India Interior

Knitting shoes with a soul

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on November 30, 2018

Muktamani Moirangthem with women who have been trained by her to make shoes

How a Manipuri woman turned her passion into an enterprise

Muktamani Moirangthem, in her late fifties, lives in Kakching, about 40 km from Imphal, the capital of Manipur. For this cheerful shoemaker, life revolves around her passion for knitting footwear with woollen yarn.

As a mother of four, Muktamani has turned her home into her workplace. Though there is no board indicating that an industry and a shop runs from her home, the entire neighbourhood, even the district, is aware of the existence of ‘Muktamani - khongop sembi’ meaning Muktamani, the shoemaker. You ask for her and anyone can direct you to her residence.

Along with her 30 employees, Muktamani creates footwear of all shapes and sizes, for men, women, girls and boys. So popular are her products that they don’t stay on the shelves for long. Merchants drop in to buy them and carry then away to sell in other towns, cities, even other countries.

New shoes, in a jiffy

Nostalgic about her journey as an entrepreneur, Muktamani recalls the way she started. “I have four children and their school shoes would get worn out every now and then. One day, my second daughter came to me and said she had no shoes for school. It was urgent and I had to do something. Besides, I had no money”. Then an idea struck her. She removed the sole of her daughter’s old shoe and started knitting over it with woolen yarn. Her daughter wore the new pair the next day to school.

Muktamani makes shoes for children too

 

In the afternoon, when her daughter returned from school, she told her mother that her teacher noticed her shoes and was keen to have one for her own daughter. “That was in 1989. So, I made one pair for my daughter’s teacher’s child — she was my first customer”. Later, in the 1990s, in another incident, her eldest daughter’s shoes wore off, with a new pair needed urgently. “I again knitted another shoe. This time, I made a few designs on it, along with straps. This caught the eye of her teachers and the neighbours. They all were keen to get a similar pair.”

That was when it struck Muktamani that she could make an earning from handmade shoes.

Around 1991, Muktamani participated in a fair in Imphal organised by the industry department of the Manipur government. She carried 12 pairs of her hand-knitted shoes and they were an instant success. They also caught the eye of the then industry minister who remarked, “This is promising”. Muktamani got media attention as well, which gave her business the big break it required.

 

“Since then I participated in exhibitions and shows not only in Manipur but in other cities such as Delhi as well,” she says.

The entrepreneur points out that hand-knitted shoes did not exist before and it was therefore her unique selling point. In 1993, she was honoured with the title of “successful entrepreneur” by the State Government’s Tourism and Industry Department.

Among other State awards, she was recipient of The Telegraph’s Legend Award in 2018 and the North-East Vasudhara Award in 2015.

Hard times

But it has not all been smooth-sailing for Muktamani. She had to face a lot of hardship in her early days when her husband was unemployed and the family was virtually living hand to mouth. She had to do farming and other odd jobs for a living. But even during that time she did not give up her passion for knitting.

Stylish shoes for women

 

“Fortunately, I had been knitting yarn since I was young. I used to knit sweaters, mufflers, caps, stoles…”

Today Muktamani focusses solely on shoe-making. She also trains other women and soon plans to scale up her operations.

But financial support is hard to come by. “Though the government recognises and appreciates my work, the loan amount it offers is too small as my enterprise is small-scale.” So, she manages with income that comes from selling her shoes.

 

“Today my products are available online. They go to Australia, France, Japan and places across India,” she says proudly.

Her brand “Mukta shoes” sells for prices ranging from ₹500 to ₹2,000. It comes in boots, chappals, straps or heels in all types of colours, designs and sizes for children, adults, men and women.

As the shoes are created from wool, winter is the peak season for brisk business and Muktamani has her hands full right now.

The writer is a Manipur-based journalist

Published on November 30, 2018
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