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Selyn striding towards a handloom future

  • Honouring 30 years, the ‘New 30’ launches

Selyn, Sri Lanka’s only fair trade guaranteed handloom company, announced the launch of their “New 30” campaign in celebration of three triumphant decades in the handloom industry.

After 30 years in the industry, Selyn is set to take impactful strides towards a handloom-future that’s inclusive of blockchain solutions, enabling the opportunity to communicate traceability, ethical sourcing, environmental impact, and much more to its customers.

Selyn Director – Business Development and next-generation lead Selyna Peiris (left) with Selyn Founder Sandra Wanduragala

In a press conference announcing their New 30, Selyn Founder Sandra Wanduragala noted that they are proud to celebrate 30 years of weaving community together in Sri Lanka. “We’re celebrating the journey of our weavers, artisans, designers, and staff, who have put their hearts and souls into creating a brand that has reached the homes of global customers today,” she expressed. 

Selyn’s journey

Selyn was founded in 1991 by Wanduragala with 15 weavers working out of her home. Today, the company empowers over 1,000 weavers and artisans in rural Sri Lanka. 

Sharing some insight on Selyn’s backstory, Wanduragala said: “When I started Selyn on 6 November 1991, I embarked on a journey I didn’t know much about. I didn’t know how to weave, I didn’t know any designs, I didn’t know there was a weaver, designer, or a businesswoman living inside me. The only thing I knew was that if I committed myself to this, I would create a livelihood for the women around us.” The handloom industry was at an all time low back then and there was discussion with the export board that the handloom industry would be a strong help to the rural economy. She explained that she then took up the challenge, not knowing what she was doing, and eventually learned it on the job.

She also added that her brother was a great support and learned the industry before her: “I am the visionary kind of person and he is the practical person,” she added.

Sharing a few lessons she learnt from this 30 year long journey, Wanduragala commented: “Selyn has always been innovative; we have always tried new things like our toys and the various things we do with our fabrics – from transforming the fabric to European taste and making by-products – we did everything that was possible with the fabric we had.”

Being true to themselves is also a valuable lesson she learned during the years: “Everyone asked me ‘why handlooms?’ I told them it’s because I believe in it, I love it, and I love seeing women engage with it. I always believed that we could make a difference and be proud of our own heritage.” Handloom is part of our culture, heritage, and identity, and Wanduragala stated that we must embrace it.

Wanduragala also noted: “We want to create appreciation for handloom as it is a representation of our culture and heritage, while also empowering and uplifting the quality of life of the women in our community.”

Selyn has always been true to their people, Wanduragala stated: “Our people come first, I love everyone at Selyn and I’m very proud of the New 30 and the turn that Selyn is taking.”

How Selyn fared during the pandemic

Selyn takes a fair trade and sustainable approach to handloom weaving

Speaking on how the handloom sector was hit during the pandemic, Selyn Director – Business Development and next generation lead Selyna Peiris commented: “We had problems bringing raw material into this country, as our yarn and cotton is brought down from India. With all the problems caused by Covid-19, our supply and value chains were challenged.” She stated that they also felt that they were so far away from their team and their supply chain while some of their artisans were completely out of reach during the time.

She explained that with the pandemic everything changed: “Last year, as a company, we could have easily decided to continue our own way, let the handloom industry die a very natural death as it is largely connected to the tourism sector in this country which is severely impacted at this moment. We could’ve thought about diversifying in different ways; we could have chosen to do the normal thing and retain our status quo but no, we chose to reposition Sri Lanka’s handloom and our fabrics in a global luxury market.”

Peiris further explained that they have taken steps to do so, and have currently invested in experimenting with locally-grown fibres such as rush and reed, banana fibre, ekel, and various other fibres which they hope will create new industries in Sri Lanka.

The global handloom and fashion industry has bitterly experienced the social and environmental implications associated with fast production cycles, overuse of resources, waste generation, environmental pollution, and unethical labour conditions. Growing consumer awareness regarding social and environmental impact of fashion products has led to create a new marketplace for sustainable and ethical products.

