There are many aspects to running our company Tradition Textiles where skills continually need to be developed: in production, marketing, quality control and sales to name a few. But what always gives me the greatest joy is the creative side of the business designing fabric prints. At the beginning of each year I start to think about design ideas for new fabric prints for Tradition’s range of summer clothing. Inspiration may come from exhibitions I visit or architecture I wander through but mainly I am influenced by the environment around me; my garden in Sydney, plants I see on walks and sea life where I swim.
Mixing inks for printing
Photographs are often the beginning of designs that I then develop using Photoshop or Illustrator on the computer. But I am only part of the design process. My generated repeat patterns remain only that – patterns until printed onto fabric. In collaboration with skilled artisans that I work with in India silk screens are made or woodblocks carved ready for printing. Sometimes designs are modified resulting from suggestions made the artisans who know the technical scope of their craft.
To complete the finished printed metres of fabric many specialist artisans are involved, each with their own skill set. Those who mix the print colours are the artisans I most admire and who are well respected within their field. I of course have planned the colour combinations for each fabric print and delight how the colour mixers know exactly how to get the colour right.
We only use natural fibres at Tradition Textiles so time is spent finding the best quality of cotton, merino wool or silk. Colour variations again can occur depending upon the fabric used so adjustments need to be made. There is considerable time spent sampling and getting things right. A collaborative time not without a little creative tension. But worth it when the fabric printing is complete and metres of designs that began as an idea are ready to be transformed into our new range of products. Deborah Emmett Print Designs showcases a portfolio of my fabric print designs so far with always more designs being developed.
Over the time I have worked with traditional textile artisans in India I have discussed with them their concerns about their textile communities future and the survival of their specific crafts. Many of the artisans had minimal schooling but instead, at a young age, began apprenticeships or worked within the family craft community. Now these artisans prioritize providing their children with formal educations, however at the same time lamenting that their children will probably pursue careers away from the handcrafted textile industry where they can earn higher incomes. As a result many of the skills passed on for generations risk being lost.
Woodblock printed of the lime design
So it was refreshing when I started working with a family of woodblock printers or chhipas in Sanganer, Rajasthan to witness a new approach where knowledge of traditional skills is mixed with the advantages of modern technology and education. The two sons of the family have been delegated the running of different parts of the family business. While one takes care of the administrative business concerns the younger son uses his knowledge gained through studying design to manage the production side. When developing my new designs for a range of cotton block printed table linen he was able to discuss technical problems that might arise with the woodblock process while clearly understanding the vision I had for the designs.
Working as a foreign designer in India can have its frustrations particularly through lack of communication and the need for better product quality control. With their knowledge of technology communication was straightforward for the woodblock printers. I was regularly updated about the development of the samples and the production of the tablecloths. Concerns about colour and quality were easily communicated and resolved. Their knowledge of modern business management complemented the wonder of a centuries old skill of woodblock printing to make the completed products viable in a contemporary market.
So it is with a degree of optimism that the future of handcrafted textiles can continue when the children of traditional artisans can bring the advantages of their contemporary formal education to the textile businesses of their communities.
Pashmina shawls have been hand woven in the Kashmir region of India for hundreds of years. Pashmina is the soft fibre derived from ‘pashm,’ the wool produced from the inner hair of the Himalaya region’s mountain goat ‘capra hircus.’ Cashmere is the westernized word for this soft material.
Raja prepares dyed pashmina fibres for weaving
When we were again in Kashmir in June we visited Raja, a pashmina shawl weaver. He works on a handloom in his own small home in a semi rural area on the outskirts of Srinagar surrounded by rice fields. Raja lives with his wife and two small children, while we are there his son returns from school. Raja was at school but like so many others he was forced to leave due to militancy in Kashmir during the 1990s. Instead he followed in the tradition of his family and became a weaver as was his father and grandfather.
It takes up to five days to thread up the loom; the warp is either white or natural coloured pashmina. Before starting to weave Raja uses a spinning wheel to wind the coloured pashmina threads onto spindles for the weft that will create the stole’s design. Then he weaves around four inches per day. A stole takes around a month to complete, shawls longer. The raw material of dyed pashmina threads is supplied by Gulam Mohammed. He is a wastakar, a respected weaver who is sought after by customers for his woven pashminas. He is able to give work to other weavers like Raja.
