Stitching with determination: stories of women garment workers in Indore, India

Article, 07 June 2022

Many women in Indore work as informal home-based garment workers. This case study demonstrates their commitment to investing in equipment and learning new skills in order to contribute to the family income.

Behind closed doors lies a vast segment of largely invisible women and girls working in India’s flourishing garment industry. 

Women working from home account for about 14% of urban employment in India. In low- and middle-income countries, outsourced garment production thrives on account of cheap labour to keep the levels of production high and costs low. 

We studied two kinds of home-based garment workers: 

  • Sub-contracted workers: homeworkers who receive specific work orders from traders, usually through intermediaries. They are provided with raw materials and are paid on a piece rate basis. 
  • Own account operators: workers who take up custom tailoring and garment decoration work. They are approached by customers who prefer getting their clothes made to their bespoke requirements. They learn decorative stitching skills and through these skills they can earn more than contracted workers. 
This case study is part of work by IIED and partners exploring responses to occupational, environmental and public health risks faced by workers in the informal economy, while also helping to build their resilience to climate change.

Indore as a hub of garment manufacturing

Indore is an emerging ready-made garment manufacturer and exporter (PDF) in Madhya Pradesh. The closure of many textile mills in Indore after 1975 paved the way for the emergence of home-based garment manufacturing (PDF). Indore’s garment manufacturers use the ‘competitive advantage’ of using low wage workers to generate profits. 

Women living in informal settlements in Indore see stitching as a dependable source of income because of the flourishing garment industry. 

In most Indian families stitching is inherent to the culture. Most women gain some experience of sewing from adolescence. Many women have turned their traditional work of sewing to repair and stitch family’s garments into an income-generating pursuit. 

These stories describe women home-based garment workers from the slums and informal settlements of Indore. They contribute to family income and wellbeing. Their experiences are typical of many women garment workers in the slums of Indore.

Gayatri: Early-career stitcher working to support the family 

Gayatri, 24, is an ‘own account’ worker. She was compelled to take up stitching because her husband suffered kidney damage and was no longer able to work. 

The family tries to manage the expenses of her husband’s dialysis twice a month through loans. The family’s expenses are also supported by Gayatri’s father in-law, who sells potatoes and onions, and by her mother-in-law who works as a domestic help. 

A young woman sits working at a sewing machine in a corner of a room.

Sewing a blouse on a pedalled machine (Photo: URHC)

Gayatri uses the sewing machine that she was given by her parents as part of her dowry. She learnt stitching at a vocational training centre before her marriage but finds it challenging to devote much time to stitching as her daughter is quite young and needs care. 

Gayatri started sewing after the COVID-19 lockdown of 2021. She earns approximately INR 500 (US$6.44) per month: 50 INR ($0.64) for a simple blouse and 100 INR ($1.29) for a blouse with a thin inner lining. She aspires to learn how to stitch ‘designer blouses’ that have fashionable designs and decorative embellishments to expand her customer base. 

“When I learn the skill of stitching designer blouses, I am likely to get more clients and earn more” – Gayatri

Ganga: Growing skills for custom tailoring 

Ganga, 48, is an ‘own account’ home-based stitcher. She developed an interest in stitching after moving to a neighbourhood in Indore where women stitched on a regular basis. 

She learnt sewing from her neighbours and saved money to buy a sewing machine. She started stitching dresses for children in the locality.

In the following years, she diversified her work by making creative designs of western clothing such as midi dresses (a single piece dress worn mostly by girl children from the collars to the knees), skirts and designer shirts with decorations of pearl embellishments and patterns. 

A  woman sits working at a sewing machine in a corner of a room. Next to it, a table is piled high with colourful garments. More garments are hanging up on the wall.

Ganga provides customised tailoring involving decoration with embellishments in different patterns (Photo: URHC)

She says: “People come to me for stitching of blouses and lehengas [Indian traditional long skirts], for decorating the saree’s “pallu” [the loose end of the saree worn around the shoulder or head] and other dresses to be decorated in different patterns and designs.”

However, the work is physically difficult. “I face the challenge of weak eyesight. It is particularly difficult when one has to insert the thread in the eye of the needle,” says Ganga. She wears spectacles while stitching. She also experiences headaches after a day’s work and tries to rest in the evening.

“Mostly during festivals and the wedding season, the flow of work increases. I like doing this work as I am able to contribute to family income” – Ganga

After years of effort, the family now has a two-storey house in a slum. Her two sons are pursuing independent jobs after technical education. 

Sarita: Stitching to educate her children 

Sarita’s family’s expenses increased with the birth of her two children. Having learnt stitching at her mother’s home, she decided to sew for a living but was unable to procure a sewing machine. She started assisting a neighbourhood woman in her stitching work and attended a stitching course at a vocational training centre. 

A  woman sits with her back to a wall, working at a sewing machine. On the table is a pile of shirt collars.

