Volunteering at Sabala, a Women’s Empowerment Organisation

Sabala is a wonderful organisation located in Bijapur, Karnataka, dedicated to the empowerment of women and other economically and socially disadvantaged groups. I found out about this NGO when I was looking for ways I could contribute some of my skills to benefit others.

Having just recently graduated from a textiles degree, I was drawn to the idea of working with fair trade fabric products and was referred to this organisation by World Fair Trade Organisation.

Within a few days, our accommodation and placement had been arranged and after a long train ride, we arrived in the early morning in the middle of nowhere Bijapur. You can read about our simple living in Bijapur here.

Every day I was picked up by a rickshaw driver from my accommodation to Sabala which took no more than 15 minutes. I loved these moments, driving past the people living their everyday lives, which became a beautifully normal sight.

The craft center where the products are made was small, but exploding beautiful handicrafts. I loved the colourful chaos of it all. In one large room downstairs, three ladies would sit on the floor embroidering beautiful, colourful patterns onto various textile items. They were using the Banjara stitch for these items.

Next door there was a small room filled with hundreds upon hundreds of jars, each full of colourful buttons, beads, threads, wools, and beautiful hand-made jewellery.

Sabala Crafts Bijapur India

Going up one flight of stairs, there were three rooms, one of which was a small room filled with gorgeous hand-made bags, pencil cases, cushion covers and other beautiful textiles. Many of these products were made of the same material/design/incorporated the same stitches. Next door to this sample room was a larger room whose shelves were piled high with a whole variety of fabrics, all of different textures, colours, patterns. I was in heaven. Each of these fabrics were dyed with natural colours and all flaunting the Kalamkari print. Every day I was mesmerised by these fabrics and wish I could pull them all down and roll in them! In the middle of this heavenly room, a pattern cutter worked his magic on the large table. He cut his materials with stunning precision and I used to love watching him work. He couldn’t speak English, though noone could, but I hope he understood my appreciation of his skill.

Behind his room was a tiny area hidden quietly away with even more shelves of fabric and finished products. I spent most of my time in this room, it was a great place for me to work in as it was quiet, out of the way, and I just loved pulling out and admiring all the products that had been made here in this simple craft center.

The third room on this level was the machinists’ room, where six women stitched all the items together to make them completed products. Mostly they worked on various styles of bags, stitching them into shape, but 2 of them knew how to stitch garments and add the intricate details including piping, collars, button holes, etc.


On the third floor was a huge room divided into two areas. On one side, there were more sewing machines on which there were four ladies sat sewing lining into the bags, and on the other side were a group of people sitting in a circle on the floor, either weaving the fabric to make their unique jute bags, or hand-stitching the edges and creating handles for them.

There was a really lovely man named Pranesh who worked there. He was the one who greeted me at Sabala when the owner failed to turn up on my first day, leaving me waiting for three hours. He he was the one who gave me the tour Sabala, providing the history of the company and even taking me on his motorbike to visit the Sabala showroom on MG Road. The showroom is a really cute, modern shop with a wide variety of beautiful ethnic-inspired products. Mostly they stock hand-stitched cushion covers, bags and women’s kurtas (Indian tunics), but they also supply a whole range of handmade jewellery, soft toys, gift items, dupattas and more.

As the person who was supposed to be assisting/guiding me/be my supervisor rarely showed up to the center, I dedicated my time to researching Indian trends, consumers, fabrics, spending hours admiring Sabala’s products and textiles, studying Banjara stitch, making fabric swatch charts, and story boards, experimenting with fabric combinations. When I finally came up with some designs, with a few ideas drawn out, I tried to communicate the idea to the non-English speaking pattern cutter. Due to the language barrier and the fact that the fabric cutter was frequently absent, I took it upon myself to teach myself pattern cutting and developed 21 products. As mentioned, I was only asked to make 12 but with no assistance, supervision and being left to my own devices 95% of the time, I had no choice but to just keep making more.

Trying on my Dress at SabalaWhen I wasn’t researching, browsing, or designing, I indulged in getting to know the women working on the production unit. They’re all so lovely and we were all really interested in getting to know each other, despite the language barrier.

Embroidering At Sabala in Bijapur

I loved spending my lunch time with the women of the craft center. We would sit outside on the floor, eat with our hands, share each other’s food.

They tried to teach me some of their Kannada language, and tried so hard to speak to me despite their limited, broken English. Often one of the men at Sabala would take me home on their motorbike at 6pm where I would meet Brendan and we’d go eat dinner.

My final day at Sabala was a very emotional one – in two ways. My “supervisor” shouted at me for leaving the premises without her permission (even though she wasn’t paying me!) to get photos printed for the women as a leaving present. This is despite her not turning up earlier and me having finished everything and then she criticised everything I had done for the last two months. However, it was still emotionally positive. I had bought some small gifts for the women and we spent the day taking photos and eating, and Brendan came in the afternoon to bring the printed photos for everyone, so it was still a wonderful day which I will never forget.

I did not expect that everyone at the center had put some money together to get me a gift too – a framed image of the Hindu god, Ganesh, a hairband, some chocolate, and some flowers they had picked outside. Such a beautiful experience!



I would love to hear other peoples’ volunteering experiences…

One response to “Volunteering at Sabala, a Women’s Empowerment Organisation

  1. Pingback: Arriving in Bijapur – From Oceans With Love·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s