Meeting my master batik printer

A 400 mile road trip later and I am overjoyed to have witnessed the batik printing of my first batch of scarves! They are still only samples at this stage but it was an amazing opportunity to meet the master craftsman who will be responsible for printing my collection. To see his studio, watch him work and be able to explain (with the help of a translator of course, I haven’t learnt tamil as yet!) some of my layout requirements to him.

His set up is far from high tech, the wax used for the batik is melted in a metal tray over a gas burner, held up on bricks. The lighting is very poor in his workshop, and I noticed that when he prints he is actually working in his own shadow (!) but he seems to manage anyway. When they have current he hooks up a light which improves conditions. A table of damp sand is used as a base for the fabric, and is smoothed over with a wooden rod before laying the fabric.

One of my scarf prints took a bit of explaining, with geometric ends, and a giant feather in a slightly slanted half drop repeat across the body of the fabric. This took a few samples to get him to understand what I wanted, but I love the fact that each sample is now one of a kind, so didn’t mind really. None off them actually look wrong, just different, and for production I want to aim for consistency, even if this is not what I end up with.

Getting to understand the needs and limitations of the artisan is a crucial element to getting the best out of the relationship and ensure you don’t end up frustrated. This trip has helped me determine what I can and can’t ask of him (like do not suggest that he moves his set up to reap the benefits of natural light), and what can be done by me to make his work easier.

Block printing is a process which is done entirely by eye and hand. The printer identifies a visual guide to show where the next block should be placed, irregularity of repeat is what makes it unique and genuine, however it is the mark of a true master when the irregularities are only slight. Things like layout, the number of points to be matched for each repeat, and also the rigidness of the fabric (whether the fabric moves during printing), are all elements which will affect production. For my designs I have a complicated repeat, lots of points to match, plus silk fabric so the difficulty level is pretty high!

For the aforementioned feather print scarf I have agreed to make a template which will be used to mark dots on the fabric as a guide for the repeat; this will speed up production time and ensure the the angle of the block is consistent.

It was very encouraging to see the next generation of batik printers present; the masters son was there as apprentice ready to lend a hand, all the time observing and learning.

Thanks to The Colours of Nature for inviting me to join them on this inspiring road trip – where I also got to witness denim production at a small powerloom factory, and the mind blowing process of industrial scale washing! One machine can wash 30,000 metres of fabric IN ONE DAY!!!!! I will share some pics at a later date, the machines are like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!


Chennai Crafts Bazaar

Picture of some of the wonderful crafts on show at The Crafts Council of India Crafts Bazaar 2012, held at Valluvar Kottam exhibition centre in Chennai as part of the Kaiwalam World Crafts Summit. With over a 150 artisans from across India, the Crafts Bazaar showed off India’s rich heritage of arts and crafts.

I couldn’t help but make a few small purchases, which included some cow bells made into a wind chime with amazing acoustics, a beautiful colourful geometric printed blanket and a few too many wooden printing blocks (they can go in my print room when I get back to UK!). I was tempted to buy a giant Khurja t-pots, but really couldn’t find a way to justify this purchase (or transport it safely)!

A peek at a batik artist at work

A peek at a batik artist at work in Chennai, India. Last week I went to visit S.Sekar to follow up on some scarves I’ve commissioned. I met him at a recent Co-optex Textile fair and loved the colours and flair in his work, so was keen to collaborate on some designs. His work uses many different symbols of traditional india, such as women carrying pots, birds, lotus flower, elephants and fish. It was very exciting to see work in progress, I can’t wait to see the finished pieces.

Preserving Traditional Sari Design

The Weavers Service Centre in Kanchipuram is bursting with master craftsmen employed by the government of India (as part of the Ministry of Textiles) to push their craft to the limits, research traditional techniques and explore new ways to keep the hand loom sector alive in face of modern day competition. It was there I met K.G. Narendrababu (or Babu for short), who took me through the process of designing for hand loom saris. He is an artist at heart and pursues his own work in his spare time, telling me that it is important to have a balance between creating commercialised designs and expressing your own feeing through your art form. I agree with this whole heartedly, but it is good to be reminded sometimes, having decided to work for myself and make textiles my career. There can be a feeling of push and pull, the desire to be creative and explore ones own practice, with the need to commit time to areas of work which will bring in an income.

