Photographed by Josie George
One of the joys of creating DAMDAM is that we get to support independent artists and artisans we discover and fall in love with on our travels. Earlier this year, on a trip to Sri Lanka, we stumbled upon AMMA, a social enterprise creating dyed textiles using natural plants and food waste (think avocado stones, pomegranate skins, and onion skins). AMMA is is focused on finding alternative, sustainable solutions to coloring textiles by using discarded seeds and foraged leaves instead of synthetic acid-based dyes. The results are handmade textiles which are natural and toxic-free. With dyes extracted from plants and the earth, the colors produced are tones of soft pastels, patterns of ombre, and pigments that change and move with time.
We knew immediately that we wanted to collaborate with AMMA not only because we were aligned with their intentions of sustainability but because very simply, they were creating something beautiful.
We connected with its founder, Josie George, and through our interactions with her, we became more committed in supporting her mission. The Central Saint Martins-trained textile designer moved from her native U.K. to the tea-producing highlands of Sri Lanka with the big vision of addressing unemployment and fair wage needs of underprivileged mothers so that their children can attend school. To this end, Josie teaches and employs mothers in textile dyeing, giving them a fair wage at AMMA.
We chat with Josie about AMMA and the challenges she faces running the social enterprise.
Hi, Josie! Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Josie, I am 25 years old. I was born in London, U.K and lived there until I was 10, until my parents moved to Wales to live by the sea. This meant I had a good mixture of cultures and landscapes growing up which has definitely influenced my work and shaped my character now.
Three years ago, I graduated from Central Saint Martins in London with a degree in Textile Design. During my degree, I specialized in Weave, which required me to dye all my own yarns, so I spent a lot of time in the dye room color matching and experimenting. Being exposed mainly to acid dyes led me to start exploring nature’s alternative and since graduating, I’ve invested a lot of time into discovering natural botanical dyes. This is now the focus of my textiles work.
“The incredible thing about weaving is that you can convey all the color and emotion you would in a painting but in the form of a practical piece of cloth.”
What brought you to textile design?
Textile design was a natural choice for me. It bridges the gap between art and design so effortlessly and I found a real freedom when I started to practice it. I owe a lot to some really good tutors along the way who saw the potential in me, and encouraged a very shy girl at the time to start making and aim high. I also knew that I wanted to learn a craft. The incredible thing about weaving is that you can convey all the color and emotion you would in a painting but in the form of a practical piece of cloth. It also has so much heritage and history. Across the world different countries have specific ways of weaving cloth and learning to weave felt like I was being let in on the secrets of such an important skill.
I always knew I would follow a creative path. My mum trained as an artist and encouraged me greatly. I am also dyslexic so my brain thrives in a creative environment – with half of Central Saint Martins being dyslexic, there’s no better environment to study with the support you need to reach your potential.
You’ve been living for almost a year in Sri Lanka, having moved there from London. Why Sri Lanka?
The people! Before my first trip in 2010, I had never heard of the island – I was 18! I Googled it and was stunned by how beautiful it looked. I had a family friend who was living here and working for the local NGO Child Action Lanka so I booked a flight and came to visit.
Sri Lanka was also a huge influence on my love of textiles. I’d never seen such vibrant colors and diversity of craft. Ever since that first trip, I have retuned on short trips until i moved last year.
“I call it a ‘gentle protest’ but I am committed to developing sustainable natural dyes using locally grown produce or food waste from the hospitality industry. I want to show our synthetic friends how great natural is and that it doesn’t need to be a big compromise.”
How did AMMA come about?
For the last 11 months, I have been living in the central highlands of Sri Lanka amongst the tea pickers and gardeners. Myself and my husband saw an opportunity to take a risk, step outside of our comfort zone and start AMMA Sri Lanka, a social enterprise connected to Child Action Lanka.
Child Action Lanka runs day centers and pre-schools for underprivileged children across the island. They told me about the high unemployment levels amongst mothers in the tea picking communities so AMMA is our response to that problem. In May 2017, we opened the doors of our workshop with two mothers and started training them in sewing and natural dyeing. A few months later, we moved into a bigger space and now employ three mothers. So my day-to-day is spent in the workshop fulfilling orders, whilst training the mothers as we go.
How and why did you come up with the idea of AMMA?
AMMA means “mother” in Sinhala and Tamil, the two native languages in Sri Lanka. And like I mentioned, it’s a response to the high unemployment levels amongst mothers who live on the tea plantation. Child Action Lanka runs a pre-school which serves the children from the plantations, so the mothers we employ usually work 9.30 AM – 12.30 PM whilst their children are in the pre-school. It works well for them, and when we have a big order we arrange for the children to go into day care, which gives the mums a chance to earn more of a wage.
