Ibulliance: In Her Words: A Letter from Smita Paul

Dear Ibu Allies,

My Punjabi grandfather would always say you have to consider the energy of money—did you earn it from helping or harming others? 

It was 2003 and I was a freelance journalist with 19 years of experience and at the top of my game, but something was seriously off. The first bombs of the Iraq war had started to land and I knew that I had to shift where I spent my time and attention and something that actually helped people. 

A few years prior, I was on an assignment for a magazine article about the silk industry, when I first visited a handloom village. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, it would have been hard to imagine this kind of place still existed.

As we walked through the tiny alleyways among mud coffee-colored structures, there were master weavers weaving gleaming silk saris in parrot green, bright magenta, and copper-orange in complex ikat-dyed patterns. There were whole families working together—tying the ikat designs into the yarn, dip-dyeing the strands into huge vats and reeling threads with a chakra. It was literally like stepping back into pre-industrial revolution days. In fact, one of the families I interviewed had records and artifacts that went back seven generations of weavers.


I was equally amazed by the weavers’ lack of access to a market. Many of those gorgeous silk saris only made it to a dark, dusty government shop where they were cataloged and sold in a plain brown wrapper. The designs were beautifully complex and superior to any ikat textiles I had ever seen hanging in a museum. 


These were living pieces of art—lost in a poorly lit dusty outpost. So in 2003, I decided to do something about it. I had tons of confidence—mostly from being ignorant of business and the new world I was entering—the fashion industry. I just thought I was in a unique position—being both Indian but also an American—I could serve as a bridge from this tiny village to the lucrative U.S. market—creating a circle of good and satisfying my creative itch. 


Eventually I decided convincing the outside world to use these beautiful fabrics would be easier if I started using them myself. So, I opened a small clothing store in Brooklyn with my own designs—and started attracting smaller, younger designers who also wanted to also build eco-friendly clothing lines

I’m very proud of the 500+ weaving families who worked with us to allow these relationships to flourish. It was hard work—but each time I visited the villages—I felt inspired to keep going. Just by making the choice to buy a handloom shirt over a machine-woven one, you can employ nine times as many people. It also saves enough energy to power a laptop for 12 hours. Imagine the difference it would make if just a small percentage of the fashion industry chose handloom? By supplying steady work, we ushered in the ability for so many weavers to educate their children, plan weddings and welcome new members of their families into comfortable homes. 


At the start of 2020, so much of our hard work came together and we were expecting our best year to date—yet Covid-19 had other plans. By March, all of our production orders were canceled across the board and I was scrambling to keep my employees on the payroll. 


It was an intense year for everyone—and in every crisis, there is opportunity. Since the businesses imploded, my family and I decided to fulfill a dream and move to a small farm in Hawaii. We are still in Hawaii and to be completely honest, I am now working in the way I always wanted. I am designing and making my own clothing—using our beautiful handloom fabrics and it's deeply satisfying.

The Ibu Movement was instrumental in getting the new clothing line started. Back in 2022, I was a recipient of a $20,000 grant—which came at a time when things had come to a screeching halt financially. During the pandemic, I had tried to keep my employees in their jobs and honor my order with my suppliers—but in the end it left me in debt. I was considering just closing my business and in a way, I did. I stopped going to trade shows or working with reps. I was immobilized, really. Then I applied for the grant and decided if I got it, I would not use it to pay back debt, I would use it to do exactly the thing I always wanted—to make clothing. 


So, that is what I have done—starting with a test market here in Hawaii. I am excited to see people embracing the clothing and appreciating the fabrics. This time, there is a more intimate bridge between those villages and the customer, and that makes a huge difference for all involved


Thank you and Mahala, 

Smita Paul