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Stitching a fabric of support

Social enterprise Nisa employs former refugees and migrants to make underwear from organic cotton and recycled materials. Siti Hajjar Sulaiman visits the Wellington workshop to meet founder Elisha Watson and the team. 

Photography: Nisa
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On the first floor of an unremarkable Wellington building is a busy sewing workshop where a remarkable social enterprise is being nurtured. 

Not every company can say they make underwear and clothing from organic and recycled materials, much less offer jobs that prioritise women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. But this is what Nisa is all about. 

The birth of a social enterprise   

Nisa, which means woman in Arabic, is the brainchild of Elisha Watson, the company’s chief executive officer. Elisha says it was “definitely the staff” who first influenced her to establish Nisa. 

While living in Germany a decade ago, Elisha saw firsthand the effects of anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments. “That scared me.” Elisha wanted things to be different in New Zealand and to be part of a welcoming society. 

Years later, having returned home to work as a litigation lawyer at a Wellington law firm, Elisha spotted an opportunity to do more than just advocate for the wellbeing of refugees and migrants. She was volunteering with a community law centre in its refugee and immigration legal team, as well as doing resettlement work with Red Cross. Consequently, she became close to several families whom she helped resettle in New Zealand, noticing their struggles in trying to find jobs and the despair they felt when their efforts failed. 

Elisha believed she could help the refugee and migrant communities more by providing them with the opportunities to shine and “really show what they’re made of.” 

“And so I decided to start a social enterprise, to do something about that and provide those opportunities,” she says. 

Intimate beginnings 

In September 2017, Elisha quit her job to focus on Nisa full-time. But the business really kicked off following a crowdfunding campaign that led to the creation of its online store in March 2018. Nisa now consists of an all-women team of 10. To date, Nisa has employed 19 people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, and seven New Zealand-born staff. Its goal is to build an alumni of 100 former staff who go on to inspire their own communities and set up their own businesses. 

“Our [employment] purpose isn’t really to hang onto people forever. It’s really to, I guess, upskill people. We view success as both people staying with us and people leaving,” said Elisha. 

Fun and a better future

It’s often been said that it’s not quite work if you’re having fun, and at Nisa it sure
looks that way. But this is not at all bad for the intimates maker, as its business –
designing, sorting, sewing, marketing,
packing and dispatching of organic
cotton underwear – still gets underway
seamlessly. The work is largely
accompanied by laughter and quiet
confident smiles amid the frequent
whirring and thumping of sewing
machines.
Indeed, some of the staff at Nisa
from refugee and migrant backgrounds,
including Queen Elizabeth Sudagar and
Gioryanni Ortega Ramirez, hadn’t known
fun and a better future
such work conditions would be the norm
before their arrival in New Zealand.
Absolute peace of mind was an alien
concept to Queen and Gioryanni, who
both experienced trauma and uncertainty
in their respective former homelands.

Queen, 38, worked at a toy factory
in Sri Lanka before leaving the country
nine years ago for Malaysia because of
“ethnic problems”. There, she found work
for several years at a factory that made
use of her sewing skills. Subsequently,
a meeting with officers from the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
in Kuala Lumpur led to Queen, her mother
and daughter, beginning new lives in
Wellington.
A year ago, through the Red Cross
Pathways to Employment programme,
Queen’s good sewing skills caught the
attention of Nisa. Gioryanni, too, found
work at Nisa from the same programme,
starting as a dispatcher, but she has now
moved on to sewing.
Gioryanni, 24, says the situation in
Colombia was very different compared
to New Zealand. She and her family
face a better future here as they can
earn a fair wage rate and explore study
opportunities. She says her English has
also improved significantly while working
at dispatch in Nisa. Her long-term goal is
to become a dentist.
Asked how they felt coming to work
to Nisa every day, Gioryanni and Queen’s
answers were immediate and empathic.
“I feel very good. I like to work here
because Nisa is like my second home,”
says Gioryanni, likening her present life
in New Zealand to a gift. “We can live in
peace [in New Zealand],” she adds. Queen
nods in agreement, the joy evident in her
eyes and smile.

Organic cotton: good all the way through 

It was a no-brainer for Nisa to use organic cotton fabrics and regenerated textiles, many of which are custom-coloured to specifications, in sewing its underwear, loungewear and swimwear products. 

Using organic cotton was a matter of principle and it’s practical, too, Elisha says. She knew the company could not be a responsible employer and producer if it had a product that would harm the planet. 

“We knew we had to be ahead of the curve there and we couldn’t just do one good thing at the same time as doing one not-so-good thing. It had to be kinda good all the way through,” says Elisha. People who gave pledges to Nisa’s crowdfunding campaign shared its environmental sustainability values. 

The first product Nisa sewed was organic cotton women’s briefs. Its line has now expanded into briefs for men, bralettes, camisoles, tops and pants, using organic cotton that was knitted in a Melbourne mill, and which has ACO (Australian Certified Organic) certification. The factory sources yarns from farms in India that are certified with the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS). GOTS is the world’s leading standard of textile production in organic fibres. 

Meanwhile, Nisa’s swimwear is made from ECONYL, which is regenerated polyamide consisting of recycled ‘ghost’ fishing nets (nets that have been lost or abandoned at sea) and carpet waste. 

The Nisa team, from left to right: Queen, Stef, Luisa (at the back),
Elisha (front), Olivia, Lydia, Emily, Gioryanni and Pam.

Organic cotton growing uses 91% less water than conventional cotton growing.

Where next for Nisa?

Nisa was preparing to show its new collection at the New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) in Auckland when the country went into a lockdown prompted by New Zealand’s first cases of the Covid-19 Delta variant. The fashion week was one of the major casualties of Alert Level 4. But Nisa hasn’t fared too badly this time around, having learned what to do after the first lockdown in 2020. 

Elisha says that while the lockdown was hard for production, sales have been amazing as people are increasingly turning to buying online. During lockdown in 2020, their customers supported them with onlines sales with more orders coming from outside of Wellington, such as the rest of New Zealand, Australia, the US and the UK. It was the same this time around. 

Moreover, the lockdown has not slowed down Nisa’s creativity. At the time of writing, Nisa introduced a new print to its wide-ranging intimates collection that was designed by Brisbane artist Claire Ritchie. The company was also planning to introduce a few items from its new activewear range at NZFW. This new range includes leggings and tops made from recycled nylon. 

Nisa in brief

If something’s not sitting right with you, chances are you’ve yet to try on a pair of Nisa’s organic cotton undies. The company makes briefs for men and women, bralettes, loungewear, camisoles and pants, swimwear and a new activewear range at its Wellington workshop. The merino socks are all made in a factory in Norsewood.

Nisa Shop and Studio, Level 1, 99 Willis Street, Wellington
Open Monday–Friday 9 am – 5.30 pm,
Saturday 10 am – 4 pm
Contact: Emily Partridge, brand and content
manager, , 04 390 6472
www.nisa.co.nz

The team is clearly excited about the product expansion, but would this mean Nisa could no longer call itself an intimates label? Elisha laughs and admits it’s a conundrum. “There is no real word that describes us – as we expand our product range – that really encapsulates what we offer.” 

For now, Nisa is content to be known as an underwear label, which Elisha points out is still its mainstay. 


Siti Hajjar Sulaiman is a Wellington-based freelance writer.

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