Sunday, 15 November 2015

Stitch upon stitch – the embroidery of India

My recent trip to India was mostly to learn about block printing, but I couldn't travel there without taking a peek at a centuries-old tradition that India has probably been even more well-known for – its embroidery.

I was fortunate to be able to visit a modern workshop in Noida, about an hour from Delhi, that embroiders for large international clothing chains. I wasn't quite sure what type of place I was going to before my visit, but it was fascinating to see all these old techniques still being used in service of brands we'd wear today. Samples are produced in the workshop from designs provided by the fashion houses. It's then a matter of getting a similar outcome in the most cost-effective way. Once the fashion house signs off on the sample, the work goes to a production house further out of Delhi in the countryside.
All the embroidery was done with an aari needle, pictured above and below. As far as I can tell it's very similar to a tambour needle, but doesn't have a detachable needle section. You can see in the pic below that it's loaded up with beads ready to go.
Coincidentally the V&A are currently showing an extensive exhibition of Indian textiles (jealous!) so I was pootling around their website and came across this short clip of Indian fashion designer Manish Arora's studio, which also happens to be in Noida. Not only that, the studio set-up is very similar and it shows the aari needle in action, as well as being a complete feast for the eyes – enjoy!

On my last day in Delhi I went to the National Museum to see their small collection of textiles. The pieces are all behind glass, so my photography isn't great, but at least photos were allowed here, unlike the National Crafts Museum. The collection at the craft museum is simply mind-blowing. They have a huge range of textiles from all over the country. I couldn't help myself and went back for a second visit. It's a shame however, that the textile gallery has almost no lighting – I'm sure it's to protect the pieces and they don't have the money to do it any other way – and very little in the way of labelling to describe what you're looking at. Despite this, if you can find a guide who knows what they're talking about and can take you there, it's so worth seeing. Actually even if you don't have a guide it's still worth seeing!

Anyway, let's get on to what I can show you. The first, is an example of phulkari embroidery. It's from the Punjab region, and literally means 'flower work'. Most of the examples I saw were in orange and hot pink, sometimes with white included. I've added other pictures of all the types of work I'm showing you to my 'Textile Travels – India' Pinterest page if you want to check out more examples.
Next, is embroidery from the Kutch region of Gujarat. This example is made up of tiny chain stitches, so I'd imagine it was produced with the aari needle again. Lots of bright colours are the norm and it's also the type of embroidery where you'd expect to see the small shisha mirrors sewn in. Apparently before the use of mirrors, they often used beetle wings, and I saw a few examples of this in museums in both Delhi and Jaipur. They were a shiny green-ish black.
The photo below was taken at the Anokhi Museum of Handprinting in Jaipur. At first I thought it was an example of appliqué – which I did see quite a bit of in India – but on closer inspection, it's resist-dyed fabric with kantha quilting. Kantha is the quilted embroidery of Bengal and north-east India and in sanskrit the word means 'rags'. Similar to the 'boro' textiles of Japan. These examples were a modern take on traditional techniques.
Last, but not least are the textiles of Kashmir. There are two types of shawls the Kashmiris are famous for. The first is the kani, or loom-woven shawl. Pictured below is a dorukha, (double-sided) example, where the front is almost indistinguishable from the reverse. If you look really closely you can see there is a stitched layer over the entire shawl (the red outlining the green leaves near the bottom right corner, for example). It takes years to complete a piece such as this, and I just can't get my head around how complex it must be to weave.
The second type of shawl is a sozni. These are hand-embroidered on a plain base, and this beauty came home with me. The ones with the all-over embroidery, while completely stunning, were the price of a small car, so I obviously went for something less detailed.

While the kani are usually the more highly prized shawls, it's the embroidery, rather than the weaving, that I really love.
Such a tiny taste of Indian embroidery… I think all it's done is made me want to do another trip so I can learn more!

So many textile traditions, so little time.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

India, indigo, inspiration

I'm still thinking about ways to tell you about India. It was so intense in such a short time. I look back at the pictures, and sometimes I can't understand why I didn't capture certain things to show you. And then I remember the heat, and that my brain was always a little fuzzy and it was probably enough for me just to look and listen and do nothing more. So, until I find a way in, I'm going to tell you about what I've done since. A project inspired by indigo. 

