Having baby daughters at around the same age brought two young mothers together for coffee, and to make fun crafts like hairbands. But after just three hairbands, Joanna Moss and Bethany Dawson began to think bigger.
They tossed about the idea of creating a line of baby clothing adorned with the motifs of Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah, where they both live. The idea morphed into setting up a small enterprise to engage local women artisans to make their products.
“That was Bethany’s idea, and I thought it was a great one. If we are going to do something big that will take us away from our families, it should be something worthwhile,” said Moss, one-half of the social enterprise Changgih Designs. Dawson is, of course, the other half.
That was in 2015, when both their children were less than a year old. They both knew how raising a family can leave a mother with little space to pursue other activities or earn an income. They realised that many women were in the same boat, and some really did need income for their families. They wanted to enable these women to work from home, become financially stable and develop their skills, while still being able to care for their families.
“We both have such a deep love for Sabah and wanted to give back somehow,” said Moss, who was born and grew up in Sabah after her Singaporean parents moved there. Dawson is an American who moved to Sabah with her husband a few years ago.
They took a leap of faith to design baby onesies with Sabah motifs, but that didn’t sell well. Things suddenly changed when Dawson spotted the infinity scarf on a trip back to the U.S. and excitedly sent photos to Moss. That became their first product, under the Changgih Designs brand name – a scarf made from fabric with local designs that were joined at both ends to form an infinity loop.
The first infinity scarves were made by Mia, a widow who lives near Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu, whom Dawson met at a tailoring shop owned by Mia’s sister-in-law. Dawson had asked for advice on stitching the scarf, Mia offered some, and Dawson asked her to work on the first batch.
The scarves sold out in no time. They sold so well that Changgih Designs had enough to fund a prototype of their next product, a tote bag that was sturdy, spacious and stylishly Sabah. That, too, sold well. Changgih ploughed back the profits into new products, expanding to wristlets and wallets.
The breakthrough came when a local travel agency ordered 1,000 wallets as gifts for their clients. Moss recalled that they were initially doubtful about such a large order as they engaged only a handful of artisans. But the agency encouraged them to take it as a challenge to find and train more artisans. “Because of their patience, we were able to double the number of artisans,” said Moss.
That brought in the funds for their long-held dream project – to design their own textiles. They hadn’t designed patterns before but knew they wanted a Sabah motif. They took their inspiration from the Dusun farm hat called sirung and padi stalks.
Anxious that their designs should reflect the Dusun cultural heritage respectfully, they made sure to do their research and to seek the views of their artisans and indigenous elders. “We also wanted to know the stories related to these items,” she said.
The designs were handprinted on fabric in Indonesia and arrived in huge, beautiful bales – unwashed. As fabric shrinks up to five centimetres upon washing, they couldn’t use it to make any item. It won’t do to have a bag or scarf shrink into strange shapes after being washed by customers.
Mustering all their grit, Moss, Dawson and friends spent two weeks in self-service launderettes to wash every single metre of the fabric, hanging it in their homes to dry. Their children found it great fun to run beneath the billowing cloth; the women were utterly exhausted.
But when the fabric dried, it was so gorgeous that they felt it was worth all the pain. This unique Changgih Designs textile was turned into its first Fall Collection of women’s wear, including overthrows, blouses, skirts and trousers, and accessories such as handbags, scarves and wristlets.
Savouring their hard-won success now – four years later – Moss and Dawson are still determined to ensure that their business pivots on empowering women and serving the community. “The number one way which we want to use our brand for good is to create jobs that provide a fair income, a safe environment and opportunities to grow,” said Moss.
As such, they empower the head artisans to determine the production price of items and the women to decide for themselves how many products they will make in a set period. The women choose their own hours and work around their family schedules.
They are also assisted to become better seamstresses through skills training held at least once a month, taught by the head artisans. New recruits attend a training programme, held over a few months, to learn the A-Z of sewing. By the end of the programme, they will be able to sew competently and will also get a sewing machine each.
Changgih Designs provides these machines, purchased at a discount, through its Give10Sabah programme, where they return 10 percent of proceeds to community projects such as disaster relief and English classes. Some of the artisans, including their first seamstress Mia, have moved on start their own sewing businesses.
From a casual chat over coffee at a kitchen table, Changgih Designs has grown to a team of five part-time staff, working with 10-15 artisans, with another 20-30 in training. It now has an office space in the Sabah State Museum, where it also organises regular batik printing workshops.
They dream of opening a full-fledged vocational sewing school one day and to grow Changgih Designs into a fully fair-trade and eco-friendly business.
“It is a business that gives back to the community, but it has also given back to Bethany and me. Changgih is ours, and our artisans’ as well,” said Moss. “It blossomed from the friendship, trust and love we have with each other.”