Sarita taught at a local school for two years to save money to purchase a sewing machine (Photo: URHC)

The 44-year-old says: “Being a matriculate, I taught at a local school to save money for a sewing machine. I was able to do my household chores and give time to the family.” 

She started by stitching shirt collars for a few years, before graduating to stitching shirts. She says: “Ever since I started stitching shirts, my earnings have improved, compared to when I stitched only collars.” 

Despite her husband’s fragile health, her work ensured education for her two children. Her sons are now pursuing college-level technical education after schooling. 

“I taught at small local school for two years to save money for a sewing machine” – Sarita 

Phoolwati: Learning and stitching carry bags to educate girl children 

Phoolwati was only educated up to eighth grade. She used to stitch mostly for her family, repairing her own and her children’s clothes.

As her children grew up, she felt the need to pursue this work for additional income after observing a woman sewing for a contractor. 

A woman sits at a sewing machine, stitching a large bag with writing on it.

Phoolwati stitches carry bags to educate her girl children (Photo: URHC)

She observed neighbourhood women stitching bags and took some samples of carry bags to practise on a small sewing machine she owned. Acquiring the skill in a few days, she took stitching work on contract from a factory manager who provided her with material to make bags for a famous chain of sweets and dry salted snacks. 

With her savings and a loan from beesi (an informal rotating savings and credit association), she upgraded her sewing machine to a more technically advanced one. 

Her two daughters assist in the sewing work, which means she is able to sew more. Her elder daughter is pursuing university education while the younger one is in school. 

Pointing to her semi-built house structure and cramped surroundings, she says: “We have not yet invested in our house. What I and my husband earn, we spend on paying the education fees for our children. It is important to educate children. They will know a way out of poverty.”

“It was not easy to bring up children with only a single person’s income. I took up stitching to support the family income” – Phoolwati 

Ratna: Perseverance in learning skills 

Ratna was only educated to matriculation and had no prior experience of sewing when she got married. 

She worked for one year in a factory that manufactured incense sticks, to save money to buy a sewing machine. 

A  woman sits at a sewing machine, studying a pattern.

Ratna learnt how to stitch shirts after a lot of practice and perseverance (Photo: URHC)

She also worked at a garment factory to acquire the skills and experience of sewing: “Working at a garment factory helped me learn the basic skills of stitching. After a lot of effort and practice, I learnt to stitch.” 

When she was able to purchase a sewing machine, she started making collars for shirts. After a few years of stitching collars, she could eventually stitch an entire shirt.

Recalling her initial years of stitching, she says: “Earlier I was not able to stitch properly and the shirt would turn out to be haphazardly stitched. I kept trying as I knew that this work will help me contribute more to the family income and give me the independence to spend on children’s education and family’s healthcare. These days it is important for both women and men of a family, to work.” 

Ratna and her husband, a driver for a mini-pick-up truck, work to meet the family’s expenses, educate their children and for the steady progress of their household.

“Working at a garment factory helped me learn basic skills of stitching. After a lot of effort and practice, I learnt to stitch” – Ratna 

Conclusion

Through pursuing sewing, women can overcome the limitations of little or no education or formal training. Most women stitchers enhance their skills through experience. This helps them get regular and progressively higher paying piece-rate or own-account work. 

Stitching work is available throughout the year because Indore is a garment manufacturing hub. Those with more skills do work involving more finesse (stitching shirts, decorative stitching) and get paid more than those who stitch smaller and simpler items such as shirt collars.

Investment in equipment is crucial for most home-based garment workers and they save for this through initially working in lower-paying jobs.

Participation in community savings groups helps in accessing loans for upgrading machinery to increase output. 

Our research shows that home-based workers are strongly motivated to educate their children and contribute to the family income. They identify work opportunities through social networks with neighbourhood women.

As well as the two traditional roles of child rearing and caring, adult care and domestic work, these women take on a third role of generating income. The art of performing the ‘triple role’ by these women demonstrates their immense contribution to the family and to the household’s income.

The burden of managing the family’s financial needs falls on women who have lost their husband, or whose husband is unable to work owing to illness.

While the initial years are challenging, home-based women stitchers in these stories demonstrate that perseverance helped establish them. Women like Ganga turn their refined skill and artistic instinct into an opportunity to tailor more customised clothing. 

Although this work brings occupational health challenges, women continue to pursue this economic opportunity as it generates income from home. Often, the support of daughters plays a crucial role in enabling them to sustain this work.

Despite their contribution to the garment industry, and comprising a sizeable proportion of workforce, home-based women garment workers remain invisible in labour estimates. Survey interviewers and male household representatives often do not recognise women as workers and the social communities that are created between women garment workers mean they themselves often do not think of themselves as ‘workers’.

This case study was produced by Siddharth Agarwal, Kanupriya Kothiwal and Shabnam Verma of the Urban Health Resource Centre, India.


This research was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Global Health Research Group using UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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