In Jaipur, we saw handmade indigo-dyed paper.
We watched as the dabu master dipped piece after piece of our attempts at mud-resist into the indigo vat.
And, of course, I came home with mud-resist and block printed pieces, all with their own nod to indigo.
Right from the start, I had in mind what I wanted to make. I did a patternmaking course just before I went to India, so I wanted to experiment with that too. First I needed a bunch of indigo-dyed fabrics all with different patterns.
Indigo dye shibori techniques tie-dye
I had ideas of trying out bandhani, the tiny little knots Indians use to create the most intricate patterns with their tye-dye, but after a day of gathering fabric – the stitching above ended up as the piece on the left below – I knew I didn't have time for that kind of detail.

All in all I probably ended up with a more Japanese shibori approach to my dyeing, but effective nonetheless.
Indigo dye shibori techniques tie-dye folding and clamping
While the dye ended up a lot lighter than it first appeared coming out of the bath, I forged ahead anyway. The piece on the left below was created by pleating the fabric and then securing it on alternate sides with bull-dog clips. The one on the right was scrunched into a ball and secured with thread. After the first dip in the dye bath I undid the bundle and then
re-tied it for a second dip.
Indigo dye shibori techniques tie-dye folding and clamping
My two favourites are the ones below. This one was created using stones secured into the fabric with rubber bands.
Indigo dye shibori techniques tie-dye folding and clamping
And my very favourite is this one – all that gathering was worth it in the end.
Indigo dye stitched shibori techniques tie-dye folding and clamping
Next – the embroidery. I had seen a piece in India that was indigo-dyed then trimmed with a pop of contrasting colour and it really appealed to me, so I went with orange. The shapes left by the stones looked like a constellation of stars, so I continued the theme with my stitching.
Indigo dye shibori techniques embroidery kantha
I then took the piece made by the scrunched up dye and covered it with kantha stitching. As my sister pointed out, the dye on this piece was the most reminiscent of 70's tie-dye, so it really did need to be the one to be covered in embroidery.

I went cross-cultural again, using shibori thread to stitch my kantha.
Indigo dye shibori techniques embroidery kantha sashiko
With the dark shibori thread and touches of dark blue where I'd double-dipped pieces, or kept them in the bath longer, I decided I still wanted to add a bit of really dark indigo into the mix. With a piece of mud-resist fabric I bought in India, I found what I was looking for.

And now for the great unveil – ta-dah, the finished skirt! I'm really happy with how it turned out. I wouldn't even change the intensity of the dye now, as I like the contrast between it and the yoke.
Shibori indigo dyed kantha embroidered skirt front
And the back…
Shibori indigo dyed kantha embroidered skirt back
Then what did I do? Well, I turned around and made another one of course! The second one was mostly made with fabrics I bought in India, although there is a mud-resist one I did in there too. It's also a little more subdued in its colourway which suits the person I made it for.
And there you have it… Over the coming weeks I'm sure I'll be telling you about the block printing and the mud-resist and the most exquisite embroidery, but for now thanks for letting me share my first India-inspired pieces with you.

Happy week everyone!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

My kind of fashion icon – the wonderful Iris Apfel

Imagine a teenager's enthusiasm for putting an outfit together, the bargaining skills of a Moroccan carpet seller, combined with delicious personal style and a collection of costume jewellery started more than eighty years ago. This is Iris Apfel.

I can't remember when I first heard about Iris – it was probably around the time her jewellery collection filled a last-minute gap in the exhibition schedule at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – but I've been keeping an eye out for her ever since. 

Iris has been gaining popularity in recent years, having been the face of campaigns for Kate Spade and jewellery designer Alexis Bittar, as well as appearing on countless magazine covers – she now calls herself the "geriatric starlet" – but a recent documentary really gives you a peek inside her life and wardrobe. I popped along to see it on Monday.
The Iris movie is such a sweet celebration of one woman's life-long love affair with textiles, costume and the thrill of the find.

For years Iris was an interior designer and ran the company Old World Weavers with her husband Carl, who sadly passed away last month. Their most well-known commission was the ongoing work they did for the White House, designing interiors for no less than nine US presidents.

Iris has the most colourful, joyful style and it reminded how much I used to love planning and putting outfits together which has just gone by the wayside as I've gotten older. 

