The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can stumble headlong into incredible people doing fascinating and even life-changing things any day of the week. Stumbling over and ‘finding’ wondrous folk is so probable nowadays, it’s as common as picking up a litre of milk from the corner shop.
It’s not likely I would have found my latest inspiring find at the corner shop but rather the top of the world – in a teensy village called Dharamsala, at the foot of the Himalayas in northern India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. A place you would usually need a donkey and ten days’ rations to find anything.
Well, okay, I didn’t trek there with a donkey… a satellite in the heavens instead connected us via magical email beams because those magical beams can access anywhere in the world, it seems, even remote Tibetan villages tucked up snug against monstrous mountains.
With a name like Frances Carrington, you’ll suppose my latest ‘find’ isn’t Tibetan. She is, in fact, a 36-year-old Australian fashion designer, originally from Cobargo on the far south coast of New South Wales, who just happens to be residing in northern India with her partner Rory and two children – Imogen (6) and Oscar (4).
And why on earth is she there? Well, her textile design business – Eternal Creation – is providing employment to one of the many underprivileged and oppressed communities in the world – Tibetan refugees. In fact, in just over ten years, Eternal Creation has become one of the largest private employers in the Dharamsala region, improving the lives of many Tibetan refugees as well as local Indians.
After graduating from the East Sydney institute of fashion design in 1994, Carrington registered with Australian Volunteers Abroad, hoping to find work in Africa. Fate intervened and she was instead sent to India where she was put in charge of a band of fledgling tailors at the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala.
“I had always wanted to work in some kind of aid position, as I wanted to do something useful in the world, and I also wanted to travel!” Carrington told Australian Women Online, “I wanted to go to Africa, but being a fashion designer and not a doctor, I had to take what I could get. So they sent me to Dharamsala, India. That was in 1995, and I’m still here. Dharamsala is very beautiful and I have fallen in love with life here.”
Carrington’s initial work at the Norbulingka Institute, a centre for preserving Tibetan arts and crafts, was to teach newly-arrived Tibetan refugees technical points in tailoring like patternmaking and garment construction. The designer’s preliminary dealings with these refugees was as emotional as it was rewarding. “Many of the ex-political prisoners I worked with had trekked across the mountains from Tibet. This takes up to 45 days. One woman I worked with lost her sister on the way, and another’s son had lost his toes to frost bite enroute.”
Impassioned by her experiences, Carrington borrowed $5,000 from her father and began Eternal Creations in 1999 – concentrating on women’s sleepwear and accessories. It wasn’t until her daughter Imogen came along, that the focus also veered towards children’s clothing, which now makes up a large part of her work.
“It was all pretty difficult,” said Carrington, “I started with two tailors and expanded as slowly as I could afford to. The most difficult thing in the beginning was keeping up with the paperwork, until I could afford a bookkeeper. I always wished I had done a basic accounting and book-keeping course. Basically I learnt the hard way, not only about Australian business regulations but also business in India, which is quite a different story altogether!”
Another challenge, along with the emotional investment she made in the people of Dharamsala, was the language barrier, but this never stopped this totally driven designer from striving onward and forging life-changing relationships with both Indian and Tibetan locals.
“I have learnt so much from these people – learning to be happy in spite of all the hardships in life. I thought my problems were very important until I worked in India,” she admits.
One of the greatest rewards for Carrington has also been in providing local people a safe, friendly and stable place to work.
“In terms of community, we employ approximately 50 per cent Tibetan and 50 per cent Indian, and the same ratio of men to women. We also employ people from all religious groups (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh), and it’s wonderful to see friendships flourish between the different groups, as there has been some racial tensions in the town.”
Eternal Creation’s children’s clothing combines classic and contemporary designs with a range of truly stunning fabrics, all sourced in India – a world hotspot for beautiful textiles.
“I like to use natural fibres as much as possible,” Carrington told AWO, “And of course I love colour and print. I have a good eye for colour, probably more than anything. All the fabrics are from India, and some, such as the wool are local. Some of the prints are designed by Rory!”
Along with designing, Carrington manages the business and is thrilled to have been able to employ some great accountants, cutters, patternmakers and seamstresses. Her partner Rory, a Sydneysider, designs the website, the catalogues, some prints, and also takes all the photos. Between the two of them, this thriving children’s and womenswear business has become a beloved passion – above and beyond what the business provides to the local community.
Carrington is also loving designing childrenswear. “It’s just so fun, especially the little girls range – it’s a bit like making dolls clothes! I love the people I work with, as they share the same enthusiasm for tiny dresses and jackets.”
Beyond the love of beautiful clothing, Carrington remains aware of how vital her work is to the local people of Dharamsala. A great believer in sustainable industry that provides excellent working conditions for its staff, the designer feels it’s extremely important to know the history of what you’re buying and where your purchases are made.
“If you’re buying something that someone has suffered to make, then you are partly responsible for their suffering, as you are causing the demand for cheap products,” she said.
“The fashion industry is a very abusive industry, as prices are continually pushed down as the demand for cheap clothes increases – it is always the tailors in poor countries that lose out. I believe that everything has its own energy, and you’ll always feel better in clothes that have originated in a positive working environment.”
Carrington and her Himalayan workers are certainly creating an environment lush with beautiful products that represent so much more than a pretty frock.
The designer doesn’t know when her spiritual working journey in India will end, but for now, she is happy to stay and revel in her love for the local people – and the mountains she has grown to adore. Over time, she would like to increase the size of her workshop, and continually improve working incentives for employees.
Currently, Eternal Creations sells in over 200 stores worldwide, but Carrington would like to increase the company’s presence in the US and Europe, and one day open her own store. For now, this enthusiastic and intensely focused Australian will continue reveling in supporting her very fortunate workers, and in her love of design, of glorious fabric, and of badminton competitions on the workshop’s roof-top court!
Imagining this attractive woman and her two adorable Aussie children tearing around with Tibetan locals on a badminton court beneath the imposing backdrop of the Dhauladar Himalayan mountain range is enough to make anyone smile. And it probably sums up the extraordinary life of this extraordinary talent.
And what’s next in the extraordinary life of the incredibly busy Frances Carrington? In her own words – “A holiday!”
You can see Eternal Creation’s beautiful designs at www.eternalcreation.com.