Fabric of India: Block Printing

One of the most popular Instagram posts I ever posted was a video of an artisan pressing a wooden block mould down on fabric to create a repeat print of a floral motif.  A slow press of the wooden block mould in one hand and then a swift slap down of the other to properly transfer the ink on to the fabric.  Basically a deft pair of hands perfecting a skill over and over again.  And that had people transfixed.  That was basically my faith in an audience re-affirmed.

My two day trip to India back in February concluded with a visit to Amer, just outside of Jaipur, where textiles designer Brigitte Singh has a wonderful haven of a studio and production facility.  The French-born Singh originally came to Jaipur as a fine art student, fascinated by the influence of Indian chintzes on 17th century French Provencal prints.  One of main aspects raised in tracking the history of Indian textiles in The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A is about the bi-directional trade between Europe and India, whereby luxury mushiness and chintzes designed with tastes to suit Europeans, flooded the West in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Eventually, this trade flow reversed when the Industrial Revolution prompted manufacturers in Britain to start exporting their own imitation Indian-inspired textiles back to India.  And so the West-East flow of exposure of craft continues as Singh set up her studio in 1984 in a bid to create fabrics using traditional block printing and forgotten Indian motifs.

Everything slows right down in Singh’s haveli.  The pace is leisurely whether you’re seeing the methodical and assured printing itself,  the block carvers that etch out the tiny motifs as a relief on to wooden blocks or the mainly female finishers and seamstresses, who turn lengths of printed fabric into soft furnishings and lifestyle garments.  Singh’s ethos towards the well being of her craftsmen (and women) extends to the sustainability of her water supply as a water purification unit is set up in the gardens to recycle the water used in the washing/printing process feeds the lush gardens.

Singh’s choice of motifs are largely inspired by those favoured by Mughal courts in the 18th century, which can be seen in spectacular displays like a royal tent belonging to Tipu Sultan.  The red floral motifs on this tent correlate with Singh’s most popular designs as seen in a poppy design that we saw being printed on to cotton.  Her colour choices mark her designs out as unique, going beyond the natural inks that would have been used in block printing tradition and instead turning to specially composed synthetic colours to evolve the craft beyond its original context.

A rifle through her on-site store elicited squeals from our group of journalists and curators from the V&A.  It’s easy to see why Singh’s textiles have become renowned internationally and create misty-eyed enthusiasm amongst interior textiles nuts.  This final portion of the India trip incidentally completed my own experience of printing techniques – having seen silk screen printing with Hermès, hand screen printing in London and digital printing processes.  It’s the slowest process in terms of output of pattern and print but perhaps the most rewarding to see. That’s probably why those Insta likes racked up. 










































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

Fabric of India: Embroidery

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

Fabric of India: Tie and Dye

I’ve just come back from a mammoth trip in Asia where I’ve had the time to really think about this idea of a quickening speed, that has taken over fashion’s consciousness (and perhaps its conscience, if it indeed has one…).  In Seoul, the pace was fast with its frenetic frenzy of K-pop stars and buzzy street style scene almost overshadowing what you saw on the catwalk.  In Japan, it slowed right down into a zen zone of wabi-sabi greens in Hakone and tradition-seeped reds in Kyoto and quickened back up in Tokyo, when Halloween.  And then for my final jaunt in Asia, I was flung into the heart of Hong Kong, where I didn’t even have time to take in the waves of nostalgia hitting me because it was so vibrant with cries in Cantonese, cranes shifting and the sheer amount of people crammed into the narrow streets of Soho/Central.  I was there to attend the finals of the Y.E.S. (Yoox.com & Esthetica Sustainability) Awards, which I was part of the jury for and also modelled for the website.  Inside PMQ where six designers from Asia presented very different approaches to fashion, I got thinking about an alternative and ultimately slower pace that the industry could benefit from.  One where designers can create with time to make innovative research into materials and production practises and actually make them a working reality.

This brings me back to my trip to India in February.  I’ve still not yet been to see the much-talked about The Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  That will hopefully complete the cycle of the trip, but I’ve still got a wealth of experiences to share, which I didn’t want to be lost in the sea of fashion week madness.  In lieu of the varying speeds of Asia from my trip and where fashion seems to be going right now, it feels appropriate to look at hands working away at cloth and making that connection between craft and consumer even more pertinent.  I know I bang on about it to the point where it will bore some of you, but as fashion’s pace becomes ever more voracious, it’s worth reminding myself of the things that really get me excited in the creation of clothes.  And that happens to be craft, skill and making.  If that isn’t “fashion” for some people, then so be it.  Maybe there will come a point where I won’t want to be part of a fashion landscape where the hands that went into a garment aren’t valued.

