish (unbleached) cotton instead. This has better durability,â€ť Ponmani points out. The products too are made very consciously, reusing scraps to make pillows and toys. Friends from cuckoo Forest School help them with branding and packaging, Ponmani adds.
The team constantly listens to feedback from customers. â€śWe keep tweaking the designs regularly to accommodate alterations. Thereâ€™s also a small pouch cut into the underwear so women can insert pieces of cloth,â€ť she tells us. This is very helpful for those experiencing vaginal discharge and also for those with urinary tract problems. â€śCotton underwear offers better absorbency and thereâ€™s no discomfort. Itâ€™s an advantage for those sensitive to the elastic used in panties and thereâ€™s no chafing either,â€ť Ponmani adds.
Thuvam is run by a very small group â€“ three to be precise, including its founder Ponmani. What it intended to do was provide the women in the village a steady source of income. â€śWorking with us they manage to earn between Rs 150 and 200 per day, which is more than what they can earn here in the district on an average,â€ť Ponmani shares.
â€śYouâ€™ll have to understand that this is not a very profitable model. We also donâ€™t promote or boost sales like commercial brands. Whatever sells is purely by word of mouth. All of us live very modest lives, and therefore this has been a successful model so far,â€ť she adds.
Mumtaj at work
Not just for the women making the undergarments, but Thuvam has changed lives for those using them as well. â€śMost of our customers are regulars and they regularly share feedback with us on how to keep improving,â€ť Ponmani says.
Ponmani, who recently gave birth to a baby boy, is at her motherâ€™s place in Madurai. The women employees too have moved away to take up work as daily wage labourers in mango farms, right in time for fruit picking season. Ponmani is managing with available stocks till Thuvam goes into production again in December, and she has an interesting line-up of ideas in the pipeline.
Having recently introduced toys refashioned from scrap, Ponmani plans on expanding this range. â€śWeâ€™ve been making elephants and fishes, filling them with poly-fills so they are sturdier than those filled with cotton scrap. Weâ€™ll also be making owls and snails,â€ť she adds.
Bras and bloomers are other products that Ponmani plans on making next. Meanwhile, sheâ€™s also figuring out a better way of taking the undergarments to more women. â€śThis is a very intimate, feminine product. During expos, weâ€™ve noticed women are shy and awkward when it comes to discussing underwear. That is another area we want to work on,â€ť she shares.
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