Moyna Devi is hard at work.

Dressed in an old, torn sari, she repairs the only well in her village in Odisha with her husband and others – a functional well will mean that the women will no longer have to travel long distances to collect drinking water. But this is not the only reason they are participating in the repairs. They are doing so also to become a part of a non-profit called Goonj’s Work for Cloth programme.

The programme means that Moyna and her female co-workers will each add three saris to their wardrobes – at present, Moyna is down to her last two saris, both so well-worn that they look like they might give up any day.

For women like Moyna or Savitri, a farmer in Melghat, Maharashtra, the gift of a new sari, or even one that is in relatively good condition, is especially valuable, because it is the only garment they wear. The sari is traditional wear for women in several rural parts of India, but it is not just that – as a garment, the sari is the most versatile: it can be worn as a lungi, used as a bed sheet, a shawl, a sling for babies and at its most tattered, as menstrual cloth.

Wearing a sari (or even alternating between a few) round the clock while performing physical labour means these saris become worn very quickly.

So a group of women in Indian cities are trying to make sure that women like Moyna and Savitri never have to wait too long between discarding an old sari and receiving a new one.

A stitch in time

“Women in villages don’t change their traditional attire easily, unlike women in cities,” said Meenakshi Gupta, who founded Goonj with her husband Anshu in 1999. Goonj collects discarded and under-utilised material and clothes and re-distributes them to those in need. Gupta’s organisation started with 67 clothing items, and now collects over 1,500 tonnes of material every year.

“We have come across women who, after natural disasters, refused to accept any other clothing that we gave them and continued to wear the few saris they had with them,” she said.

One of Goonj’s programmes, known as the Your Saree for Dignity campaign, collects saris as part of Family Kits or Work for Cloth kits that are distributed among the poorest sections of Odisha, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand. This particular campaign began after the Guptas’ interacted with women in far-flung villages.

While simple cotton or synthetic saris can be worn every day, at home or at work, the rich brocade or embroidered saris that Goonj collects fulfil another important need: “We come across many cases in rural India where buying saris for a daughter’s wedding is a big burden on parents, who struggle to afford the basics,” said Gupta. Goonj uses embroidered or silk saris to create wedding trousseaus for poor families, known as the Wedding Kit.

Like Goonj, another non-profit, Poornam Eco Vision, collects saris, as well as used paper, toys and clothes in Pune. While a part of the collection is recycled to create new products, like cloth bags, rugs and file covers, the clothes that are in wearable condition are sorted by Eco Vision’s team and given to a clothes bank programme in Melghat, Maharashtra.

Most people who donate saris offer saris that have been rarely worn, and are in relatively good condition. Others give away brand new ones. “We often receive sari donations from a family member who have lost their grandmother or mother, and want to give her saris away to someone,” said Dr Manerikar, founder of Poornam. “Some of these saris are given away as vastradaan,” he added, referring to the Hindu custom according to which a family member’s clothes are donated to the needy after their death.

The whole nine yards

Located in a small room at the community centre of a slum in Ahmedabad is a unique lending library for saris: washed and hung neatly from two racks, each of the 150 saris waits to be claimed. Architect and designer Vandana Agarwal, who runs the library, said the saris were collected over a period of time, as word about the library spread through the community.

Each sari, donated by a well-wisher, can be borrowed at the rate of Rs 25. Thus far, Agarwal said, there have been no defaulters.

“Most women want to dress up, whether it is for festivals, family functions or for the naming ceremony of a baby,” she said. “Not everyone has the money to go out and buy new saris.”

Agarwal, and most of the women who borrow saris from the library, are part of a non-profit in Ahmedabad called Gramashree, which helps underprivileged women earn through traditional Gujarati handicrafts.

While Agarwal’s library works mainly by word of mouth, other organisations and individuals who collect saris to pass them on, usually rely on social media networks to find donors.

Payal Talreja and Annapoorni Trichur started a Facebook page called The Sareal Pact in 2015 to foster connections between women across class and encourage the spirit of giving. As per the rules, each of the 920 members of the group donates at least three saris every year to women in need. “Last year, we collected 250 saris that we donated to Goonj,” said Talreja.

The Sareal Pact recently celebrated its first anniversary with a virtual sari auction over 10 days, where they sold 53 rarely worn and new saris on their page. The auction managed to raise Rs 3 lakh for an old age home in Hyderabad. “The saris were donated with great love and generosity,” said Trichur. “Saris that cost Rs 1,800 were bought for up to Rs 10,000.”

Often, the saris are donated by women who recognise the abundance in their wardrobes – while several women in cities wear saris, very few only wear saris.

“Since the few saris we own haven’t seen much wear and tear, women prefer not to give them away, even if they only wear them once a year,” said Gupta.

As a result, Goonj frequently has to buy new saris to add to their kits. While most organisations working on sari collection campaigns face this issue, once donors understand how much a rarely-worn sari can help someone who wears saris every day, they do contribute.

Even so, saris come in varieties – cotton, polyester, silk – and varying quality: “Some come impeccably washed and ironed, while some are torn and stained,” said Gupta. “Over the years though, the quality and condition of saris that are donated has improved, as we are constantly spreading the message about mindful giving.”