Pashmina on spindles for weaving on the hand loom
The handloom pashmina weavers are paid in installments. These advance payments are necessary as the scarves and shawls take so long to complete. When the piece is finished the installments are deducted from the final cost of the pashmina. This system makes the handloom weaving industry sustainable for both the artisans and facilitators in Kashmir.
Some traditional textile crafts in India are being lost for various reasons including competition from similar machine made products and a move by young artisans to other work that is more highly paid. Thankfully handloom pashmina weaving survives as an appreciation of the pashmina fibre’s exquisite quality continues in hand woven stoles and shawls by people throughout the world.
Although we have had sozni and aari embroidery on wool, silk and pashmina scarves and jackets in our Tradition Textiles range for quite a few years I had never met the artisans who did the embroidery. Like many foreign designers working in India my contact is through a middleman or facilitator to develop my products. Rarely do I sit with the artisans and get their input into my designs. I hoped that through a collaborative project I would be able to establish a more inclusive relationship with those artisans if we worked together now, and into the future.
We are again in Srinagar, Kashmir. I am introduced to Ali Mohammed Khan who has done aari embroidery for my husband’s family for over fifty years although now he is retired. When he visits us his son, Nisar accompanies him. Nisar now manages the family business that includes weaving of pashmina shawls, sozni and aari embroidery work. We explain that we would like to do a collaborative project with the embroidery artisans using motifs of my designs. So that the products are familiar to the artisans involved we ask for the designs to be done on shawls and cushions. In this way artisans in Kashmir will also produce the woven fabrics that will be embroidered.
We accompany Nisar to the tiny workshop of the draftsman or naqash, Farooq Ahmad Naqash. It is common for a person to have the surname of their profession. One wall of the workshop is lined with shelves filled with woodblocks that are used to print stencil designs onto shawls ready for embroidery. But in this instance Farooq has traced our motif designs from correctly scaled photocopies onto tracing paper. After perforating the paper he rubs the designs onto the shawls using a mixture of kerosene and carbon. Farooq comments that the original motif size was too small for the aari hook and so the motifs were scaled up in size. Modifications often need to be made by the naqash as he uses his knowledge of the embroidery technique to adapt the designs.
The following morning Nisar brings a master (wustikar in Kashmiri) sozni embroiderer, Abdul Ahad to meet me. Abdul is from Magam, Beerwah, a village 35km from Srinagar. He first learnt sozni embroidery from a neighbour in his village twenty-five years ago. His embroidery work is very fine and looks the same on both sides of the fabric. He agrees to embroider two pashmina shawls for our collaboration project.
The previous night I have shown Nisar the colour palette for the project and so he has brought the silk embroidery threads with him. Abdul and I sit together discussing colours to use for the shawls, he embroiders small sample areas on the stencilled designs of each shawl so we can check how the colours work together. He is very confident in deciding which colours will suit the design. I remark on how closely he holds the embroidery work to his face as he is working. Although he does not wear glasses his distant vision is blurred as a result of spending up to ten hours a day doing this close up needlework. After we agree on the colours he takes the shawls with him back to his village. It will take two months to complete the embroidery on these shawls.
The next day Nisar takes me to meet his niece, Urfi who is an aari embroiderer. We go to her house where she lives with her extended family. In one of the rooms is a loom where pashmina shawls are hand woven by Urfi’s brother. Aari embroidery is mostly a women’s craft in Kashmir as it is done in their homes around their household chores and it supplements the family income. Urfi learnt the skill from a neighbour who is a wustikar of aari embroidery in her area. She selects colours from the threads I have brought with me and quickly does small areas on both the wool shawl and two silk cushions that had been stencilled with the motif designs on the previous day. Urfi is keen to know what the silk will be used for particularly after I request her to use cool colours on one and warm colours on the other. She comments that the stencil print of the design is unclear on the silk and will need to be redone for her to be able to finish the work. Urfi will take about a month to complete the aari embroidery on the three pieces.
Now I wait to see the completed designs but confident after meeting the artisans that the textile pieces are in gifted hands.
