Hello, Sweetie!

Trudi Edmunds was inspired to start her bicycle basket business by a gift from a friend. By STEVEN RUSSELL from an interview originally published in the East Anglian Daily Times

IT’S a real culture shock for Sudha, a tiny Indian lady of low caste who doesn’t speak any English. There she is, in her local post office, when this scary British woman starts jabbering away. “Oh my God! That’s like mine! Where did you get that from?” trills the over-excited stranger. The focus of her attention is a basket made out of plastic strips – a basket very, very similar to one carried by Trudi Edmunds, the tourist who has temporarily forgotten about sending her postcards home from this beautiful corner of the country and is now in raptures. Fortunately, the postmistress is able to interpret. “Go with Sudha to find the answers to your questions,” is the gist. The Englishwoman does.

A walk through the streets of Mahabalipuram – a town of perhaps 12,000 people in southern India, near the Bay of Bengal – leads to a row of three concrete huts. Water comes from taps in the streets and the loo is basically the bushes behind the building. But despite their relative lack of material wealth, the folk in this part of the state of Tamil Nadu are happy, smiley and proud, and getting on with their lives.

Trudi is introduced to Sudha’s neighbour, Parvathi Manivasagam, who shows the things she makes: such as woven banana-leaf mats . . . and the baskets made from colourful polypropylene strips – plastic, to you and me – that so grabbed the visitor’s attention in the post office.

The seeds of her interest were planted a decade earlier, when Trudi was studying decorative arts in London. An arty friend gave her a hand-woven bag she’d made from plastic strapping collected over many years: the loops round piles of new bricks, for instance, and around packages.

Trudi embellished it with silk flowers, butterflies and a drawstring lining. Everywhere she went, people asked where she’d got it. Aha, thought the then-student, here’s the germ of a business opportunity. But friend Melanie explained it had taken ages to collect the plastic material and didn’t think a business was practical. The dream floated away on the breeze.

Until 10 years later, in 2004, when Trudi travelled to India and by chance saw Parvathi’s handiwork. Perhaps, just perhaps, the dream could be revived.

Could the weaver make something now? “Basically I had to draw a picture and gesticulate,” recalls Trudi. “I was wearing pink and white at the time, so that was easy: ‘Make it pink and white!’” She got a ruler and worked out some measurements. Come back at five o’clock tomorrow, said Parvathi.

“That was a magical day for me,” admits Trudi. “I remember walking away from the huts and having that urge to look back, to take it all in, and think ‘I know this is going to be something good.’ I had this deep, deep feeling it was going to be something lasting, and nearly seven years later here we are.”

During her couple of weeks in Mahabalipuram, Trudi got Parvathi to make nine baskets – in three different sizes, so they would fit inside each other like Russian dolls. “I’d worked out I could get nine in my suitcase, with all my clothes stuffed inside!”

She asked the weaver if she’d be interested in making some that could be sold in the UK; and could she come up with a price to make them?

“I couldn’t promise her anything, but if she’d like to make them for me, maybe we could start a little business. She was more than happy to do that.”

Parvathi, a mother of three children, wasn’t actually making a living from her weaving skills. Occasionally she’d produce big baskets for the fishermen, and repair them. Her husband worked as a telephone engineer. “They were getting by,” says Trudi. “They weren’t the poorest people in the town, but they are certainly in the lower castes.”

Looking back from 2010, we can see they did in fact start a business. Today, Parvathi makes 18-30 baskets a month to Trudi’s specifications, ranging in size from very big to tiny. They’re imported and then Trudi, in her Bury St Edmunds studio, adds things such as feet and leather handles, artificial flowers and ribbons.

A fresh line, and a new venture, is a range of bicycle baskets launched October 2010 . The baskets are double-handwoven and made from the water-resistant polypropylene strips. Trudi, who came up with the designs, finishes the baskets in Bury, adding hook-and-loop fixings or her own brand of buckles and Italian leather straps. Larger ones have plastic-coated mild-steel racks that attach to handlebars.

