Jolly elephants showcase creativity – A Sri Lankan designer sends her stuffed animals on the road to Germany

Impressively colorful and of high-quality - the 31-year-old designer Thilini Jayawardene from Panadura, Sri Lanka, wants to bring her sustainably produced stuffed animals onto the German market with the support of the SLG Forum. She wants to realize a lifelong dream and, at the same time, help needy women and their families.

If you walk past a stand of LIMO Handlooms, you will immediately be spellbound by the bright colors. Jolly elephants and parrots laugh at you from the shelves. They not only make children’s’ hearts beat faster, adults also succumb to their charm. If you come closer, you will discover, in the truest sense of the words, beautiful works of art. The stuffed animals as well as the bags, shirts and T-shirts inspire at first glance by their colors. On closer inspection, the excellent quality of hand-woven fabrics and their workmanship is clear. Thilini is someone at work who does not produce cheap mass-produced goods, but is passionate about it.

 

Already as a child, the owner of LIMO Handlooms, Thilini Jayawardene née Fernando, liked to watch her mother sewing household linens and curtains, while her father worked in a tourism company outside the home. "My mother inspired me to do what I do today - enthusiastically designing and making beautiful things out of fabric." The Buddhist girl was educated at the Catholic Princess of Wales’ College in Moratuwa, located between her hometown of Panadura and Colombo. The school was one of the country's first girls' schools to offer higher education for girls outside of the capital, and spawned the island's first female MP and distinguished female artists. In addition to the usual main subjects, the focus of Thilini's education was on the natural sciences. Sports was a priority for her. The girl became the captain of the netball team and was elected prefect. She learned to take responsibility for others, to stand up and assert something, qualities that benefit her today.

 

At the age of 20, Thilini had a college degree in her pocket. Now she was drawn back to the roots, back to the world of hand-woven fabrics and homemade garments. She felt she would not have been herself if she had just gone home to start sewing: "I wanted to be a designer, so I enrolled at the National Design Center in Colombo." The government-initiated institute’s mission is to give traditional arts and crafts a more dynamic and economically viable direction by promoting the development of new design ideas that combine local and global market needs.

In just six months, the young woman graduated, but it would take her another ten years to turn her back on the National Design Center. While working as a freelance designer, she continued teaching at the institute. In addition, she married a bank employee and gave birth to two girls, today nine and six years old. The young family lives in the house of Thilini Jayawardene’s mother, who takes care of the girls when they come from school at noon. Although the Jayawardenes are currently building their own home, the practical support arrangements will not change, as the designer does not work in her own home but has her own studio in the center of her hometown Panadura, which has around 181,000 inhabitants.

Her work at the National Design Center and talking to needy women in the area gave her the idea of using her talent and education for a larger business. As a result, she rented a store two years ago and hired several women to realize her designs. Since then, the colorful stuffed animals, clothes and bags have been created here in three rooms.

Thilini Jayawardene also uses expressive colors in her studio. The big sign outside proclaims that there are hand-woven fabrics and linen clothing "for a vibrant world". In the shop window, next to dolls with chic dresses, the happy elephants greet passers-by. Red painted stairs lead into the interior. When you enter the workrooms, white dominates the walls and sunlight penetrates through the windows.

Five permanent employees and up to ten women of various ages who can be called on demand are currently working on implementing the patterns the designer designs. All come from the area around Panadura, and most of them were housewives living in dire circumstances before Thilini Jayawardene brought them in, taught them, and gave their skills due respect. Now these women can work in a caring team and feed their families. They spend an average of eight hours in the studio and their children are allowed to come if they cannot stay with their grandparents. They get something to eat and can stay until the mothers go home. Four of the children are disabled and need special care.

The children of the employees and Thilini Jayawardene’s two daughters themselves are the best guides for the production of soft toys, which are so popular with domestic and foreign customers. The two Jayawardene girls especially love to change and improve the designs. Their mother places the highest value on the fact that the children and the customers in general hold pollutant-free substances in their hands and do not wear them on the skin. She finds the handwoven fabrics in scattered villages, where men and women of different backgrounds and religions weave them. Thanks to direct contact, Thilini Jayawardene can test the fabrics by herself and buy them at a fair price for both parties.

The result of all these efforts is childrens’ toys that parents buy with a clear conscience. "These toys are healthy, without harmful materials or poison," is a widely heard praise, "these great stuffed animals not only have beautiful colors, but also have educational value," is another. Often these are tourists because the goods are also delivered to souvenir shops and exporters.

 If Thilini Jayawardene's dream comes true, and she finds a suitable market for stuffed animals in Germany, she hopes to take the production of the fabrics completely into their own hands and hire many more women than before. She still knows many needy families to whom she would provide bread, and women who could be valued in this way. She also plans to set up a day care for the children and a cafeteria with healthy food at her studio. In her bravest dreams, Thilini Jayawardene even sees a teacher teaching the little ones.

In order to realize her dream, the designer found support in the newly established Sri Lanka – Germany Forum (SLG Forum), which builds bridges between the two countries and wants to give small and medium-sized enterprises a sales opportunity in the other country.

Now LIMO Handlooms have set the course to expand production and supply the German market directly and in larger quantities. One can be sure that the happy elephants, parrots and penguins will find numerous customers and lovers.