In 2009, when Amy Blair moved to Kuala Lumpur with her husband and toddler, she met Ana, a single mother of two teenagers who was looking for work. Amy decided to ask Ana to teach her Bahasa Malaysia. The friendship blossomed along with Amy’s language skill. “I began to have a deeper understanding of her and her struggles. We are both mothers who would do anything for our kids. The only difference was the circumstances we were born into, which you don’t get to choose,” recalls the native Texan.
It became Amy’s mission to help her new friend. Together, they decided Ana would make batik coasters and aprons which Amy could gift to family and friends during her trip back to the USA that Christmas. “Two things happened: People liked the colour scheme and patterns because we didn’t have anything like batik in the US. And they liked the story behind the products, that it was helping somebody. They started asking me if I had more.”
Back in Kuala Lumpur, Ana was ecstatic to hear the positive response. She had ‘recruited’ Noor, a mother of seven children who lived at the same low-cost flats. At times the family went without electricity or enough food. Now two pairs of eyes looked to Amy expectantly.
“I wasn’t looking to start anything! I was just helping a friend,” recalls Amy, but she felt a need to keep on going. She got friends on both sides of the globe involved and when sales grew, she started selling at bazaars. Offers came from the US to take up products. That was how The Batik Boutique came about, a fair trade social enterprise promoting artisanal products, particularly those made from batik. They went online in 2012 and also branched out into corporate gifts. “People liked that we were meeting a need and that they could help the local community by buying our products,” Amy shares.
It was a steep learning curve for Amy who, by then, had had another child. She had to learn from scratch how batik was made, traipsing to the hinterland of Kelantan and Terengganu to discover the craft and find artisans to work with. By day, she chased toddlers and changed diapers. By night, she learned from her business consultant husband, Ryan, the ins and outs of running a company and packed parcels to be mailed out.
It was far from a great time to embark on a business venture but she knew she was on to something. She was also driven by the genuine needs of her team of seamstresses and the fact she was able to provide some kind of sustainability to their livelihood.
Two years ago, the pieces started to fall into place. With her children older and in school, Amy decided to seize the window of opportunity to scale up. “All this while, I had been reluctant to incur overhead costs because it meant taking money away from the seamstresses and artisans. But the reality is that in the long run, the more we increase our business, the more we increase our impact. We would be able to train more women, give more money and help more people,” she explains.
She has rented an office space, which is in the process of being transformed into an all-in-one office, boutique, production and teaching studio. Ryan is now part of the business full-time as director of operations, and they have also started hiring other full-time staff, besides setting up a proper sewing studio at the low-cost flats where it all started. Today, The Batik Boutique has worked with over 175 seamstresses and batik artisans.
Two years ago, the company got a big break when it was signed on by fair trade American clothing label, Raven + Lily, to manufacture part of their clothing line. “I wanted to work to share the beautiful textiles and talents Malaysia has to offer as well,” Amy recalls. So she decided to write to Raven + Lily.
Initially, they’d replied that they were not looking to expand to more artisan groups at the time. But a few weeks later, they wrote back asking for a Skype call to find out more about The Batik Boutique. “They asked for samples of what we could do but the obstacle in local manufacturing is meeting international regulations about the chemicals, fabrics and processes being eco-friendly and low-impact, as theirs is an environmentally-friendly company.”
Through her network, Amy managed to find a local batik artist who could make a natural dye. Raven + Lily gave their stamp of approval and ordered 100 pieces of a blouse. “We went back to the batik artist, all excited thinking he could make the dye while our ladies sewed. But his wife was about to have a baby and he couldn’t do it.” She discovered this to be a pattern in artisan communities when you want to take artisanal crafts to other countries.
The artist offered to teach them how to make the dye instead. So for weeks, Amy, Ryan and the team boiled leaves and dyed yards of fabrics at the house – much to the amusement of perplexed neighbours! Their efforts paid off; The Batik Boutique has since manufactured a loungewear and eco-dyed silks in at least two collections annually.
In the process, the company also added to their repertoire of skills: Making eco-friendly dyes and dyeing fabrics, while the ladies in the sewing studio are in the process of becoming skilled seamstresses trained for mass production. A production expert from the USA is spending three months with them under the Ministry of Finance VIP (Volunteering for International Professionals) programme to make that happen.
“We will continue to scale up but we are doing it slowly as I want to make sure that as we grow as a business, we are also growing in our impact,” Amy explains. “For me, the reason I started the company was to help artisans so that has to stay the focus no matter how big we get.”
Currently, The Batik Boutique’s business is a diversified mix of online and offline retail, corporate gifts and contract manufacturing. But that is just a small part of Amy’s big picture. She hopes to turn the office/studio into a visitor centre for locals and tourists to learn about eco dyes, dyeing techniques, batik painting and using batik to create trendy products. Eventually, she wants to set up a centre where visitors can learn about Malaysian culture but in a modern form that still celebrates the ancient heritage through interactive experiences.
“None of this has come easy for me. When you live in another culture, work in another language, in an art form and industry that is not yours, sell in a market you did not have prior experience in and work with people in marginalised communities…it is challenging! But in a good way,” she muses.
“In the end, people are people – there is a lot we can identify with in each other. We all do what it takes to make it work for our families; we want our kids to have a better life than we did, and we are doing our best to make that happen. I can be part of someone else’s story, for their betterment and that of their next generation…. what else do you live for?”
All picture credits to Amy Blair/The Batik Boutique