The Anglo-Indian alliance goes by the name of the Innipooh Basket Company. It’s a tweaking of the Sanskrit/Tamil word Inipu. The people in India called Trudi this. She was initially a bit thrown, but was very happy when told it meant “sweet thing” or “sweetie”, and was being used as a term of endearment. She’s morphed it into a Westernised Innipooh. “I like it and I’m going to keep it, even if it does sound a bit funny!”

She does other, unrelated, artistic work, but admits Innipooh devours the biggest chunk of her time, what with the embellishing work, the marketing, finances and so on.

In a nutshell, her key role – and probably the toughest one – is selling the fruits of Parvathi’s labours.

“Seven years on. I’m obviously doing something right, but I have to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, going round to many craft and trade fairs.” A major three-day event can cost £280; one has to shift a lot of baskets simply to recoup that outlay.

“The basket business is my life. I’m constantly thinking about it. Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing it,” she laughs. “I put all the money back in. It is like a well-oiled machine now. It just all goes back in, and as and when I need to buy something for the business, the money’s there. I don’t take any profit from it at all.

“But it is worth it. I have lovely friends, some of whom are quite high earners, and they often treat me, because I’m doing something they’d like to do but can’t – they’re earning the money to pay the mortgage and the taxes.”

Parvathi receives “a very fair wage” for her labours. In fact, Trudi reports, the business was able to pay the weaver double the amount she had suggested for her wares. “She was obviously over the moon. A lot of people would have gone back and said ‘Well, if I’m buying 100, I want them cheaper, because of the bulk order.’ I know what it’s like to work as an artist, and if you’re making more, it doesn’t make it cheaper; it makes it more flipping expensive! It’s not a production line and doesn’t get cheaper the more you make. It stays the same per basket.

“This is no big business. We’re not talking ‘containers’. We’re talking one artisan helping another artisan, on a very small scale.”

We pause to chew the fat about the rapacious nature of capitalism and agree it’s a daft system by which to live a fulfilling and rounded life. “The way the world is now, it needs scrapping and starting again,” reckons Trudi. “It’s built on the wobbliest foundations imaginable!”

She says there was a time when she tried to persuade her supplier to become the local boss and take on other villagers to do the making, but Parvathi wasn’t and isn’t keen to disturb the equilibrium. She also didn’t really want to teach people her unique skills – a viewpoint Trudi respected.

One can understand the reluctance to rock the boat. The Innipooh venture appears to have proved a boon for Parvathi. Are her improved fortunes down mainly to the money and kudos earned from England?

“I won’t take the complete credit . . . maybe a tiny bit now,” chuckles Trudi. “Her husband is doing well in his job, though I’m told that is partly a status thing because of their connection with the UK. They’re at the top of the tree for where they live. It’s odd to say it, but I do believe part of it is from the fact that she has dealings with the UK.

“The second year I went out there, she’d moved down the street. They had a well in the garden and didn’t have to go to the tap any more. They’d got a couple more rooms and it was a much nicer house, with a yard. Still didn’t have a toilet . . . But now, yeah, they’re in a house with running water and a little kitchen, a room where they sit, and they have a TV. Plus the toilet and the washroom.”

Parvathi is about 40 years old. She has three children: Divya is about 16, Subasree 12-ish, and Kathick six or seven.

Trudi feels her business partner has changed significantly as a person since their embryonic dealings began in 2004.

“She’s much more open. When I met her, she was dubious and a bit ‘in her shell’. Now she’s out of her shell. She knows a little bit of English, which is for me very good, because my Tamil is just appalling! It’s a beautiful language, and looks nice on paper – like pretty patterns – but to read it is near impossible for me.”

Trudi, meanwhile, keeps the wolf from her own door by using her own artistic skills. Every now and then she’ll get a nice little commission. There was one recently that involved improving a clock face, using gold leaf.

