Ponmani Pethurajan first visited Puliyanoor in October 2016, for the opening of a weaving community.
A year later, she had set up a tailoring school in the village and launched Thuvam, a brand of fully-cotton underwear for women, by women.
Step into any lingerie store today and what you get are panties made of hosiery, lace or satin. These fabrics don’t allow the skin to breathe. Moreover, they are not suited to the tropical climes of our country. For a garment that is in constant contact with your skin, using such suffocating material is not just foolish, it also causes health problems. Rashes, vaginal infections and the likes are problems common to most women, and the first step towards treatment is to stay off tight clothing. So why then do women choose such underwear?
“Two reasons. There is very little awareness about the damage caused by such underwear. And then there’s the problem of finding an alternative. There are none. For a country famous for its cotton mills, we don’t have a single brand of fully-cotton underwear,” says 26-year-old Ponmani.
Thuvam makes underwear from 100 percent woven cotton. The cloth is sourced from Erode. The underwear comes with a coloured patch in the centre made of dyed cotton. This patch has a pocket to insert cloth or pantyliners during period emergencies. Available in 6 sizes, the panties come in two versions — with nadas or elastic.
Ponmani says she had always been interested in art and craft. "As a teenager, I designed my own clothes and learnt to use the sewing machine. Clothing seemed like a natural career choice,” she explains.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Costume Design and Fashion Technology from Hindustan Arts and Science College (Coimbatore), Ponmani returned to her hometown in search of a job. A well-known garment store had just opened a new outlet near the Madurai Railway Junction. They wanted someone to take care of the visual merchandising: Ponmani was hired.
Two months into the job, she realised that her role had morphed into that of a glorified salesgirl. One afternoon, after she learnt that her pay had been docked for spending too much time walking between the two floors assigned to her, she took the stairs one final time, went up to her supervisor and told him she was done.
Along with her brother Arun, Ponmani started travelling around Tamil Nadu, visiting places that promoted organic living. Over the course of their journey, the siblings realised that even babies have clothing options limited to hosiery and other synthetic material. Most of these clothes were mass manufactured in Tirupur. Very few shops stocked cotton clothes for children. That’s when the idea for Ambaram was born. In December 2016, they launched a line of woven cotton clothing for babies and toddlers. The thin cotton material, simple jabla designs with nada, and the aesthetic colour combinations made the brand an instant hit.
On 2 October 2016, Ponmani and Arun visited Cuckoo Forest School in Puliyanoor for the launch of a weaving community. A few months later, she was back at the school. This time, she walked into the village and spoke to the women. That’s when she learnt about the issues of alcoholism and migration. The villagers whose income came from farming and forest products were now looking for greener pastures. They wanted a good education for their children. And if that meant they had to work in the city as carpenters, masons, construction labourers, or as farmhands in nearby Hosur, then so be it.
On 29 March 2017, Padma Shri Arvind Gupta opened the Puliyanoor Tailoring School. It started with five sewing machines, donated by friends and well-wishers. After a two-month tailoring course covering seaming, machine operation and understanding fabric, the school had produced four women tailors and had started on their first order — stitching clothes for Ambaram. “Baby clothes are the easiest to stitch so it worked well for us,” says Ponamni.
It was at Cuckoo Forest School that Ponmani started thinking of alternate uses for everyday things. “All around me, I saw basic material being used in multiple ways — bamboo was used to make mugs, knife stands, flower pots, musical instruments and for building huts. I started thinking about the various things I could do with cloth, especially woven cloth. Were there items of my clothing I could use it for? That’s when I stitched sample cotton underwear for myself. It worked.”
Nestled in the foothills of Javadhu Malai, Puliyanoor is one of 70-odd tribal villages in the area. At the centre of the village is a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar. Apart from an obvious marker of the local caste issues, the statue doubles up as a bus stop. For the 150-200 households that constitute the village, a lone bus makes a trip at 9 am. If you made plans for later, you’d have to walk.
The nearest town Singarapettai is 7 km away. Turn off SH 18A, take the first left on entering the village, and you spot a cream concrete wall with a tree painted on it. This is where the Puliyanoor Tailoring School stands. However, except during tailoring classes, on most days, the school acts more as a storage unit. The women usually have toddlers and prefer working from home.
Mumtaz was from the first batch of the school. Today, she works from 10 am to 3 pm, stitching 15 panties a day. “This works perfectly for me because I have a two-year-old daughter at home,” she says.
One of the reasons the school was set up in the village was because most parents were migrant labourers, leaving their children behind with the grandparents. Alcoholism is another problem the village faces. Thanks to Thuvam, some of these children have their mothers waiting for them at home when they return from school.
Women who have used the product love it. “The fabric breathes and is easy on my skin. After years of wearing tight underwear, this is a blessing,” says Arunima Shankar, who has been using Thuvam since its launch.
While an innovative idea, Thuvam is yet to find many takers. However, the rise of the organic movement offers hope that this all-cotton underwear will find its way into the wardrobes of women. Change could well be nigh.
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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 11:43:45 IST