After leaving New York to spend a year in Singapore and Mumbai, Shweyta Mudgal reconnected with a childhood memory that inspired her to repurpose her design skills as an airport architect into an ancient form of Indian textile printing.
“Singapore is a takeoff point for anybody to travel that side of the world,” she says, which exposed her to Asia’s maker economy and gave her the opportunity to rekindle a creative pastime from her youth.
Shweyta fondly remembers how she would “walk in to a tailor in Mumbai in this lane that I was living in and give him a piece of scrap cloth, or even fabric or material that I found somewhere,” and together they would design something completely original out of it.
“So that’s the how the idea of ‘8,000 miles’ really started after all of that travel and being inspired by the rich textile culture of Asia,” she says about the birth of her clothing brand.
It was integral to Shweyta to weave social impact into the fabric of Eight Thousand Miles from the start, so that it wasn’t merely an “afterthought.” She identified two ways to empower the local community of artisans in India who would bring to life the garments she designed.
“One was to be able to work with artisans and communities that were either disadvantaged, financially,” says Shweyta, or “were working in textile cultures which are being threatened by extinction now due to mechanized, digital printing and more modern techniques of fabric production and printing.”
She was equally clear about the other major thread of her purpose-driven model: “I wanted it to be done in a fourth generation textile printing design community based out of a village investor in India, which has been block printing for generations on fabric.”
“Both of these worlds came together” when she found a “small sewing unit, which was very, very self reliant and independent because it was set up by a woman who really just wanted to do the same, which was to give work to disadvantaged women,” she says.
This culminated in a process that requires Shweyta’s presence in two time zones (primarily through WhatsApp), now that she’s living back in New York with her husband and daughter. She designs all the prints by hand or on her computer; they’re printed out at scale and attached to two pieces of wood back in India, and then replicated for every color needed for that particular print.
“This is in fact a very, very ancient way of printing fabric but to me it was the best way of representing drawings,” she adds.
Women Helping Women Succeed
In the six years since she launched, Shweyta has maintained the same standards for her garments and the women who craft each one by hand.
“Every unit that we’ve ever worked with has been composed or vetted to make sure that the end artisan is also someone who has undergone training, but is also very, very happy working in the unit, not being exploited,” she says. “It’s fair trade, the unit is well lit and clean; the artisans are being provided for.”
Going back to Shweyta’s original vision, she ensures the artisans are paid for each piece that they make instead of “an assembly line method because then you know they’re not sort of small cogs in the machine, but they are responsible for having created the entire garment from scratch.”
“We also invest back in their children and in their lives by doing this on a day to day basis,” she says, noting that making it to work is not without its challenges “if you’re a woman in that strata of Indian society.”
“Women are not always available to come work because they’ve had a problem at home or they just were not able to walk to work that day or had to stay home to take care of an ailing mother-in-law and things which you know come in the way of your working life,” she says.
The endurance required by all involved is not lost on Shweyta.
“We’re just happy that we’ve been able to keep the business model alive and always have social impact in every little piece that we make.”
Shweyta has had to learn how to pace herself and stay present in her two different worlds of motherhood and entrepreneurship.
“I try not to push myself too hard,” she says reflecting on how far she’s come since the “initial years trying to set things up and establish everything.”
Shweyta admits to “mom guilt” while not feeling totally present with her daughter.
“We would read at bedtime, but I would still be thinking in my head about my next print that I should line up for the season ahead,” she says.
So she’s started treating her evenings like more of a “9-to-5” and tries “not think about work unless it’s just before a show, we’re rushing a deadline, or things like that.”
“I used to be really, really harsh on myself about trying to get a lot done and this whole philosophy that I’ve literally been brought up with of ‘if you have to do it tomorrow, you do it today; if you have to do today, you do it now,'” she says.
Shweyta cautions other entrepreneurs just starting out to temper their enthusiasm so it doesn’t snowball into martyrdom.
“I know it’s very difficult early on, especially if it’s your passion that you’re transitioning into a profession or if your business is really your baby,” she says. “In that case, ImI know it’s very difficult to draw a line between how much of yourself you want to invest in it.”
“If you’re going to do a lot of it yourself, then you really have to understand that you’re doing four or five different jobs at the same time,” she says, pointing out how long it would take that many people to work together to get a job done.
“If you’re doing it all yourself then give yourself that kind of time,” she says.
Now, when Shweyta finds herself up against a deadline that’s pulling her mentally away from time with her daughter, she takes a different approach.
“So now what I’ll do is I just talk to her about it,” she says. “She has her own inputs. I realized that sharing it with someone is better than actually just ruminating about it in your own head and constantly being obsessed with your work.”
“If you just seek out or find a mentor, or just tell a friend or family, it gives you some sort of a break from the journey, which is really, really hard as somebody starting out,” she says.