Josie George, co-founder at AMMA, talks to TRAID about how this social enterprise is providing employment and life skills to mothers from Sri Lanka’s rural tea-picking communities. TRAID is delighted to be supporting this fledgling brand which uses natural dyes and sustainable textiles to create beautiful design-led products and opportunity for the mothers it employs.

The first AMMA workshop officially opened in May 2017 with two mothers and myself, working from a small outbuilding. We are now in a much larger space providing employment to 7 women in the rural town of Nuwara Eliya in the Sri Lankan highlands.

For many reasons AMMA feels a lot older than it is, the main one being that for me, Sri Lanka first kicked off my love for textiles, colour and weaving back in 2010 on my first visit. I spent 3-months living and working in Sri Lanka’s second largest city Kandy between finishing A-Levels, and starting an art foundation diploma.

I went on to study textile design at Central Saint Martins where I focussed on handloom weaving which required me to dye all my own yarns. In my second year, I started experimenting with natural dyes in my kitchen. Newly graduated, a friend in Sri Lanka asked me about whether I would be interested in working with a group of mothers in a district where unemployment is very high. Myself and my husband left 4 months later and AMMA has slowly evolved ever since.

Using ingredients like turmeric and chillies to make natural dyes

During the first trial workshop with the mothers, natural dyeing seemed like an obvious starting point but I couldn’t find many people practicing it. The more I searched through the little content available online, the more I became convinced that there was a need for a sustainable alternative in Sri Lanka.

Excitement disguised my naivety and I have never felt so overwhelmed and under qualified during that first month when the AMMA workshop opened. Teaching 2 mothers a skill which I was still learning myself, and in a language I couldn’t speak or understand was exhausting. But, people responded really well to what we were doing. We took on our first order a few weeks later, then followed it with our largest to date a month after that.

In the AMMA workshop

These orders were essential to AMMA’s survival. With only a £1000 grant for equipment and only enough to pay wages for the first month we had to learn fast.

In Nuwara Eliya, where the project is based, the main options for employment are tea picking, vegetable cultivation and factory work. Many women in this region have to leave their children and families to move to the Middle East to work as domestic help. This leaves women in very vulnerable situations with many of them being denied pay and/or abused whilst away.

It has become clear to me that providing employment rurally, close to the villages in which our mothers live is the key to creating lasting change.

I have also realised that only providing employment isn’t enough. Sri Lanka has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world, and many of our mothers have depression. By providing weekly life skills classes, we are creating a safe space for women to talk and learn coping strategies. One mother aged 26 said,

“I was taking medication for my mental illness, but I don’t need those drugs now. Because this atmosphere is comfortable and keeps me happy, also I find Life Skills classes are giving me a new spirit and strength to live my life.”

My hopes for AMMA are that we can provide jobs for many more women in this area, and aim to be employing 50 women by year three. I believe that natural dyes have an important role to play in replacing hazardous synthetic dyes, whilst also helping to restore the land in this area through cultivation.

We are aiming for both circular and vertical production, by harnessing rain water, growing our dyes and completing every stage from weaving to finishing in our workshops. I would love for AMMA to be a model for new methods of rural textile production.

Read more about the project here