Bundles of jute, half-a-dozen tailoring machines with women working on them and mounds of finished jute products make Janaki’s modest house in Surya Nagar look like a mini factory on the inside. She proudly calls it a ‘unit’ where jute bags, mats and pillows are made in express speed and expert designs. Selvi, an employee, sits in a corner silently cutting the fabric into pieces for making handbags. “This job has given me self-esteem, regular income and a livelihood,” she says and is happy that her bags and pouches are reaching overseas customers.
In over 15 such ‘home units’ in and around Madurai, a silent eco-friendly revolution is brewing where women have taken a resort in jute against plastics and polythene. While some export the products through dealers, others promote the use of the fibre among their neighbourhood and friends. But each is making a difference. Two years ago Janaki started with a single machine and two people. Now she supplies to a couple of dealers regularly besides the individual orders. Bulk requirements take three weeks to complete while the smaller items go out in a day or two. The raw material is fetched from Bangalore and Kolkata every three months.
Janaki says her ‘ thamboola pais’ and album bags are a hit. Wall hangings, embroidered surukku pais, cell phone pouches and yoga accessories are the other items she makes.
“The market for jute made yoga accessories in Europe and America is booming,” says Ganesh from Dwarak Exports. “Jute is seen as a symbol of India in foreign countries and our bags have become a style statement there,” he adds.
Yoga pillows, mats, rugs and bags are the items exported. “People like Indian ethnic prints such as the ‘Om’ and ‘mantras’ or ‘kolams’ on the yoga bags. Animal and flower print on beach bags is the current trend,” he says.
Ganesh rues the lack of awareness and acceptance of jute in the domestic market. “Though jute is the lone eco-friendly, recyclable and versatile replacement to plastic, it’s not picked by many as it is expensive. It will take time for people to embrace jute as a day-to-day utility product,” he says.
Ganesh sources his orders from five different units and exports them to Netherlands and Dubai. “The demand is increasing. We are currently working on making jute products completely eco-friendly by using natural dyes and vegetable colours.”
Bags made in jute are big time favourites among all classes of people. Coming in all sizes, shapes and colours, it has become a craze among young and old women. Shopping bags, beach bags, wine bags, handbags, purses and pouches are the fast moving items.
“It’s difficult to sell jute products at a cheaper rate as the process is labour intensive and incurs a lot of fibre wastage. To it add the transportation cost,” says Manjula, who started the jute business with her friend Gayatri. Both work from their drawing room at Andalpuram and supply exclusive products to individuals. Flower vases, photo frames, vanity kits and wall hangings are their specialities. “We also make hand-made eco-friendly wooden jewellery and give them along with the jute items to promote the fabric,” says Manjula.
For people like Gayatri who promote the product within the known circles, jute is not a year-round business. “The demand is seasonal. Orders are more during Christmas, marriage season and festivals when people give gifts,” says Gayatri. Exhibitions conducted by trade unions are the other avenues where these women sell the jute goods.
There is no dearth of innovation and design. Sudha John of Annai Women’s Self Help Group, an 18-member team that runs a jute unit at Bethaniapuram, says, “Four years back, we started with a few orders of surukku pais to be given during Kolu festival. We tried new things like milk bags to be hung on gates, door mats and grocery bags.” “Jute made lunch boxes and pencil pouches are a hit among the area’s kids. We plan to open a boutique soon,” beams Sudha.
Uma who runs a full-fledged manufacturing place at Chokkalinga Nagar, says, “One of our major innovations was jewellery pouches with cotton lining. Today, we supply to many leading jewellery brands in southern districts.” The unit employs 10 women and delivers up to 100 bags per day. Stationeries like files, folders, pen stands and laptop nags are also supplied to corporate and colleges in Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Sivakasi, Chennai and Nagercoil. “We recently erected a jute hoarding for a wedding in Salem. We are working on expanding such possibilities,” says Uma.
Jute is obtained from Corchorus plant that is found in abundance in West Bengal, Assam and parts of Andhra Pradesh.
Raw jute costs Rs. 45 per meter and the coloured varieties may range from Rs. 80 to Rs. 150 per meter. Finished products are sold at a profit of 25 to 30 per cent.
The fabric is cut in required shapes and sizes and is stitched on machines using thicker cotton threads.
Blends like jute cotton and jute canvas are also used for bags and pouches.
Logos, patterns and designs are mostly screen-printed and rarely hand-painted with chemical dyes or natural colours.
Embroidery, patch work and stone embellishments are also being done on jute products.
In Madurai, jute making units are spread over Thirumangalam, Narimedu, Andalpuram, Kadachanendal, Kalavasal and Kochadai.