Today's podcast comes from Mumbai, India. We meet Asha Merchant, who has made a very impressive number of Sew Powerful purses. Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Asha has also lived in India and the US. She earned a degree in Fashion Design, which was a natural fit for her creativity. Not in the podcast, but Asha shared with me how she has involved many others in Sew Powerful including the shipping company that sends her purses and friends and relatives who help write the notecards. Sewing purses for Sew Powerful has given Asha confidence that translates to other areas of her life. Sit back and enjoy learning about Asha's interesting life in India.
Meet Asha Merchant
IN THIS EPISODE
Mumbai India, Sew Powerful, sewing for charity, sewing ruffles, fashion design, mask making, webbing versus straps, self-discovery through sewing, 250 purses
We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.
Host: Jan Cancila
Guest: Asha Merchant
Jan Cancila, Host 00:04
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Asha Merchant. Asha is coming to us from Mumbai, India. And in case you didn't know, Mumbai is the seventh most populated city in the world with 20 million people. But we're privileged to speak with Asha today, one of the more important people in Mumbai, India. Hello, Asha. How are you?
Asha Merchant, Guest 00:51
Hello, Jan. I'm fine. How are you?
Good. Good. Thank you so much for doing this. It's 10 o'clock in the morning where I am on Sunday. What time is it where you are?
It's 8:30 PM on Sunday.
On Sunday. Okay, so we're on the same day. But there's that strange half-hour difference. Usually, time differences are on the hour, but we have a half-hour time difference. And so, you live in Mumbai. Have you always lived there? Tell us a little bit about your background and where you've lived.
So I've lived in Mumbai continuously for about the last 11 or 12 years. Before that, I was living in Bangalore, it's to the south of India. And before that, I was in Sri Lanka was where I was born and did my primary education. And in between, I visited the United States for about two years doing my undergrad, so to speak. And so, I've been shuttling around between India and Sri Lanka. You know, for the better part of my life, I was living in Texas in the United States, in Arlington, Texas.
Okay. All right. And you did some studies in the United States. What did you study?
So I did fashion design.
While in the US and I got an Associate's degree in the applied arts from Texas.
Why did you choose fashion design? What appealed to you about that degree?
I've always liked to dress up and growing up I would constantly be at the tailor's getting clothes stitched a certain way combining stuff. I've always been a very sort of creative hands-on kind of person with arts, crafts, drawing, sewing, you know, embroidery and stuff. And fashion designing seemed to me to be the natural choice. I mean, I enjoyed it a lot. It's quite challenging, but I did enjoy it.
Well, that's nice. And so, you enjoy sewing, I take it. And when did you learn to sew originally? It sounds like you were very creative. And that sounds like a great educational path for you. But when did you learn to sew?
So my first recollection of sewing was I think when I was in first or the second grade of my primary school. I still remember what they made. They had us making purple circular cloth with gold ruffles round it. We had to sew those ruffles on. I still remember it. I guess as kids you like a lot of bright stuff and shiny stuff. So, some of that stuff. So that was my first recollection of sewing, making that thing and I just remember it was a combination of purple and gold. Maybe that's why I liked it.
I'm surprised you like sewing after having to put all those ruffles on when you were a young child.
I love ruffles.
Oh, you love ruffles.
I love ruffles. In fact, I've put them on quite a few of my purses thinking okay, fine. Let me get rid of my whole fondness for ruffles. But no, that's what happened. I still love ruffles. I love laces. I love pleats.
So ruffles and pleats, well very cool. Okay, well tell us a little bit about your family.
So I'm the youngest in a family of three. I have two older siblings. There's a significant age gap between all of us. So, my sister was almost like a mom to me. She's 17 years older than me and my brother is about 13 years older. My parents are no more, and I am married with two grown up boys. And we live in Mumbai with my in-laws, with my father-in-law and mother-in-law. So that's what it is. My boys are taking their undergraduate program.
And where are they studying?
They're studying in Purdue University in Indiana, over in the States.
And they both over there.
Well, Kathleen Broadfoot is one of our purse makers, and she lives in the state of Indiana. And she's asked anyone who had a connection to Indiana to send a little piece of fabric, and she's making Indiana themed purses. So, I don't know that anybody with a Purdue connection has sent her fabric. But I did my undergraduate in college in Indiana. So, I sent her some fabrics.
I can send you some Purdue printed fabric as well. I made masks out of them. So, I think I'm going to send her some.
Oh, okay. Well, very, very cool. So yeah, let's talk about masks. What is the situation over there? And how are you helping with masks?
So, the situation currently is that we are entered the second wave, unfortunately. And so I hope we'll be able to get that situation under control. This started exactly a year ago, as you know, and masks were in short supply over here. So, I decided to make masks and I was making and giving people a lot of masks. That was a very interesting journey for me, because like that people don't like wearing masks.