It is very important to me that AMMA is an example of a fair and ethical business, that we pay fair wages and aim to increase those as we become more sustained, and that the fabrics we produce are good for the environment and the people that use them. I quickly realized that things take time and that all the boxes won’t be ticked in the first year, but I know what I want to achieve and believe its possible over time.
I call it a “gentle protest” but I am committed to developing sustainable natural dyes using locally grown produce or food waste from the hospitality industry. I want to show our synthetic friends how great natural is and that it doesn’t need to be a big compromise.
How did you convince the cafes and hotels to donate their food waste?
It was actually really easy. At first we approached cafes and restaurants that are connected to the Good Market, a great Sri Lankan platform that celebrates local businesses that are “good for the planet and good for people.” Our first supporter was Cafe Kumbuk in Colombo who loved the idea and gets through 300 avocados a week, so could donate all the stones to us! We now work with a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant in Colombo called Mama Aidas who donates pomegranate skins.
It was harder conveying what we do to larger hotels, so I usually take pictures and fabric samples of what we do to show them and then they are amazed at what waste can produce!
“My favorite food waste to work with currently are pomegranate skins. They are really high in tannin which gives great color and wash fast. You can produce a lot of dye from a small amount of skins.”
What are your favorite raw materials to work with? What gives the best results?
My favorite food waste to work with currently are pomegranate skins. They are really high in tannin which gives great color and wash fast. You can produce a lot of dye from a small amount of skins, making them great for dyeing larger quantities of fabric. You can also get a wide range of color depending on the mordant you use and the quality of the water.
I also love eucalyptus leaves, again really high in tannin which makes for a good dye and we have an abundance of them close to the workshop so you will often find me gathering leaves from the forest floor.
Why is it important to you to support artisans?
I believe there is huge value in the handmade. We are in serious risk of everything being converted to machinery – and machines have their place but so many things are lost when this move is taken.
The handmade has such prominence in cultural identity, museums and art galleries are full of things people have made, it’s important to see the change and development of design over time. If the ability to make with our hands is taken away, if it’s no longer valued and people stop paying for it, so many jobs will be lost and our world will lose a diverse expression of creativity.
What are some of the challenges you face running AMMA?
Our biggest challenge so far has been moving into the new workshop. We needed a space close to the pre-school [for the mothers’ children] but larger than the building we were previously in – and in a small town options are limited! In the end, we found a small shop/garage, but since moving in we have encountered loads of problems which we never expected.
The area has low voltage which meant two motors on our sewing machines burnt out. The drains from the guesthouse upstairs got blocked which pushed all the sewage water into our bathroom and flooded the entire space… twice! And I’ve been locked out numerous times, because the door didn’t fit the frame very well! Finding people who do a good job the first time is really difficult – problems are managed until it happens again and people are forced to solve it for good. I definitely feel like I’ve become more assertive over the last 11 months.
“The handmade has such prominence in cultural identity, museums and art galleries are full of things people have made, it’s important to see the change and development of design over time. If the ability to make with our hands is taken away, if it’s no longer valued and people stop paying for it, so many jobs will be lost and our world will lose a diverse expression of creativity.”
Do you have a self-care ritual to take care of yourself after a long day?
A very sporadic one! Spending my days in the workshop carting dye vats around or sat behind a sewing machine makes my body ache all over, so I try to do some pilates/stretching in the morning before work or once I get back, this has helped hugely. I am trying to practice meditation and stillness in the mornings, which is really new for me but its helping me become someone more on the side of peace than anxiety. Sri Lanka has some incredible organic herbal tea producers ‘Organic Life’ is my favorite, they do beautiful blends. I tend not to wear much make-up. I use a local Ayurvedic face wash and a moisturizer with SPF as the sun is strong up here in the highlands!
What do you do to unwind?
I love to read. My Kindle has saved me whilst living in Sri Lanka as the English book availability here isn’t the widest. Podcasts keep me connected to the wider world. I play tennis on the weekends and enjoy the incredible food that Sri Lanka is famous for.
Where do you recommend to travel around Sri Lanka?
The East coast is my favorite, incredible food – try the Kottu (Rotti chopped and stir fried with lots of spices). The beaches are beautiful and often less touristy than the South. Jaffna, is also a wonderful place – people say it feels closer to India than Sri Lanka. One of Sri Lanka’s biggest features is the diversity of landscapes on such a small island. The 17 degrees I’m experiencing in the Highlands feels a long way off from the 30+ in Colombo.
What has been the most fulfilling moment of AMMA?
Recently, a mum named Landt turned up at our workshop door and asked for a job – and because we have a lot of work on, I was able to say yes! The next day when she came for a trial morning and I saw Chandraleka and Priya, the other two mums we employ, showing her what to do – it felt like a huge step in the right direction. Ultimately, I want the mums to take charge of AMMA and for it to be fully sustainable, and this felt like a small step in the right direction. Everything is a small step, but it’s such a humbling experience to watch AMMA evolve and set out for what it was created for.