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Quilting a kaleidoscope

A creative tour de force with magic in her fingers and boundless imagination, Shruti Dandekar is an internationally acclaimed quilting wizard whose work has been featured in international magazines and conventions. In this interview, we had a delightful tête-à-tête with Shruti about her passion for quilting and her mantra for success as an artist.

Filed Under: quilts,quilting,social entreprenuer,teaching aids,women entrepreneurship,teaching
19/05/2017 05:57:04 Story MompreneursIndia

How did you discover your passion for the arts and quilting? What is the story behind 13 Woodhouse Road?

“I got married in the year 2005 and moved to Sangli, where I have been based ever since. The name ‘13 Woodhouse Road’ comes from the original address of the lane where our house is situated, from the pre-Independence era.

In 2009, I had taken a sabbatical from work as I was recovering from chikungunya, and I discovered a bunch of old clothes lying around. I decided to make something out of those clothes, but ended up giving them to my maid to make something out of them as I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine back then. I would provide the design, and my maid would stitch them accordingly. Thereafter, I started upcycling more clothes, and my friends and acquaintances who saw the finished products requested me to do the same to their old clothes. So I eventually ended up employing around forty women from the nearby slum to work on these clothes and materials.

Around the same time, I also inherited my grandparents’ old sewing machine, which I began to use, albeit with some difficulty as I didn’t know how to thread it. I began searching online for more convenient models of sewing machines, and happened to come across a website called run by a renowned quilter Elizabeth Hartman. I discovered many tutorials on this website which made quilting seem like an easy and engaging process. So I decided to purchase a sewing machine for quilting, but my budget at the time was very limited. Nonetheless, I took the advice of the distributor for Bernina (a reputed Swiss company for sewing machines) in India, and purchased a Bernina Bernette E56, which was a lower-end model in line with my budget. However, in 2012, when I attended the Bernina meet in Pune, the company surprised me with a Bernina 330, which was a more advanced machine than the one I had.  I have now upgraded to yet another machine so I could work on more complex projects.

I also started a blog on Wordpress to showcase my quilting projects during this period, and ended up gaining a lot of followers as well as the opportunity to connect with fellow quilters in India. In 2012, I started teaching quilting, and realized that it was what I wanted to do full-time. I have travelled extensively across the country for conducting quilting workshops since then. By 2014, I started taking commercial projects. So that's the story of how I started off with quilting on a whim, without any formal training and haven’t looked back since.”

Where do you draw your inspiration from as an artist and what keeps you engaged on a daily basis about your work?

“I find inspiration in practically anything I see around me, and I love what I do, so every day is interesting in its own way.  For instance, I had recreated a personal favourite photograph of my son on a quilt. It was a photograph of him clicked by a nature photography group while we were on a stroll through the park near our home. This quilt was recently exhibited in a couple of shows in the US. Indian culture is a source of inspiration for me because of its diversity. In fact, I plan to do a project on quilting based on brides in India from various parts of the country, and I am looking forward to get that off the ground as soon as possible. I find no dearth in inspiration or material to work on because there is so much around me that I find interesting and creatively-inclined.”

In your opinion, what are the most crucial aspects to be kept in mind for establishing a successful entrepreneurial venture, especially one that is based in the creative or artistic space?

 “Firstly, I think that personalization is an important aspect of any entrepreneurial venture in the creative space. People want to know about what makes a product unique, in terms of its artistic value, inspiration and complexity. They want to know about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ process leading to the finished product, in order to be able to appreciate it, so I don’t think that blind advertising or promotion is an effective strategy in that regard. It is important that the customers know that there is passion and a creative vision behind the work or product, and it is also important to present it in the right manner with elegance and substance.

I think that in creative endeavours or in the service sector in general, one needs to look into what the customers are looking for, and then customize their products or services accordingly. For instance, I am currently doing a series called ‘100 Days, 100 Exercises’ on my blog / website which is a pilot project aimed at engaging people at a creative level, by posing questions to them on a daily basis, to understand their perspective and their thoughts on various topics. I intend to carry this out as an online class soon, to help people in the creative space understand how to gain commercial and artistic visibility, develop a customer base, and showcase their work, utilize social media to their advantage, prioritizing business goals, branding etc. One must have an understanding of these aspects of a business if they intend to set up a venture with creative roots.”