So I set out to try and make the masks as attractive and as comfortable as possible so that people could wear them without fidgeting. If you remember, in the beginning, a lot of the stuff they would say was like don't touch your face, you know, clean your hands, don't touch your face. That was a common thing that was happening. And I would see people wearing masks and touching their face fidgeting, doing all the things they weren't supposed to.
So I started making a lot of experiments with masks looking at YouTube videos, you know, a lot of seamstresses have made thousands and thousands and thousands of masks and distributed them. I was very inspired by this. So yeah, so I made a lot of different masks.
Then we ran into a problem for my younger son. He's a big guy. And he found that the regular standard pleated mask never fitted him. He would put it and the elastic would snap right off. He couldn't breathe; it was pressing down on his nose. I kept trying different masks out, and he kept wearing them and giving me his feedback. And I also realized that masks are a bit like, sorry to say this, but underwear. One size doesn't suit everybody. So, I did a lot of innovating with it. That was that was a interesting journey. It's funny, but I am enjoying making them. So.
I just try to make it as comfortable as and as pretty as I can. So, anyone who is wearing it enjoys a not so pleasant experience.
Sure. Well and originally, they were just for function and now they're function plus fashion which should be perfect for you, so...
Yeah, I'll tell you what, why don't we take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to talk with Asha about how she became involved with Sew Powerful and the way she supports it and why it's so important to her. So, listeners please stay tuned.
Have you gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original bestseller, 4.9 out of five stars, by the way, is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon Miles. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen, and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order if you use smile.amazon.com and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful.
And now back to our podcast. Welcome back. We've been speaking with Asha Merchant who is a Sew Powerful purse maker who lives in Mumbai, India. And Asha has been sharing with us a little bit about her background and family and life in Mumbai. And you probably recognize her name, maybe not her face, because you know on Facebook, we often just see the photos we post and the photos that I see are beautiful purses that Asha makes. Asha, how did you first hear about Sew Powerful?
I was looking for a purse pattern. So, I've always liked bags and purses, and I thought I'd like to make one, so I was looking on the net for some purse patterns. And that's how I came on Sew Powerful first, the 2015 beginner pattern. So that's how I came across it.
So the 2015 is what we now call the intermediate pattern. It was the pattern at the time, and what is it that you like about that particular pattern?
I like the intermediate one. I like the fact that there are a lot of pockets in it. So, you know, it's very functional for the person using it. And I like the fact that I can do so much with it. I mean with the flap, with the top part, with the bottom part, with the gussets, you can do a lot with it. So, it kind of brings out my creativity very nicely.
Well, I have to tell you, I had many problems with getting the gusset corners nice and smooth. And since you make so many can you give us a tip? What do you do to make those look so nice?
Mine weren't coming that smooth. But then I think I've looked at some of the tutorials. I keep pressing the fabric at every stage because I think it just gives a better finish. And and I used to earlier trim both the seams, the gusset seam as well as the purse seam. Then I think I went back and saw, I think it was a Sew Powerful video or one of the others, where they recommend that you trim only the gusset, only the gusset piece, not both, and that I found it sits a lot better.
Oh, well that is a good tip.
I actually love the gussets. Thanks to Sew Powerful gussets I can sew gussets very comfortably on other purses.
Oh, so, oh, okay. So you've applied some skills that you've gained making Sew Powerful purses to other sewing that you do. Is that what you're saying?
Absolutely. Sew Powerful has increased my confidence in sewing so much. I can't even begin to tell you how much.
Really, oh well that's really nice. Tell me if this makes any sense to you when I ask you this question. Are you team strap or team webbing? And do you know what I mean by that?
Yes, I do. I I do both.
You do both? Okay.
I do both. It depends on which state of mind I am in. If I'm in a state where I want to just do a whole lot of purses, then I go into team webbing, because that enables me to just, you know, get those purses out pretty fast. If I'm in a slightly okay, I'm going to, you know, maybe not do that many purses this time, then I go into team strap. Also, it depends on whether I'm in a position to get the webbing. The last year has been a bit hard to get materials and stuff. So, I've had to do more straps than webbing. But having said that, I just got three huge bundles of webbing. So, it's going to be webbing for a while now.
All right, and what colors did you get?
I bought maroon. I've got dark brown, and I've got an off-white color.
Oh, nice. Very nice. And so, when you make purses, are you thinking about the girls who are getting the purses? Are you imagining a girl holding the purse that you are making?
I refer to them as my girls.
Your girls. Oh, that is so nice. And what is it about the Sew Powerful program that appeals to you, Asha?