I have to therefore thank the V&A for giving me the opportunity to see an India that goes beyond the tourist flurry of colours and patterns and for showing me processes that would have otherwise been closed off to me.  I’m separating out the posts by craft, beginning with tie dyeing.  There would have been no way I would have found this tie dyer Haji Ahmed Badshah Miyan in a particularly run-down part of Rajasthan.  Here, Badshah Miyan, who has been recognised for his skills as a master craftsman, showed us the myriad of examples of Indian tie dyeing.  Like shibori in Japan, the indigo dyeing of Hausa in West Africa or pelangi and tritik in Indonesia, India – and in particular Rajasthan – has its own disinctive dyeing techniques.  Bandhini is the name given to fabric dyed with tied up small dots and leheriya is a traditional style of tie dye where a wave like pattern is achieved with a tie-resist method and is meant to visually represent the flow of water.  Older examples of India’s affinity with deep vermillion and indigo dyeing techniques can be seen in The Fabric of India exhibition but in Badshah Miyan’s workshop, we saw brightly coloured examples that you might see hanging up on laundry racks all over Jaipur, as dyeing fabrics is a regular commission that gives women a certain ownership over the customisation of their attire. 

Badshah Miyan took us through the basics of tie dying, first prepping the dyes (mostly natural and azo-free) and then skilfully knotting the cotton with thread and a fine metal finger nail attachment.  Building up the waves and lines of colour is a multi stage process and even though we were shown a very simple pattern in green and yellow, you could see how more complex designs could emerge from the process.  Especially when you saw all the examples of fabric that had been knotted up and tied up in concertina folds, ready to unleash various patterns.

Throughout the trip, questions about how craft can be exported outside of India, or how it can be situated within a contemporary fashion environment were constantly asked.  I found it interesting that in contrast to Japanese shibori or Indonesian batik, which has filtered into high fashion collections, Indian bandhini and leheriya hasn’t necessarily had that same West-wards cultural flow of direction.  That’s also in comparison with India’s embroidery and block printing, which has had more of a design imprint.  The setup of Badshah Miyan’s workshop felt like a craft showcase but the resulting textiles felt relevant and vibrant.  Perhaps it’s the hand-led intricacy that makes this sort of tie dyeing confined to small tubs sloshing dye.  And perhaps that in itself is a positive thing.





























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


Fabric of India: Woven Into Life

One of my favourite images that I took on my trip to India back in February is the one below.  It was taken on the outskirts of Jaipur on a very impoverished side street.  But in one snapshot, I see embroidery.  I see ombre dyed fabric (a sunset effect from lilac to orange) and I see an array of colours, both worn by the children themselves and also on the clothes line in the background.  More importantly it’s the way fabric is utilise and integrated with real life in India, that was so striking to me. 

And thus, the title of the V&A exhibition The Fabric of India isn’t just a simple description of the 200 examples of Indian textiles that you will see in the museum.  The point isn’t to look at say a richly embroidered Mughal hunting jacket from the 17th century or a vast Gujarat appliquéd wall hanging in strict isolation but to see that the appreciation of crafts such as vibrantly coloured resist dyeing, ornate embroidery, handloom weaving and the overall importance of raw materials like cotton and silk still have a relevance in the India of today.  And that was evident everywhere we went. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where the aesthetics of textiles are integrated so thoroughly into everyday life.  From the brilliantly lit-up marquees of banquet weddings to the seat covers of the tuks tuks to the freshly dyed fabrics drying on poles and even the makeshift housing tents on the side of the roads – textiles are everywhere and there’s a pride in their appearance whatever the circumstances.  Even when cheap or of inferior quality, there’s an appreciation of overall aesthetics that is hard to ignore.  Hence why a woman in an inexpensive Made in China silk sari will still look striking to my untrained eye.  A walk around the markets of Jaipur and everywhere people are touching fabric, with of course the rite of wedding being central to these exchanges, where you see women sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, inspecting the embroidery of the cloth and bargaining fiercely with the shop keepers.  If people want a change in colour of their existing fabrics, they’ll go to their local dyers .  You hear the humming of sewing machines everywhere as tailors regularly do alterations or run up suits and saris.  Unlike Western countries where we’re largely divorced from making of of our clothes, in India people – and in particular women – are really connected with the cloth that they swathe their bodies in, no matter what social strata you happen to be in. 

The contemporary Indian fashion designers such as Manish Arora and Abraham and Thakore, that feature in the final portion of the Fabric of India might bear little connection with what the majority of Indians wear but fabric in its finished, dyed and embroidered form plays a huge role in Indian life.  The exhibition will showcase the most elite and superior examples of these fabrics but even the most mundane and ordinary of ensembles on the streets in Jaipur and Delhi were inspiring to the eye.

The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth India, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A from 3 October 2015 – 10 January 2016