Participatory design and e-textiles in Mumbai's informal communities

  • As a Sophomore in 2015, I devoted my spring break to creating e-textiles with a community in Mumbai, India, making a kurta, sari and embroidered speaker for Diwali, the festival of light; In 2017, I returned to Mumbai as an Assistant to another cohort of students

In 2015, I travelled to Mumbai, India, to learn about entrepreneurship and manufacturing in densely populated urban spaces. In collaboration with artisans from the Dharavi informal community, Mika Satomi (a Berlin-based textile designer), and 4 other NYUAD students, I applied participatory design to create e-textiles for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. We created festive kurta and sari using LEDs, ATmel microcontroller, conductive threads, and other conductive elements.

Dharavi is one of the largest informal communities in Asia, housing up to 1 million people, and bolsters the largest population density in Mumbai. With up to USD 1 billion in turnover, it is a thriving economy, offering opportunities to small artisans as well as large corporations. The size of the turnover reflects into a massive physical size given many of the transactions in the community are as low as a few cents (a tea is between 3 and 30 cents).

I had the opportunity to work in Dharavi as a Research Assistant with EfSI and Urbz, investing how the local artisans can utilize commonly available electronics and local resources to make electronic textiles. In answering this question, my team took a project-based approach. We chose Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, as a theme for our electronic textile and created a prototype with the use of local materials. Our philosophy was to delegate as much work as possible to the local artisans. We created broad outlines, watched for short-circuits, but let the artisans do the final touches on the design to make our work more relevant.

Our group made a point to focus closely on the users. After a fast survey of online resources, we concluded interviews with children, adults, and our tour guide, with whom we did not face a language barrier, to understand cultural aspects of the festival and the attitudes toward clothing in general among people living in Dharavi. The interviewees were very receptive to the idea of textiles with light and sound elements. It was notable that the interviewees were welcoming of e-textiles, even though they were readily critical of some of our other ideas.

Our design philosophy was to maximize the use of local resources, so we traversed the narrow streets of Dharavi to visit embroiderers, tailors and textile shops. We visited a leather jacket manufacturing, machine embroidery and a manual embroidery workshop. We discovered highly skilled artisans able to manufacture any design that the customer provides. The shops that we visited are summarized in the table. Note that we only took a business card from one shop, and the students travelling to Mumbai in the future should remember to collect business cards for documentation.

Type of Workshop Name Contact Info Latitude Longitude
Leather Jackets Nausheen Leather Garments 9892446410 19.0459 72.8593
Machine Embroidery - - 19.0501 72.8589
Hand Embroidery - - 19.0452 72.8547
Beads and threads shop - - 19.0432 72.8572


Kurta is a long loose-fitting collarless shirt of a style originating in India. There are many regional variations of the garment across India and other countries. Kurtas can be frequently seen on the street in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. A local tailor sowed the kurta, while another local craftsman embroidered the shirt.

Little boy wearing kurta
Embroiderer working very fast

On the left, our little friend Saed is wearing our custom kurta with conductive embroidery. On the right, a machine embroiderer, rapidly stitching the kurta.

The centerpiece of the garment is the immaculate embroidery on the boy’s chest. The embroiderer stitched the pattern with a machine that embroiders in a direct line while the craftsman moves a piece of cloth through the machine to produce desired patterns. The embroidery can change color and thickness depending on what thread is put into the machine.

LEDs emroidered into the kurta
tinyAVR connected to control the LEDs.

On the left, LEDs embroidered into the kurta. On the right, a tinyAVR connected to control the LEDs.

The functionality of the kurta was extended via an ATtiny microcontroller IC, which was used together with Charlieplexing to turn on individual LEDs. With Charlieplexing, we used the fact that each diode is unipolar and that each strip can be turned into a ground, a power source or a high impedance state to control each LED. This way, we can create light patterns on the boy’s chest.


Sari is a long fabric wrapped around a women’s body. Saris are expensive to experiment with, so we worked with a scarf, made out of the same material as saris. We created a circuit and contracted a local hand embroiderer to stitch the circuit onto the scarf. While the artisan that embroidered the kurta used a machine, the second embroiderer that we contracted worked by hand, so we tested and confirmed the impressive skills of a variety of workers. The result is shown in the feature photo of this post.

Process in progress
Materials used for sari.

On the left, hand embroidery in progress. On the right, the material that the embroiderer used.

Embroidered speaker

While working with the machine embroidery workshop, we noticed that the craftsman is able to saw the lines very tightly. We hypothesized that with an addition of a magnet, we could turn this pattern into a fabric music speaker. We were correct and we was able to play a simple melody with a sheet of fabric.

tinyAVR connected to control the LEDs.

Continuing my involvement in 2017

NYU Abu Dhabi has fostered a long-term relationship with the Dharavi community. The Engineers for Social Impact program is ingrained with respect for our local collaborators, and promotes intergenerational communication between student. Students maintain projects across multiple years and collect data useful for subsequent cohorts.

In 2015, I was in the first cohort that travelled to Mumbai. In 2017 I joined another cohort as a teaching assistant, helping sophomore students in their field work. I got them unstuck in brainstorming, fostered participatory design process, provided technical assistance in electronics and coding, and documented their projects.