It gives me an opportunity to give back, you know, menstrual hygiene, educating girls. It's a big thing for me. I was privileged, blessed enough to have parents who spent whatever their resources to see that we bought a good education service, something that we took for granted, which I'm realizing that a lot of people can't do. So, you know, educating education is an answer to a lot of stuff. So, this gives me an opportunity to contribute in my way. I love to create. I love working with my hands. I love doing stuff and Sew Powerful has given me that opportunity. It's also made me discover a lot about myself, which I was quite surprised.
Oh, some self-discovery?
Lots of it.
Can you share something?
Sure. One of the main things was I feel like I don't have the patience to do something very complicated or stick to doing the same thing. I get very impatient. I keep even when my other creativity or when I make cards or anything. I keep wanting to do different stuff because I get bored doing the same thing.
What Sew Powerful has taught me is that practice can make you get better and better. It's something we've always been told. But this has taught me that, you know, the approach, I think if you get the technique, right, your speed goes a bit faster, that helps. And it's just opened up my imagination completely, because I see so many of the purses, and they're all unique. Each and every purse is unique. I mean, you can give, I realized that you can give five people the same fabric, and not even one purse would look the same. They all look different.
You know, so, so I realized that doing the same thing multiple times isn't actually boring. It's a lot of fun. There's a lot of learning, you know, and how you approach each for the feeling that kind of changes as you go on making more and more purses. Initially, you want to do something fun as to do a bit of trim, then I was like, no, let me make this sturdy. Because as you learn more, so you know, how you approach the process, the material you use, the colors you use, all that has undergone a change. So, it's been an interesting and a very fulfilling kind of journey. And I never thought I could see myself doing so many of the same thing. That was the biggest revelation.
Wow. You know, that is so insightful. And I haven't heard anyone acknowledge that. But I'm sure many of us feel that very same way. That, that’s really brilliant. Thank you for sharing that. Let me ask you this question. Do you know how many purses you've submitted to Sew Powerful? Do you have an idea, a rough idea?
Yeah, I think around 250 or a little bit more.
I'm not sure. But I think 250.
Wow, that's a lot of purses. So, somebody...
I kind of stopped counting.
Well, yeah, when you get in those high numbers, I could understand that. But for somebody who says, Well, you know, I can't start out making 250 purses. Or, you know, maybe this looks too challenging for me, what would you say to someone to help them get started?
So you don't have to make 250, you don't even have to make 20. Just to start with, just start with that one purse, just start making that one purse. Pick fabrics that you like, that you like looking at, you know, make a purse, which you'd like to use. Think of like, say, maybe you're making it for yourself or for somebody. Make a purse that you like, and just start with one purse with no expectations, and see where you go from there.
That's how I started. I couldn't stop, frankly. And there were times I just couldn't stop. Then, of course, I go through phases. But that's how I started, just to start that one purse. If you don't make even any other purses after that, which I highly doubt, that's fine. You've just made even that one purse, you know, made a difference, at least in that girl's life that gets it.
Well, right. And you know, what I always think is, the girl gets the purse, and she gets a chance at an education, which then changes her and the people around her and her community and the bigger world. So, I mean, it's like a pebble in a pond. One purse can make a difference well beyond even the one girl who gets it much less the 250 pebbles you've thrown in the pond and really made a huge difference.
It's been great. I'm very grateful. I'm sorry that like, again, with with masks, I'm sorry that people are in a situation that they need it. But it is how it is, and whatever we can do to make their lives better to help, we should do it.
That's how I feel.
Absolutely. Well, I'm going to throw this in here at the end. We didn't talk about one important member of your family. Tell us about Ginger. Who is Ginger?
So Ginger is my third child. She's the four legged furry one. She's nine and a half years old. She's the love of my life. I adopted her from the streets of Mumbai. And I love dogs. I wanted to be a vet. So I obviously didn't, but I've always loved animals, dogs particularly. So I mean, they say I say I rescued her, but I really don't who did the rescuing. She's just been wonderful to have in the house. Of course, having said that she's more of a cat in a dog's body. She doesn't like to be hugged and kissed and stuff. She can come and give us the hugs and the kisses. But that's on her terms. Not when we want to hug her. She's currently a little unwell. So [we're going to] the vet tomorrow and whatever it is, it's small and it passes soon.
Okay, well, we pray that she'll be feeling better soon. So, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn't give you a chance to talk a little bit about Ginger. So, again, thank you for your time and we look very forward to seeing your purse photos posted on Facebook. And I'm really hoping when all the pandemic is over that maybe you'll be able to travel, and we'll all be able to meet up someplace in person without masks. Wouldn't that be nice?
That would be lovely. It's on my bucket list to come for an unboxing party and help you all with that.
That would be fantastic.
I'm going to do that, then when it's safe for everybody to do that. Thank you so much for having me. It's been an honor and a privilege.
Thank, thank you, Asha. We'll talk to you soon. Thank you very much.
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference. I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org. That's SEW POWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.