When Sarah Aulie traveled to India on a whim in 2006, she had no thought of starting a non-profit organization. She was taking three weeks off from her social work position in Chicago to travel, and, though she didn't know why, she felt she should go to Kolkata.
In Kolkata, Sarah volunteered at a home for girls who were at risk for various reasons—some girls had grown up in the red-light district, while others were orphans. "I met Pushpa*, one of the girls living at the home, and her story showed me what many in her situation face. She was a typical young woman; she was bright and smart. But I knew that her future was bleak because she didn't have an education, she didn't have work, and at 18, she would be on her own," Sarah says.
As she was getting to know Pushpa, Sarah was drawn to kantha, the textile tradition that she saw around the city. "Kantha is basically their native quilting stitch and the blankets were beautiful," she says.
The need for meaningful work for the girls and the loveliness of the kantha blankets gave Sarah an idea. "I started an experiment to see if Pushpa would organize the girls to make blankets. I purchased the materials they would need—old saris—and brought them to the home. A Bengali social worker said that she would ship them to me when the girls had finished making them."
The start of Hand & Cloth
After three weeks, Sarah traveled home, not knowing if she would ever see the blankets from Kolkata. But, sure enough, several weeks later, a box of kantha blankets showed up on her doorstep in Chicago. Sarah was amazed at their beauty, and shortly after, Hand & Cloth was born. From the beginning of the non-profit's inception, its mission has been to curate and sell textiles while offering dignified work to women.
Sarah was changed. "After that trip—and those blankets—Kolkata was burned on my heart and mind. I felt the calling to get back there." But she did not go straight back to the city she'd fallen in love with, but through a connection with her high school alma mater, Sarah went to live and work alongside a woman who ran a program for widows in Bangladesh, just east of Kolkata.
The Bangladeshi program that Sarah joined was offering help and protection to women and children who were at risk. "The widows in this Bangladeshi program were making kantha, so this became my opportunity to learn about helping at-risk women through being part of an existing program. I went and lived in Bangladesh for six months; it was my training ground for Hand & Cloth."