Step into Iris Strill and Bishwadeep Moitra’s store in Delhi’s Khirki Extension, and you might think it’s another regular shop in a line of others. But the products displayed on the shelves have deep stories, and the people who made them have deeper reasons for making them.

Strill and Moitra founded Silaiwali, a Delhi-based artisanal studio that creates hand-crafted home décor, ornaments, and are known for their signature dolls. Silaiwali dolls have a huge customer base all around the world, they’re made from the environmentally-friendly method of upcycling waste fabric generated by mass clothing manufacturers, and the most special part about them — the dolls are hand made by a group of women refugees from Afghanistan. Currently, around 80 women work at Silaiwali, spanning across three generations. The younger ones are between ages 20-25, and the older women nearing their 60s. Among the group of women, almost every single one shares the same tale of violence, destruction, and prosecution from the Taliban. They were forced to leave their homes, some that were destroyed due to bombings and shellings.

Strill, a French national who has been in India for 15 years, had experience working in product design, and training refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) livelihood programs. She explains that the idea for Silaiwali started as a seed in her mind a few years ago. “I started visiting India regularly in 1999, first as a fine arts student of Beaux-Arts, France, and then as an independent designer working mainly with craftspersons in Rajasthan, till I made India my home about a decade ago. During the course of my design work here, I often trained Indian rural women in utilising their traditional skill in developing products that could have a global market. Among the many training workshops I conducted, some were with the Afghan refugees under the United Nations livelihood programme, Swavalamban-Self-reliance for Refugees. That’s how the idea to work with refugees came upon us.”

Staff

Strill and her husband Bishwadeep Moitra — a writer, editor, and photographer — decided to work together, pooled in money from their savings, and set up Silaiwali. The store has ventured into home décor and ornaments, but their bestseller and most recognisable product still remains their signature rag dolls. Silaiwali is committed to not only providing jobs, but also doing their part to help the planet by being environmentally responsible. Every doll is made with fabric remnants collected from the fast fashion industry. Moitra explains the significance of how a simple doll carries the ethos of Silaiwali, and translates the emotions and sensibilities of the women who make them.

“Our doll line embodies a creative and poetic universe that crosses both design and craftsmanship. In a toy or a decorative object, our doll is as well intended for children as for their parents. Each doll tells a story. The bodies are made of cotton canvas with colours of skin with different hues that celebrate cultural diversity. Ethnic prints and natural materials sublimate a chic and bohemian fashion, in a generous and mixed spirit. Far from the stereotypical offer of pink princess dolls, our doll is a dollwoman of the world,” explains Moitra.

Doll making

Silaiwali’s dolls were sold at Uniqlo’s Tokyo store, and in the Einzelstück store in Zürich that specialises in handmade products. The store recently collaborated with American retail giant Cost Plus World Market to sell their home decor line in the US.

Silaiwali is on the road to grow bigger, with a lot of big international collaborations already in the pipeline. A small, humble store that once started in a Delhi market has grown to become a world-renowned establishment with a signature product loved by everyone, thanks to the art of storytelling, and the urge to become.