Ali Capp from The People’s Fabric doesn’t waste time with the trivial. You understand this very quickly when you meet her. She’s building a social enterprise to empower Indonesia’s indigenous Dayak women and that’s no small task. Like many social entrepreneurs she’s doing this in her ‘spare’ time, working around a demanding full-time job.

We think what she’s doing is pretty remarkable, read on to find out why. 

Image of Ali Capp, The People's Fabric founder

In a sentence or two, what is The People’s Fabric?

The People’s Fabric partners with Planet Indonesia, a not-for-profit organisation and a women’s weaving cooperative, both based in West Borneo, Indonesia, to source traditionally handwoven ikat fabrics through programs that economically empower indigenous artisan women in the region. We produce bags, (the cutest) baby shoes and cushion covers from the handwoven ikat fabric which we sell both in Australia and internationally.

How does a Melbourne-based woman decide to produce ikat with an Indonesian cooperative?

The idea for our three-way partnership started to evolve in 2015. We recognised that we had the capacity to tap into an international market through diversifying the women’s traditional textiles into one-off homeware pieces that could suit a contemporary home. Ikat throws turned into ikat cushions, and the collection slowly expanded.

How do the makers benefit?

As well as creating sales avenues for weavers, being a member of the cooperative provides women with access to communal savings groups, which often aids them in building their own business, sending their children to school or supporting their own and their family’s healthcare.

The People's Fabric weavers at work

There are a lot of groups doing good work. Why did you choose Planet Indonesia?

What I love about Planet Indonesia is their approach to sustainable community development and their commitment to delivering programs that value how cultures, people, the environment and local economies intersect. It recognises both the challenges and opportunities of complex social dynamics and ecosystems and facilitates the process of finding community-driven solutions to local issues.

How did you get into ethical business?

Aside from being mildly obsessed with our beautiful neighbouring country and a love for travel, my career in community development has led me to meet some incredible people doing interesting things, each in their own unique way. In particular, it’s exposed me to some effective small-scale community programs that addressed local destructive practices, such as animal trafficking and manta ray hunting, through a combination of education and initiatives designed to create alternative livelihoods for the community.

After seeing the impact that these grassroots projects were having on people’s behaviours and outlooks, it was easy to visualise how this could work in other contexts. And with Planet Indonesia already delivering some really effective programs through village-led partnerships, exploring how ethical business could create change seemed a natural progression.

I’m loving this shift towards conscious consumerism and sincerely hope that we are just scratching the surface of its potential!

The People's Fabric cushion

Many of us want to make a difference and do good, but turning an idea into a reality can be challenging. How did you move from something you dreamt of into an operational enterprise?

Oh wow, if I thought of all the things I could have done, had I not been struck by the fear of failure!

Before launching into The People’s Fabric, I was a founding Board Director for a small not-for-profit organisation, Bottle for Botol, that partners with schools in Indonesia and Australia to deliver an environmental education program focused on eliminating plastic pollution. If the Founders of Bottle for Botol weren’t as courageous and ready to take the plunge into the unknown, I might still be bopping around in the surf with them talking about how crappy the issue of ocean plastic is.

Instead, they shared their vision with me and we took a leap of faith. Google was our best friend. Risk-taking was inevitable. And it felt like failure was perpetually imminent. But we persisted. Recognised our strengths and weaknesses. Got up when we fell down. And learnt lessons.

This journey gave me my first experience of seeing an idea eventuate into a reality and I’d say is the most empowering feeling I have ever known. Once anyone has witnessed this, suddenly anything becomes possible.

“Seeing an idea eventuate into a reality is the most empowering feeling I have ever known”

Meeting the weavers must be extremely rewarding. Can you share a story about this?

When I was nutting out the project with Planet Indonesia and the weaving cooperative, I visited a traditional longhouse – literally a 100m long bamboo house on stilts where up to 30 weaving families communally live – in a small village in West Borneo. The women generously shared their stories, their craft, their humour and their traditions with me.

They talked about their favourite motifs that they liked to weave into their ikat, what they symbolise and who taught them how to weave them. But the visit was also to share the vision of the partnership and get permission for me to take a pair of scissors to their labours of love, so we could create new ikat products for new environments.

What came next?

I loaded up on some beautifully woven pieces, set-up a sewing machine next to my bed in my tiny little share house and started to sew some cushion covers. I didn’t stop sewing for months. When I returned to the longhouse eight months later, I nervously presented some ikat cushion covers to the weavers and the moment I saw excitement and opportunity in their eyes was the most validating moment of this entire experience. It became the driving force behind everything that followed.

How do you find work-life balance running a social enterprise and holding down a full-time job?

I don’t! It’s something I often contemplate but I do admit that I’m one of those people who isn’t very good at sitting still. If the whole “mono-tasking is the new multi-tasking” idea is right, then I’m in trouble.

I guess ultimately it’s about recognising that being a perfectionist and being efficient aren’t always compatible, and knowing when something is “good enough” so I can let it go and move onto the next thing. (Of course, this isn’t in reference to the products, which have progressed from being prototyped in my bedroom and into the safe hands of professional tailors!)

ikat cushion stack from the People's Fabric

Any final words for us on how to live or shop more ethically, mindfully or leave a lasting impression in our everyday?

Oh gosh, I don’t know the answer to that one. We really do have such a responsibility to make ethical choices and look after the world and its wildlife and each other. But we are flooded with information and ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ each day, which can be really overwhelming and cause people to just shut down altogether.

I’ve had a few moments of clarity in the past few years that have really consolidated my principles and values. I often find myself using these moments as a kind of reference point – as though it acts as a filtering system if I’m not sure about something or it’s a way to hold myself to account.

I guess what it comes down to, is that if you think you can take the extra step, then take it. And if you surround yourself with the right people, you will probably find yourself making the right choices. But don’t wait for others to set the pace.

Also, there are so many ways you can give back in addition to being a conscious consumer. Do some research, talk to people in the sector and find yourself an organisation or community group that is aligned with your interests and values. A good organisation will consistently monitor and evaluate their work, and share their learnings with the public – when you think you’ve found one that has genuine, positive social and/or environmental impact and ticks all your boxes, then sign-up to volunteer and/or give them a little portion of your pennies each month.

Ali’s stunning ikat products can be found on her website.


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