What challenges have you faced thus far in your professional life? What would you classify as your highs and lows, particularly with respect to quilting or 13 Woodhouse Road?

“The turning point in my career as a quilter was in December, 2013 when I created a portrait on a quilt to commemorate the 100th anniversary of my husband’s family business. The portrait was that of my husband’s great-grandfather, who founded the business, whose life and work ethos inspires us as a family even today. It took me hours of effort on a daily basis over 3 months to make it, and the final result was much appreciated by my family. At the time, the project felt like a herculean task, but now, I teach my students to make quilt portraits within days.

Commercial high points include being invited to exhibit my work and conduct a workshop at QuiltCon, an international quilting convention in the US and selling a textural quilting piece I call ‘White Rainbow’ there, which was based on the concept of allowing people to feel colours on fabric. Being appointed a brand ambassador for Bernina was another moment of pride for me. More recently, I was one of the artists selected by Oracle from across the world, to be featured in their projects. 

The challenges I have faced were more along the lines of my decision to become a full-time quilter not being accepted as a career choice by people. My mother, for instance, was concerned that I had quit a well-paying job as an architect to take up what then seemed like a hobby as a career instead. Also, many people in general found it hard to accept it, as a legitimate career choice. However, once I found recognition in the country and abroad, this perspective changed into something more positive and encouraging.

Trying to make potential customers understand the pricing and value of the works I had created was another challenge, in that I would often have to explain to them as to why it was expensive and the kind of effort that went into creating it. But eventually, perseverance and passion for your work overcome such issues.”

Have there been any individuals who have specifically inspired you in your journey as an artist and entrepreneur? Have you had any mentor who has provided you with professional guidance?

“There have been multiple people who have inspired me and mentored me and various stages in my life. While I was working as an architect, I was mentored by my then-employer, Mahendra Pawar; who appreciated my efforts and provided me with both encouragement and opportunities to grow. He taught me a valuable lesson about being secure about oneself, and allowing others around you to flourish with your encouragement. In this way, one gains so much more in terms of a loyal colleague and supporter.

With respect to quilting, Elizabeth Hartman, a veteran quilter, has been a source of inspiration and advice for me, who has been kind enough to respond to my queries and provide me with encouragement for projects when I felt like I couldn’t pull something off. She has always told me to try to implement whatever new ideas I have, even if they are likely to not work out the first time, because it’s only a matter of time before you figure out how to make it materialize exactly how you visualized it.

My family has also been supportive of my venture. I have been fortunate to have a support system at home and encouragement from the quilting community with respect to my work.”

In your opinion, how important is social media for the promotion of entrepreneurial ventures and have you utilized it for promoting 13 Woodhouse Road?

 “I believe that social media is crucial for promoting businesses these days. I have personally utilized it to a great extent to showcase my works, and to generate business as well. In fact, almost all my orders are placed through Facebook, which serves as an easily accessible interface for customers, while being a convenient promotional tool for me.”

What is your vision for 13 Woodhouse Road ten years from now?

“I want to be the connecting point between quilters in India and the rest of the world, and allow this art form to reach its true potential in the country, while giving the world an opportunity to see the talent that we have here. I have discovered through my research and travels that quilting has a rich, diverse history in India. I would like to be able to showcase that on a global scale, and provide better resources and opportunities to quilters in the country. Sometime in the future, maybe a few years down the line, I might consider establishing a store which provides both quality materials and fabric to quilters for their projects, while also being a space for them to exhibit their works and sell them to customers.”

Lastly, what is your mantra in life or the one piece of advice which you have been given that you consider invaluable?

 “For starters, my motto with respect to work is ‘Just ask’, in that one shouldn’t be hesitant about asking for assistance, information or opportunities, or be hindered by inhibitions with respect to doing whatever it takes to materialize their goals and dreams. From personal experience, I can say that one would be surprised about how people are willing to help and support others in their endeavours, more often than not. Even if it doesn’t work out or you fail or are rejected in any way, it doesn’t matter because it’s temporary and you’ll figure it out soon enough.”

Our conversation with Shruti was much like one of the quilts created by her, with myriad anecdotes and thoughts held together by the strength of her passion and commitment for her art. She is an inspiration to women entrepreneurs, especially in the creative space, and we look forward to having more opportunities to engage her in the future regarding her works and accolades.

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