Babu talked me through some of the changes in sari design. In the traditional design the formula used to create the pattern goes back generations and will differ from region to region. It is inspired by the surrounding landscape of the area, nature and animals. He shared with me the centre’s hand drawn directory of symbols used in Kanchipuram sari design (see images).

Designing takes a modern twist as digital CAD packages are used to produce the patterns to convert it into the many templates used to create the warp and weft threads of the design. Some of the digital designs of sari pallu (the exposed end of the sari) are pictured. The colours maroon, mustard and green are all very auspicious, as is the mango, peacock and lotus flower – all official emblems of India.

A peek inside a kalamkari artists studio

Last month I accompanied an Indian contact, Mr N. Bond, to a town called Kalaastri in Andhra Pradesh; a temple town famous for Kalamkari fabric art – the art of painting directly onto fabric using natural plant dyes.

N.J.Bond is a contact I made through Ethical Fashion Network, he is an advocate and researcher in the field of natural dyes and has been keen to share with me his knowledge and promote their use. I have always been interested in natural dyes and so was keen to see this process of Kalamkari, which has been passed down for generations. The recipes are not written down but taught by master craftsmen to their apprentices over many years.

The fabric is soaked first of all in a milky substance, which will act as a fixative for the natural plant dyes when applied to the fabric. The pattern is first drawn onto paper which is used as a guide and traced through onto the main fabric. The pattern is made on the fabric using a pen like tool filled with the liquid dye. There are many stages which must be strictly adhered to to ensure the best result.

Alongside the many traditional patterns of the gods and other temple inspired designs, I also saw some more contemporary ideas which illustrated the potential for this style of art to be applied to the modern market. There are some designers using Kalamkari in fashion with an aim to promote and preserve this traditional technique. Designers include Upasana (watch their video on Kalamkari) and Vivek Karunakaran who promoted Kalamkari through a collection designed in collaboration with the Handloom Export Promotion Council showcased at the Chennai World Trade Centre earlier this year.

A peek inside a natural indigo dye house

Last week I visited Colours of Nature, a traditional indigo and natural dye house based in Auroville, South India.

Colours of Nature are reviving the 1,000 year old traditional technique of indigo dying, while using scientific research to develop the dyes and improve on the colour-fastness (one of the main issues with natural dyes in the commercial market). There will be more posts about natural dyes to come, as I pursue this field of interest and integrate it into my ideas for a collection…

Kanchipuram Self Help Groups and Silk Weavers

During the coming year I will be spending three days a week in the Kanchipuram region of India, which is two hours west of Chennai. I am staying in accommodation provided by the NGO RIDE who I will be working with during my time there.

Sevilimedv Village, Kanchipuram

My hosts – the director of RIDE, Jeyaraj, and his wife Britto – have been extremely welcoming and very open in discussing my expectations and the plan for the coming weeks and beyond. Jeyaraj is very keen to support me in putting together my own project which I can work on during my time with them. Alongside this he would like me to promote RIDE, specifically to promote their ‘Eco-Tourism’ programme which brings in a good income for the charity and has proved very successful in the past.

There are currently two Austrian girls staying at RIDE who are on a two-week programme. Their itinerary includes an introduction to the many projects RIDE are involved in, visits to temples, villages, silk weavers, artisans, markets and silk shops. They get a real impression of the issues facing the rural communities, especially the human rights issues and problems of child labour which RIDE are working to improve. During their programme they can also contribute to one of the projects, which could involve helping out in the RIDE garden planting trees and vegetables or in one of the RIDE schools.

RIDE’s training facilities in Arpakkam

Over the past few days I’ve been learning about one of RIDEs main activities which is to support women’s self help groups within the villages of the region. The agreement is simple but effective; RIDE promises to provide support, micro-finance loans, information, legal advice, and training to the women who participate in the groups. In return, the women of the group promise to send their children to school.

One of the RIDE training centre buildings constructed with the help of volunteers

The self-help groups are formed of between 12 – 20 women of a similar background. The programme follows a structure which has been rolled out across the whole of Tamil Nadu and is tried and tested, with support from the state government. However, I have heard and read how difficult the women find it initially to participate in the group. These women have been used to staying at home cooking, cleaning, looking after children, sometimes even supporting their husband in his job. So when they try to break this cycle and start attending a group to better themselves they are met with a lot of negative responses, mostly from their husband and mother in law. They are told that they are neglecting the family, their duties, and that women can’t learn.
But the women are strong-willed and with the support of the group behind them they feel empowered so they go ahead anyway and take what they have to. They work longer hours to make sure that the food is cooked and the washing is done before they leave to attend the group.