I don't have Iris' massive collection (which was slightly terrifying in its scale), but part of the reason I think the joy has gone out of dressing for me, is that I've taken such a scattergun approach to buying things over recent years and you end up with a whole lot of clothes but not a lot that hangs together.
Iris goes against the grain in so many ways, especially in our youth-obsessed culture. She's 94 for goodness sake, has had grey hair forever, thinks plastic surgery is awful and when asked why she never comments on what others are wearing declared "Who am I to judge – it's better to be happy than well dressed".

What a fabulous woman!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Warp and weft from go to whoa

This week I finished my quilt that was inspired by the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle and the cochineal they use to dye their yarns. I've decided to call it Warp and Weft.
It started as a scribble in my sketchbook.
Palette chosen.
Marrying the pairs.
Cutting, piecing and ironing.
The finished top.
Binding… So close now.
The ta-dah moment! Hanging out at the park.
I've also written a pattern for the quilt in three different sizes – queen, lap and a baby quilt – which you can find on both my Etsy and Craftsy stores.

I often have to remind myself to take photos as I work, but I'm always really glad when I have because I love being able to look back at how it all came together. I'm already planning the next one…

Sunday, 30 August 2015

A sustainable wardrobe – Part 3, Raw materials: On to natural fibres

This month I decided to check back through my credit cards to be absolutely accurate about the last time I bought clothes. It turns out it was December 2014 – a pair of pyjamas, and March was the last time I bought shoes – a new pair of runners to replace my seven-year-old pair that had lost all support. So I can definitely say it's now eight months since I've bought clothes and five since I've bought shoes, and right now I can't say I'm suffering in the slightest.

I'm also starting to feel much better informed and know this will lead to better choices when I do need to replace something.

Today though, I'm bringing you my second post on raw materials. Last time I talked about synthetic fibres, so this month it's the turn of the natural fibres.

I'm going to start with those from animals and really, you can't go past wool as a pretty stand-out option. It currently makes up less than 2 per cent of the world's textile production so it doesn't have the issues of some more intensively farmed fibres. If it's farmed responsibly, or even better, organically, then it's a really good choice – it's cool in summer, warm in winter and breathable ie it can absorb a large amount of water and move it away from the skin for evaporation. Wool is also naturally odour and stain resistant so it requires less care than other fibres.
Taken at the recent Bendigo Wool Show.
In future I'll also be looking at wild silk, alpaca, mohair and cashmere as options, but I draw the line at animals having to suffer or die in the production of fibre for my clothing. I just prefer to use other options when there are so many out there, so possum, angora rabbit and fur are off the list for me.

The last fibre-types to look at are plant fibres, and one fibre that I particularly want to talk about – cotton. As we saw last time, my wardrobe is currently made up of 44 per cent cotton or cotton blend items, but since the story of conventional cotton is the one that I've found the most shocking in my fibre research, that balance is going to have to change over time.

If you want more information I'd suggest watching 'The True Cost' – if you haven't already. It's apparently now available on Netflix, as well as iTunes. The other thing worth watching, if you can bear it, is 'Blood, Sweat and T-shirts'. So, here goes…
From now on I'll be choosing hemp, linen or organic cotton, and probably in that order.

After all that I'm now pretty clear on my clothing fibre preferences, but I also promised you some options for crafting. From Australia we have organic wool from Woolganic. From the US there's Swans Islands Yarn and I found Cornish organic wool in the UK. While not organic, I think Manos del Uruguay deserves a mention. They are actually a 40-year-old collective that cares for people, animals and the environment. In the last couple of years they been granted full World Fair Trade certification.

For organic cotton try KPC Yarn, Danish company Onion, or EcoYarnsQuince & Co have an organic linen. Also from Denmark, BC Garn have a good range of both organic wool and organic cotton.

For those into patchwork, there aren't a lot of options. As far as I can find there's Cloud 9, Monaluna or Birch Fabrics. I think those of us who are into textiles need to start asking some hard questions about where our quilting cotton comes from.

You can also get lots of unusual natural fibres such as banana (abaca), coconut, kenaf and hemp from String Harvest.

These links are all over on the Pinterest board along with further options.

I hope this gives you some food for thought. Until next time…

1, 2, 3, 6 and 9 To Die for – Is Fashion Wearing out the World?, Ch 7 – 'Picking at Cotton', Lucy Siegle, Fourth Estate, London, 2011
4. Cotton Campaign,
5 and 10 The True Cost, movie, Direct quote from Vandana Shiva
7. WWF Global,
8. 3Fish,