L to R: Farooq prints the design onto a pashmina shawl; Urfi’s daughter watches as she does aari embroidery; Abdul sozni embroiders a shawl
Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the Textile Society of America’s 2014 Symposium in Los Angeles where I gave a presentation related to my research of the position of traditional textile artisans in contemporary India. Many of the TSA Symposium participants shared my concerns about the current global situation of those working within the fashion and textile industries. In his keynote address Peter Sellars, opera, theatre and festival director, discussed the phenomenon of ‘fast fashion’ in the industrialized world. That is, low cost clothing collections that are quickly produced mimicking current luxury fashion trends soon after they have been shown on the catwalk.
While many consumers in the West yearn after these fashion designs little consideration is given to those workers in the textile industry making the products. The pressure of unrealistic supply deadlines and reduced production costs results in poor working conditions and low wages in countries where the garments are manufactured like Bangladesh, India, China and Cambodia. The stress on manpower and materials is unsustainable.
However the demand goes on in developed countries often from customers who claim to support ethical design and sustainability. They are detached from the reality of the production process. Consumer behavior of impulse buying and over supply from fast fashion stores is leading to excessive amounts of clothing going into landfill. According to a Cambridge University study in 2006 women had four times as many clothes in their wardrobes as in 1980. Women are getting rid of similar amounts each year. Statistics suggest that on average UK consumers send 30kg of clothing and textiles per capita to landfill each year. While in North America 2 million tons of textile waste is generated each year.
Many fashion and textile companies have now addressed this situation and have incorporated a social and ethical responsibility towards their product manufacturing addressing the choice of materials used and the conditions of the people creating them. As I have discussed before it is important to us at Tradition Textiles that we have a transparent supply chain and that we are involved in all stages of the production of our range of clothing and home furnishings. We work collaboratively with the skilled textile artisans in India who assist us with our production. Their technical and design input is valued, in turn we share with them the aesthetics favored by our customer base and the eventual use of the end products.
This transparency is continued with our customers. We encourage them to know the story behind each product, to ask questions about the materials used and the skills of the artisans who made it. Consumer knowledge and awareness of the advantages of ethically sourced good quality fashion items over low cost fast fashion purchases is growing. Hopefully this trend will lead to a rejection of fast fashion resulting in more sustainable work practices for those working in the textile industry and less waste in already overflowing landfills.
Potential landfill or ethical handcrafted designs? Ask questions about who made your purchases.
Four months of each year I live in my second home in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. Late last year I was asked to discuss my life in Delhi at an event associated with Louise Hawson’s photographic exhibition ‘52 Suburbs Around The World’ at the Museum of Sydney. By coincidence some of Louise’s wonderful photographs were taken in Lajpat Nagar’s busy Central Market, a two minute walk from my home. I was amused at Louise’s comment about my Delhi suburb, she wrote, ‘I’m not going to mince words: this … neighbourhood is a dump.’
Sure the demographic of the four divisions of Lajpat Nagar varies in degrees of middle class residents and mine may not be the most salubrious section however there are diverse and eccentric qualities to daily life in my street that I find endearing.
Each morning I’m awoken by a ‘thump’ on the front door. The newspaper being delivered. This wouldn’t be unusual except that we live on the third floor! With Herculean strength the newspaperman hurls the paper up to our flat and almost always hits his target! From the balcony I can watch the coming and goings of my neighbourhood. A small park opposite provides a space for my neighbours to go about their daily activities including kids playing cricket, women chatting while shelling peas or stringing beans in preparation for dinner and the elderly man next door sitting in the sun reading the newspaper.
It is said of Delhi that it is a city of migrants and my suburb is no exception. In fact locally the area is known as ‘little Kabul’ because of the many Afghanis who live here, most on a temporary basis as medical tourists. To supply their pharmaceutical needs a forever-increasing number of chemists have opened in my street with flashing neon signs in Afghani script. On the plus side there are also Afghani bakeries that sell freshly baked delicious Afghani breads.
In contrast not far away is what appears to be a bicycle rickshaw taxi rank with long lines of the parked vehicles. I recently learnt that the rickshaw cyclists, who are mostly from other states in India, pay a few rupees to the small shop owners to sleep each night along this stretch of road. A tough way to make a living!
