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In Kolkata, Nest assists with Freeset’s newest foray into tea towels as it continues on its Artisan Accelerator path to scale

Joellen Nicholson, Nest’s Director of Artisan Engagement and Fellowships, recently spent ten days in Kolkata, India visiting with Nest Artisan Accelerator participant, Freeset. Carrying forth India’s long tradition of cotton and jute production, Freeset creates bags, t-shirts, and woven fabrics handcrafted by women in the region.

In West Bengal, thousands of women face vulnerability to sex trafficking, with 3,576 of India’s 8,132 registered cases of sex trafficking in 2016 coming from the region. Freeset’s mission is to ensure that India’s women instead have the opportunity to choose their professions – and to choose those that are safe and empowering. Freeset does this by presenting avenues for training and employment in craft-based work.

As a Nest Artisan Accelerator participant, Freeset has been working with Nest over the past six months to build and implement strategies for scaling its business to generate more sustainable employment opportunities for the women it seeks to empower. By carefully analyzing Freeset’s strategic growth assessment conducted by Nest earlier this year, we identified a new market opportunity to develop a stock range of home tea towels and napkins. While introduction of the new line would allow Freeset to scale several weaving activities, the business has faced challenges related to costing, sourcing, equipment needs, and ensured production efficiency.

Tapping into our ever-growing network of skilled professional fellows and consultants, Nest enlisted long-time Nest fellow and expert in the artisanal design space, Sapna Shah, to spend two months onsite in India working alongside Freeset to address these needs. Sapna brings with her years of experience earned at Rag & Bone and Eddie Borgo, where she worked prior launching the Swaziland-made luxury handbag line, Khokho, as an offshoot of a past fellowship with Nest. Joellen was able to join Sapna for the final couple of weeks of her project to support Freeset’s weaving unit as the business works up to product launch.

For the past couple of months Sapna had been collaborating closely along Sankhar, Freeset’s master weaver, to perfect designs for the first-hand towel and napkin samples. Says Joellen: “  It was very exciting to see months of hard work pay off as the product concepts came to life on the loom. It was clear to see pride and joy on the women’s faces.” Joellen adds: “I was touched by the bond that Sapna made with these women during her two months onsite.  I think this was supported by her willingness to roll up her sleeves and be a part of the weaving process itself. While she already possessed weaving skills, she took every opportunity to learn more from the women of Freeset.”

During her visit, Joellen was also able to speak with John and Raul, Freeset’s customer service managers, to better understand their current purchase order systems and to assist them in laying the framework for integration of the new home products into the production and ordering processes moving forward. This is work that Joellen continues while now back in New York at Nest’s headquarters.

Says Nancy Knapp, CEO of Freeset USA: “Freeset deeply appreciates the partnership we have developed with Nest and the on site time spent with Sapna and Joellen to bring expertise and resources to projects that will help to move Freeset forward.  We are excited to get designs created by Sapna launched and look forward to further collaboration with Joellen and everyone at Nest to help us improve operational processes.”