When Canadian-born entrepreneur Kathy Marshal started Sabahar in 2004, she did so for four distinct reasons: to provide sustainable employment for Ethiopian artisans, to preserve and celebrate traditional weaving, to help recalibrate Ethiopia's image by exporting beautiful craftsmanship around the world, and to promote the Ethiopian silk industry. Today, Marshal has called Ethiopia home for more than 20 years, and Sabahar seems on a straight line to achieving its goals and more. Sabahar's International Marketing Advisor Sophie Joy Mosko recently took some time to tell us more.
Plume Collection: Fifty percent of Sabahar's employees are women. What conditions in Ethiopia made this a priority?
Sophie Joy Mosko: Sabahar really takes a family approach to its business. We want to support strong families with multiple income streams coming into the household. Diversified incomes help in times of stress.
In this sense, we capitalize on the traditional roles of artisans in Ethiopia: men weave and women spin cotton into thread. This approach enables us to hire both men and women. Obviously as a women-owned business, women’s empowerment is core to Sabahar’s business. By providing consistent, regular income and all the benefits that come with formal work, women have the ability to make decisions in their best interest. They are not dependent on income from someone else. This is an incredible freedom, which allows them to leave abusive husbands, send their children to school and get proper medical care.
PC: Compared to other weavers and artisans in Ethiopia, can you tell us a bit about what it's like to be an artisan at Sabahar?
SJM: Almost all weavers and other artisans in Ethiopia work in the informal sector. This means that income is not consistent, and there are no safe guards in place to support them when there is no work. The pay in the informal sector is also not very high.
Sabahar artisans have a very different reality. The full-time employees get regular monthly salaries. They receive salary increments every year to off-set inflation. They also get a percentage of the profits of the company each year in the form of bonuses. If the company does well, the employees also benefit. They also receive medical costs reimbursed. They work a 37.5 hour work week. Those working in other factories work 48 hours a week and those in the informal sector work many more hours to scrape together a decent salary. Sabahar’s artisans also get access to many different kinds of capacity building opportunities, both to enhance their skills in their craft but also in leadership, communication, management and the like. They also receive pensions, time off to continue their studies, and sick and maternity leave.
PC: Sabahar is dedicated to preserving traditional Ethiopian craft traditions. Why is this important?
SJM: Ethiopians have been making their own clothing by hand for centuries. These skills create fabric that is perfectly imperfect. Each piece is unique. Hand made products are beautiful and knowing that more than 20 artisans’ hands have touched a final product, makes them even more special. These traditions, though, are at risk of dying. The big factories can produce textiles much faster and cheaper, but the result is not nearly as beautiful.
Traditional craft helps tell the stories of culture. Each region has a specific weaving style of which they are very proud. It helps them define and ground themselves as being from a certain region, eating certain foods, wearing particular clothes and weaving specific patterns. To preserve this Ethiopian craft, is to help preserve Ethiopian culture.
PC: Can you tell us more about how your products are made?
SJM: Our products are made only of silk or cotton or a blend of the two. We source all of the cotton in Ethiopia. Much of our silk is also produced in Ethiopia but … we also supplement the wild ‘eri’ silk that is produced [here] with some from India because there is just not enough grown in Ethiopia just yet. However, we are confident that in the future, all our silk thread will come from Ethiopia.
More than 20 artisans touch each product we make. There are so many steps in making a product and each is done by hand … We wash the silk cocoons, dry them and then ‘fluff’ them up first. Once that is done, the silk is spun into thread. Once in thread form, it is transferred from cones into hanks on a small hand wheel. Once in a hank, it is individually pot dyed. The silks are most often dyed in natural dyes made from plants, seeds, and barks around us (like coffee, acacia, marigold, onion skin, etc).
Once dyed, the threads are measured out to make the warp. This can take up to 2 days to just put the threads on the warp. Once that is complete, the weaver starts weaving products. Depending on the intricacy of the design and the size of the product, it can take from 2 hours to one full day to weave a Sabahar product.
After weaving the scarves, women individually tie each fringe by hand. Then, the products are washed, ironed and finished. A group of women check each scarf, cut off the small threads, check the quality, sew on the labels and get them ready for export. At the final stage, all products are counted and put in boxes for export.
It would be really hard to estimate how long one product takes to make… but the journey is long and the hours of work are many.
PC: What is the most important thing our customers in Brooklyn know about Sabahar?
SJM: Sabahar is a Fair Trade business (a member of WFTO) that really believes in exporting the best quality, hand made products to the world. Our social business model means that the artisans benefit from the increased business. However, we are a business, not an NGO. We really believe in the private sector model because we actually have to prove to our customers that the products they purchase are worth the money they spend. We pride ourselves in our quality, the integrity of our process and the purity of the raw materials we use.