Men. Lots of them. All simultaneously pulling the finest of thread through the tiniest of holes to create the most minute of stitches that will then accumulate to form the most intricate of patterns. That was the most surprising thing that struck me when we went to see Sankalan’s embroidery production house in the centre of Jaipur, nestled not too far from the hustle and bustle of the city’s vibrant markets. With their moblie phones and headphones near them on the stretched out fabric canvasses, these men work quietly and swiftly, in a strange role reversal that sees men away from their wives in the villages of the outskirts, doing what has traditionally been seen as a feminine task.
But these craftsmen are taught and overseen by women, who are also for the design of the ornate patterns that then adorn the saris and lehngas that Sankalan create. These embellished fabrics are certainly a cut above some of the cheaper Made in China fabrics that now flood Jaipur’s markets for bridal wear. When your eyes are inundated with heavily decorated fabrics as they are in the old parts of Jaipur, from a distance, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the differences in embroidery. It was in Sankalan however where the skill of the mass of gold paisley swirls and metallic floral motifs really revealed itself.
One of the main specialties of Sankalan is Gota embroidery, which originated in Rajasthan and is a form of appliqué, where gold or silver ribbon are cut up and embroidered onto fabric. Sankalan prides itself on practising Gota work using real gold and silver ribbon.
The other technique that we saw unfold was ari (or sari) which is a very fine type of embroidery dating back to the 12th century, examples of which can be seen at The Fabric of India exhibition. First, a design is drawn on to tracing paper and a needle is then used to punch tiny holes all along the outline of the pattern. This perforated paper is then placed onto the fabric that has been stretched onto a frame called an adda. Then a chalk solution is rubbed over the holes so that the pattern transfers on to the fabric into a white outline. The embroidery begins with the craftsman stitching through the pattern with a hooked needle, creating a loop for every stitch. The mind boggling thing is that the loop is created on the underside of the framed fabric so quickly that it looks like the embroiderer is stabbing the fabric with the needle rapidly, with a miraculous trail of stitches appearing, as if from nowhere.
It’s a mesmerising process to watch especially as the pattern builds up and the motifs begin to fill in with gold or silver. On the top floor of the Sankalan, a wedding lehnga in red was being embroidered with gold ari technique. The final stage would be to hammer the stitches to flatten out the threads. The borders of this incredible piece of textile would then be edged with metallic ribbon by hand so that it would eventually form the lavish lehnga skirt intended for a bride.
The embroidery leg of the journey with the V&A was perhaps the part that I was most intrigued by, having heard (and seen!) so much beforehand of the embroidery prowess of India, with pretty much every fashion house getting their embroidery production done in India due to the speed and consistency of the craftsmen there. Jean-François Lesage son of François Lesage set up his own workshop in Chennai, India, where interiors-led embroidery is done. And yet, Made in India, as Business of Fashion pointed out earlier this year, is still a label little acknowledged by the brands that seek out the skills of embroiders in India. Dries van Noten is one notable example, paying homage to his Indian artisans in his ‘Inspirations’ exhibition with some enlightening video clips. Jackie Villevoye of Jupe by Jackie is another, who employs delicate hand embroidery on her online and on Comme des Garcons’ second line. Sankalan’s work centres around embroidery used in traditional Indian bridal wear but it’s hard not to see the skills on display being transferred elsewhere and credited as such. Even though we only scratched the surface of India’s embroidery skills, it was enough to affirm what I had already suspected.
The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth India, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A until the 10th January 2016