The way the groups work is that women work together to set targets to save a bit of money, just the smallest amount to start with, on a monthly basis, which is safeguarded by RIDE. The process is completely transparent with paperwork to back up every transaction. Once they have saved for a few months, they start to loan money back to members for emergencies such as school fees (before if they could not pay school fees they would just take the child out of school), loan sharks, medical fees, fixing carts or machines, funeral fees, dowry and support if crops fail.

They are only charged small interest rates and the repayment charges are manageable compared to the loan sharks who have been known to charge absurd rates up to 160%, which just creates a downward spiral. Once the groups bank account has a fair amount of money in it, the group has the option to apply to borrow money from the bank whereby they can support larger loans say to help members or their families set up a business, pay for further education, buy an auto rickshaw, buy materials etc.

A member of one of the Self Help Group bought this rice grinder and now offers the service to the village people.

This process gives the women control over their own lives, and more than this gives them respect and their own voice in the village, as they are the ones who are addressing the issues the village faces and paying off the loan sharks. With their new-found confidence, access to learning and the ability to get low-interest loans, the women are also training up in a variety of different fields and starting their own businesses. This gives the added comfort of having two incomes to support the family and for many of the husbands it is an unexpected burden being lifted from their shoulders.

Through the knowledge sharing process RIDE teaches the importance of education which results in the families committing to sending their children to school. I went to visit one of the schools funded by RIDE in a village called Sevilimedv. On entry we were greeted with shrieks and waves of excitement as the children got sight of us! They were all dressed in their uniforms which were varying muggy shades of their original white, with the RIDE logo on their belt buckles. The children themselves were very well presented with neat, slick back hair or little plaits with flowers in.

We certainly disrupted the lesson which seemed to be in order when we first arrived but turned into stray children wandering all over the place as we took up the teacher’s time being shown around.

The school is about 18m x 4m in total and rooms have been created with low partitions to make 5 classes, the ages range from 3 to 10 yrs old. We were taken to visit each class one at a time and every child was made to stand up and tell us their name. The teachers are all very relaxed and patient with the children, who are clearly at differing levels of ability. They themselves are from the village and are proof of the benefits the programme is achieving through its work.

Silk weavers house and family

After visiting the school one of the teachers took us down the road and through the village to meet a couple of the local silk weavers in their homes – it’s just amazing, the central feature of their home is a 5-6 metre long silk loom and domestic life just goes on around it.

The first weaver I visited (above) was half way through setting up the warp threads, he was waiting on a particular colour to be delivered from Kanchipuram. The silk worms are harvested, spun and dyed in Kanchipuram district so I will get the chance to see these processes in action later on. It can take up to 10 days to prepare the warp for weaving.

The second weaver was part way through weaving, he had just finished the initial border on the sari fabric and was about to change colour. The top side on the loom is the underside of the fabric so he un-clipped the fabric to show me the pattern on the right side (above). The complete process to weave a full sari takes them up to 20 days.

The Kanchipuram sari is renowned for its quality. The weavers here use a unique  technique whereby they weave the borders and the sari together, making it extremely strong. Many saris are woven separately to the border and then stitched together. The Kanchipuram sari is popular for wedding attire and can fetch good prices, compensating for the time it takes to make each piece. Depending on the design and amount of gold thread used, Kanchipuram saris can sell for as much as £400-500, even more if it is a heavily embellished piece. So commissioning my own piece is probably out, however I do have a bit of time to work something out….

Women collecting rice rations from ‘fair-price’ shop

On the way back from the village to the bus stop we walked past a ‘fair price’ shop, which is supported by the government to ensure that villagers are able to buy basic food. In June this year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa launched a free rice distribution scheme. Every ration card holder can get 20kg of free rice per month, and the very poorest get 35kg per month. Prior to this rice was subsidised, but with price fluctuations this was never a reliable solution.

I was just amazed at the flurry of bright colours spilling out of the shop from all the beautiful saris!