The wonderful ladies behind Friend Handicrafts, Shanti and Nirjala, have been best friends since school and decided to start up a business together in early 2004. They began by making cotton shopping bags and soon realised after some market research that there was a demand for felt products. Towards the end of 2006, they employed two girls rescued from trafficking by The Esther Benjamins Trust.
After taking training in felt construction and stitching, they went on to source large rolls of felt from other companies; things moved at a rapid speed and they soon realised that they needed to start up their own felt factory, hiring 4-10 girls to keep up with the growing demand. As things continued to progress they divided the company into two campuses; one for felt production, the other for felt stitching and cutting.
Today they have successfully trained and have working for them more than 100 women (and one man!). These girls are all highly stigmatised; women who have been rescued from the sex trade, single mothers, divorcees, women from very low income and low caste families, or women at high risk of being trafficked. Shanti and Nirjala's aims are to help women who have a poor quality of life and give them the ability to bring home an income to help feed, clothe and support their families. One lady they employed sadly passed away and left two children behind. Shanti and Nirjala stepped in and now pay for both of these girls' educations.
Government funded education in Nepal is patchy to say the least (for instance teacher attendence is not compulsory so there are many teachers who quite literally never teach) so to guarantee any decent level of education most Nepalis have to turn to the private system. The annual fee for this is usually the equivalent of £150-£200 per student, depending on their age.
Out of all the workers they have, 8 of the women and the only man are paid a monthly wage while the others are paid per piece; there are 3 different job roles:
1. Cutting: every single flower and felt piece is hand cut and measured to size 2. Sewing: each piece cut is then stitched by hand into place
3. Moulding: all the felt has to be worked and moulded into shape.
Raw wool imported from Australia is dyed into the required colours. The felt is made by agitating the wool with warm water (heated using a solar water heater) and soap until it mats. During the agitation and felting process the wool can either be moulded into flat sheets for cutting and sewing, or into just about any shape. Often there is a lot of stray wool which then gets transformed into colourful bobbles. It's surprising how versatile and strong the felt becomes after it's moulded, and the extent to which it can be used, being made into a one piece bag or cut from sheets and stitched to create anything from a decorated purse to a keyring.
During a working day all the girls receive tea and biscuits and regular breaks. As a special annual outing Shanti and Nirjala take all the employees out for a picnic which costs them about £400. Should anyone need a loan they will also provide this with no interest added.