Changing lives one stitch at a time

MOST women nowadays not only have to assume the traditional role of caretaker in the family, but also balance the reality of having to hold down a job to supplement the family income.

For a group of women in the B40 community (bottom 40% income group) living in the Program Perumahan Rakyat (people’s housing programme) flats at Kota Damansara who are trying to make ends meet, The Batik Boutique is helping to change their lives.

However, Amy Blair, the founder and CEO of this home goods, gifts, and fashion company, declares: “Batik Boutique is not changing anyone’s lives. Actually, these women are changing their own lives.”

Blair, who hails from the US state of Texas, first developed a desire to help people in need after a friend told her about a lady called Ana, who was looking for work to make extra income.

At the time, Blair had just moved to Kuala Lumpur, where she and husband Ryan had their first son.

She hired Ana, a single mother, to teach her Bahasa Malaysia and eventually, the pair became friends and bonded over food and culture. Blair even learnt to make curry puffs and different Malay kuih from Ana.

“As we became friends, I began to understand the struggles that she has had as a single mum,” recalls Blair at the boutique’s recently-opened sewing centre at Kota Damansara.

“I think for me, as a new mother at that time, that really affected me because I now have this son who I love desperately and would do anything in the world for.

“I saw that she was the same, that she wanted to do things to provide [for her children].”

Blair was also struck by the fact that while she and Ana lived within five minutes of each other, their lives couldn’t be more different.

“I couldn’t understand how our lives could be so different when we lived in the same time period, in the same location, just five minutes down the street.”

After Ana, Blair also met another woman named Noor, and decided that the best way to help her new friends was through a business, not just charity.

And that is how The Batik Boutique came to be launched in 2013, offering free training in sewing up to three times a year, mainly to women from the B40 demographic.

“Our mission is to provide them [seamstresses] with skills training and economic opportunity, and that’s what Batik Boutique does for them,” says Blair. “We teach them to sew.”

The company partners with family-run businesses in Kelantan and Terengganu where fabrics are customised and made, before being sent to The Batik Boutique’s sewing centre in Kota Damansara.

There, the seamstresses turn the fabrics into bags, shirts, or name card holders ordered by companies.

To create greater impact in the women’s lives, Blair says that The Batik Boutique takes in large orders, ranging from 500 to 5,000 pieces, usually in the form of corporate gifts like business card holders or neckties.

Participants who continue to the second level to gain more skills are assessed for potential part-time or full-time employment, where they can start earning an income from it.

“Most of the participants are mothers,” explains Blair. “Some who have younger children can’t work a full day, so that’s fine, we work around that with them.

“Some want to put in a full day and they obviously earn more income that way.”

For 40-year-old Nor Hazana Mohd Ghaini, working as a seamstress for The Batik Boutique has been a blessing, compared to her previous jobs working in a factory and supermarket.

For this mother of seven with the oldest being 16 years old, the fact that The Batik Boutique’s sewing centre is close by to her home in the PPR flat is a definite bonus.

Hazana says: “My children sometimes visit because it’s so close, so I can easily watch over them.

“In the past, money was always an issue because there are so many children. Once I joined The Batik Boutique, at least the children’s school expenses are taken care of.

“We’re paid a weekly salary, so that’s helped me in terms of financial resources.”

This is precisely what Blair hopes The Batik Boutique can offer to the women it employs – that by helping one woman, the lives of her family members are also impacted.

Blair said: “Obviously, we can’t change the whole world, but if I can impact Hazana’s life and, therefore, she impacts seven [others in her family], then I just multiplied my effort by seven.”