Trudi’s father’s family was rooted in Suffolk. Her upbringing involved “a bit of hopping and skipping”, in terms of geographical moves, but at various times she attended Great Whelnetham primary, St James Middle and King Edward VI Upper School in Bury St Edmunds.

Arty rather than academic, and with a zest for exploring life, Trudi “stuffed up” initially at school. But, after going back for retakes, she garnered enough qualifications for the two-year foundation course she wanted to do at Ipswich Art School.

After that she struggled to find a potential college that appealed. Then a friend walking down Kennington Park Road saw a sign for City and Guilds of London Art School, went to have a peek, and immediately thought “Trudi should be here!”

The college – five connected Georgian houses, only 100 students and a family atmosphere – was indeed just the right place. Trudi studied there for her degree.

When she left, she set up her own business in decorative arts and stayed in the capital for about seven years all told. But rents were high, and she wasn’t well enough connected for the enterprise to really take off, and so just before the turn of the millennium she returned to Suffolk.

A few years later, Trudi thought about becoming an art teacher and worked voluntarily at a middle school for about six months, while applying for a teacher-training course. She got a long way down the line before being told there were no more spaces for artists. Maths and science yes, art no.

Feeling a bit let down after putting in so much effort, she was ready to shake life up a bit. Her sister, away travelling, reported that she’d experienced a “bit of an upset in Sri Lanka and I said ‘I’m coming out there! I’ve had enough of England! It doesn’t appreciate me!”

So it was that she made her first trip to India – in June, 2004 – met Parvathi, and the rest is history.

Well, nearly.

After returning to England with those nine baskets, and hopes of building an intercontinental business, Trudi booked her next trip to India for the middle of January, 2005.

All went well until she switched on the radio on Boxing Day and learned of the shocking Indian Ocean tsunami. The coastal state of Tamil Nadu was in grave danger.

Trudi’s fears were heightened when for three days she couldn’t contact the hotel she was due to stay in, just three streets away from the beach.

Luckily, it wasn’t devastated; and, after eventually getting through, she asked if someone could check that Parvathi was all right. Fortunately, she and her family actually lived quite a distance from the coast, and the waves did not penetrate that far inland, but the locals were all still shocked and scared, and the knock-on effects for the community were deep-rooted.

Back in England, Trudi raised a significant amount of aid money by raffling fair trade good donated by Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

When she travelled out a short time later, she admits feeling a little guilty for thinking about the fledgling business at such a difficult time. However, on balance, she felt getting it motoring would help life there.

Parvathi and her family were thinking about living further inland, or even moving away completely, and so the future of the embryonic enterprise looked uncertain.

“Selfishly, I talked them into staying. I feel like I helped, but it was a little bit selfish in a way, because I wanted them to stay there and get something set up for them and me.”

The family and many other locals felt the tsunami was a punishment from God, “and I was reassuring them it wasn’t; it was just ‘life’ and the natural world changing”. Such reassurance perhaps helped convince them not to do anything rash.

Trudi also taught in the local school for a fortnight. Having read up on the cause of the tsunami, she was able to talk to the children about its cause and help them draw pictures – an activity she felt proved therapeutic for many.

Since then she’s given many talks in England what life in India – to schools and social groups. There have been other projects, too. In February, Trudi worked voluntarily for the Belaku Trust, designing products with the Deepa and Kirana women’s income generation project in Bangalore.

“I now have bags for sale which are made by them. I was able to do this with money that was bequeathed to me by family friends on the death of their father.”

Amazingly, she still has that original bag – made and given as a gift by friend Melanie well over 15 years ago – which provided the spark for Innipooh.

“It’s a little bit chewed at the edges, but still going strong! I still go everywhere with it and people still say how lovely it is.”

Innipooh Baskets feature in the Product Guide Pages of Cyclorama

Further reading: You don't have to be a nice person to ride a bike.. Cyclorama blog post