Selyn’s most recent brand, the New 30, is about embracing the challenges and taking the handloom industry head on; not just for Selyn, but understanding what they can do for the rest of the industry as well.

“For us at Selyn, handloom is an intangible heritage; it is authentic and Sri Lanka must be proud of it. We are committed in our New 30, to take this forward and ensure that the world knows that Sri Lankan handloom is something to contend with,” Peiris added.

A global perspective

Selyn continues to make big local strides in the economy and now with consumers being more conscious of how their products are made and where they come from, Selyn’s transparent approach to the industry is commended by the global market.

Speaking further on Selyn’s global audience, well-wisher and expert Erinch Sahan who was the former CEO of World Fair Trade Organisation commented that he visited Selyn’s operational grounds in his prior capacity as CEO and found it to be his most memorable and inspiring experience.

“We need to remind ourselves of what the bigger picture looks like in terms of what Selyn and other mission-led social enterprise models are doing out there,” he stated. He further explained that if we look at fast fashion, we are seeing an alternative where in that fast fashion world, it is creating a degenerative model of business where we are taking, making, using, and losing products. 

“We are taking the earth’s resources and turning them into products that are thrown out eventually and we are doing this over and over again,” he observed, adding that we are still seeing farmers, artisans, and workers in these mainstream industries are too often struggling to get by and acquire the very basics of life. Sahan commented: “They are anonymised, they are unseen and are often unknown inputs on a long and hard to trace journey,” but stated that there is an alternative and Selyn embodies this alternative which, he described, alone is worth celebrating.

As a social enterprise that fully practices fair trade, Sahan observed that Selyn has been working to reverse this degenerative and divisive model of destruction that so many fashion brands are part of. “The natural fibres, water treatment, natural dyes, and artisanal low CO2 handloom production and the indigenous techniques that I saw at Selyn, as well as the upcycling and recycling they were doing and the partnership with other like-minded enterprises showed me that Selyn stands in stark contrast to the mainstream model of business and trade,” he expressed.

He further stated that he saw firsthand, back when he was in Sri Lanka, their production and training practices, irrespective of convenience or market reward: “They did this because they are mission-led, because they put the people and the planet first.”

Sahan also questioned how we can better distinguish businesses like Selyn and their production and training models in this crowd of ethical markets and ethical ideas as people claim all sorts of things. “One approach would be to embrace technology, Selyn pioneered the blockchain system to trace their journey and give their customers transparency,” he answered, adding that since Selyn keeps looking to renew its impact and renew their model of business to continue to provide ethical and sustainable options to their audience, Sri Lanka’s handloom industry will thrive globally. 

Unlocking a future for the handloom industry

Selyn hopes to unlock an exciting future for the handloom industry in Sri Lanka by leveraging groundbreaking technology interwoven into the fine fabrics of Selyn’s crafts in the New 30. The company aims to celebrate and preserve craft and heritage, whilst merging low (slow) tech of the loom with high tech solutions (blockchain), to ensure traceability that truly catalyses the industry by creating a higher value for handloom fabrics and products in the global markets.

“At Selyn, as a fair trade guaranteed company, we are committed to transparency, sustainability, and ethical manufacturing as our product pillars, a practice that keeps our products shining in the limelight,” Peiris noted, adding that the journey of their handloom, transitioning from craft-based essential products to a pioneer in the global sustainability industry and discourse, is truly a mesmerising one.

After 30 years of operations, they are making a stronger commitment to transform the industry by encouraging greater transparency for their supply chain, and with the integration of new apparel technologies to revolutionise the product they offer.

Peiris concluded that what they are taking on into the future is their purpose-led business model, adding that they won’t and will never forget the values on which they are based. “This is us as a company; our purpose, our mission, our value, and our commitment towards the people of our country and our planet will always supersede the conventional business aim of maximising profit,” she said.