IMPHAL, Nov 4 (PTI): Poverty had forced Mukutmoni Moirangthem of Kakching to knit shoes for her daughter and now after three decades her expertise has found her markets abroad as well as in the country.
Her entrepreneurship and efforts to empower poor women has earned her recognition and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2022 for her art.
Moirangthem said she had taken up knitting shoe uppers over three decades ago as she could not afford to buy new shoes for her school going daughter.
“Like other women in the area I used to knit woolen socks and mufflers at home for my three children whenever I got time after working in the paddy fields during the day,” the 64-year-old from Kakching, about 45 km from here, said.
“I was unable to buy shoes for my school going daughter as I had no money then and had to constantly repair them. So I removed the shoe upper and substituted it with a hand knitted one I made with wool left after knitting mufflers and socks, “ said Moirangthem, who was married off by her widowed mother when she was barely 16.
The innovation caught the eyes of a teacher at the school and she ordered a pair for her own daughter. “This is how it all began,” Moirangthem told PTI.
In the beginning she would work with simple hand held tools for cutting the soles of the shoes and took the help of a non-Manipuri person at Kakching town. Her hand knitted shoes were spotted by army personnel deployed there during patrolling.
“The Army men expressed surprise at my products and some of them even purchased a few pairs. They later came back to order for more. This is the way my hand knitted shoes first made their way outside Manipur,” she recounted.
Emboldened, she set up her own company Mukta Shoes Industry in 1990 and showcased her handknitted products at a trade fair in Imphal town.
“My shoes were a big hit in Imphal. My shoes then travelled to a fair at the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi in 1997 where I sold 1500 pairs in only five days,” she said.
Moirangthem now orders soles for her hand knitted shoes from Kolkata. Wool is procured locally and the yarn to stitch the shoes mostly come from far away Ludhian in Punjab. Her shoes are sold in big fairs organised in the cities of the country. Orders are also received from countries like Japan, Russia, Singapore and Dubai through middlemen based in Delhi.
Her shoes have also found customers in Delhi, Rajasthan and Bengal too.
“Currently around 20 people, mostly women, work for me. But there are many times when I am unable to meet the demands due to lack of resources,” she said.
Shoe uppers both for children, men and women are hand knitted by them and a pair of shoes of an adult size take about four days to be completed. The prices range from Rs 500 for a baby to Rs 2000 for adults and the workers are paid about Rs 5000 a month.
“Stockpiles of shoes are required to meet any random orders from online stores. We have to be ready for different designs, sizes and colours if we wish to grow, but financial constraints and lack of resources have hampered our endeavours” she said. Her success has brought in fears as well.
“My biggest fear is that large firms with better resources will one day copy and produce these woolen shoes en-masse and sell them at cheap rates. In the process my creation will be lost,” she said.
Moirangthem said she would like her craft to be patented but seemed unaware of the procedure. “If my craft is patented then at least the name of Manipur state and my hometown Kakching will forever remain connected with hand knitted woolen shoes.”
She also wishes to set up a training center where youngsters will be taught the craft and become self employed. “One day a time will come when I won’t be able to make these footwear. Unless a proper mechanism is created, the craft will be eventually lost. The thought breaks my heart,” Moirangthem added.