A very different sight to the renovated terrace houses of my street in Newtown, Sydney with a community garden, garbage collection and regular council street cleaners. But I try to adhere to this premise, ’Don’t judge, think beyond what you are accustomed to and live it!’
One of the many pleasures I have experienced over the time our company has spent working with textile artisans in India is their spirit of collaboration when producing handcrafted designs. Collectively the artisans function as a community usually revolving around a specialized, highly developed skill like weaving or a particular form of embroidery. Then there are the associated techniques and processes that require varied levels of expertise to develop the completed product.
Recently we were in Kashmir to arrange the production of our new designs of crewel-embroidered fabric. Before the embroiderers could start on the work we had to take our designs to the naqash or draftsman who transfers them onto tracing paper modifying the designs slightly to better suit the crewel embroidery technique. He then made a trace of the design on metres of cotton by rubbing ink through perforations in the tracing paper. The required raw materials of hand woven cotton and dyed wool needed for the embroidery are supplied by other specialist weavers and dyers.
In a small workshop in Srinagar an expert crewel embroiderer sits with our stenciled fabric and quietly embroiders the various coloured wools that we have selected from the many bundles of wool hanging on the wooden rafters of the workshop. On this sample piece the embroiderer uses all the colours in a small area so we can see how they look next to each other. After some changes are made the fabric is sent to the homes of crewel embroiderers where they will complete the pieces. Finally the fabric is sent to a washer man who will wash the embroidery on the banks of a river with herbal soap.
So when my customers admire the beauty of Tradition Textiles’ intricately embroidered crewel curtains I think of the many hands of expertise that have been involved in the creation of those products. I hope by sharing my knowledge of this experience with the customers that we can be more aware of artisan communities – how they work and survive.
The current trend of ‘catwalk to store’ in Western countries has new ranges of clothing in retail stores in a very short time after they have been first presented at major fashion shows. Many of these clothes are manufactured in developing countries like Bangladesh, India and China. The required speed for delivery of the products has resulted in great pressure on the workers and infrastructure in which they labour.
In light of the recent factory fire in Bangladesh where more than 1200 people lost their lives perhaps it is time that Western designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers reconsidered their role in this supply line. Many consumers are now wanting to know how, where and by whom their clothes are made. They are demanding transparency and traceability about the development of each product that they buy.
Ask about the story behind your purchases.
When we are producing our range of clothing in India we work closely with the skilled artisans and tailors who create our collections. We hope that by including their voice in our story we can develop an empathy and connectivity between them and the customer who buys our product.
Bhukhu, an applique embroiderer working on our fabric designs
When we are selling our range of scarves we notice that often customers refer to them as pashminas. Over the last few years it seems that ‘pashmina’ has become an accepted term for scarf or shawl a bit like ‘google’ has become a generic term for searching the internet. In fact like wool, silk, linen, viscose and so on pashmina refers to the material used to weave the scarf.
Handmade shawls and scarves woven from pashmina have a long tradition. Pashmina shawls woven in Kashmir are referred to in Afghan texts from as early as the 3rd century BC while the 15th century ruler of Kashmir, Zayn-ul-Abidin, introduced weavers from central Asia and began the cashmere industry. The fibre known as pashm or pashmina comes from the pashmina goat (or ibex) which lives in the harsh, cold climate of the high Himalayas. To survive the freezing environment at 14,000 feet altitude, the goat grows a unique, incredibly soft and light pashm as an inner coat. The goat sheds its winter coat every spring and the fibres are collected by a tribe known as the Changpa. The fibres are so fine that they can only be spun by hand. The pashmina wool is categorised into two natural colours, from the neck and the body, the neck wool is lighter than the body. The pashmina is sorted into colours and spun into yarn by the Kashmiri women on hand spinners (chakra) and then woven on a hand loom into shawls and scarves. Traditionally they are then hand embroidered. Authentic pashmina shawls are expensive due to the fine quality of the wool and craftsmanship involved in their production.
So instead of using the word ‘pashmina’ liberally to describe a scarf check that you really are buying a pashmina. The Kashmiri Government is creating a labelling system which guarantees genuineness and purity of their pashmina products.