The making of a John Lewis rug

In the rural town of Sri Perumbadur, just outside of Chennai, a small production unit is producing hand knotted and cut rugs. The factory is apparently the last hand knotting rug company in south India (the majority of rug manufacturing taking place in the north) and employs mainly women.

The organisation is an example of business supporting women’s empowerment in India. There is a convent and school next door to the factory which is financed by a trust set up by the company and offers free schooling and childcare to employees.

During a visit to their factory last month, I had a go at knotting a rug, sitting at the loom with other workers. There is a certain knack to twisting the wool around the warp thread. But once I knew what I was doing I got into a rhythm – I can imagine it being quite therapeutic and relaxing. However, I managed to cause a panic being a bit carefree with the cutting blade – I didn’t realise it was so sharp!

The rugs are made from 100% New Zealand wool. Once knotted, they are trimmed down to flatten the tufts and create a blank canvas. The pattern outline is marked out before the real cutting begins, using scissors to remove sections of the rug and create the raised surface effect. It would be easy to think this was done by some kind of machine; if I hadn’t witnessed for myself the true craftsmanship I would not believe it! The pattern shown is Greek Key and the cutting process takes a day to complete one design.

The unit produces a variety of rugs and work on bespoke project for overseas clients, however the Greek Key has been their mainstay product over the years, being sold exclusively to John Lewis in the UK.  John Lewis send a representative out to visit the unit regularly, and seem extremely committed to supporting small scale producers.

You can see the rugs on the John Lewis website, CLICK HERE

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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)!

Bleeding Madras – Inspiration from the past

I came across Bleeding Madras (Madras being the British colonial name for Chennai) during a visit to the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation (HHEC) in Chennai, where I had been invited to look through some of their vast fabric library which spans over 60 years! The fabrics they have collected cover many traditional print and weave techniques, IKAT, batik, tie & dye, jaquard and so much more. The library is dusty and dank, but who cares, I managed to spend over 5 hours there! The staff were really helpful and full of knowledge, which they were happy to share with me.

Bleeding madras was a type of woven fabric popular in the 1960s, it is no longer available today and the knowledge of the process has disappeared. It used dyes that were not colour-fast to colour the yarns; which were then woven into the traditional Madras check designs. The result was that the fabric changed colour over time, with the original colours fading and bleeding into one another. This bleeding, something which would be seen as a technical fault today, was what made the fabric so appealing, as the wearer would feel that they were getting a different look every time the shirt was laundered.

Designers of sustainable fashion are striving to find solutions to marry the irrevocable nature of clothing with the ever changing tides of fashion. It seems that this is exactly what they had over 50 years ago. A garment that changed and developed over time and became unique to the wearer, as everyone would wear and wash their clothes differently, creating a unique story of its life cycle, which reflected the life of its owner.

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.

India Calls

In just over two weeks my boyfriend (Berg) and I will be moving to India from the UK to spend a year living in Chennai. Berg is working on a migration project based in the city. My time will be split between working for an NGO and researching and writing about ethical fashion.

I have been working for Ethical Fashion Forum for the past few months and will be continuing my work with them while in India writing for the SOURCE Magazine.

I will be visiting sustainable fashion & textiles organisations and meeting contacts I have made through working in ethical fashion and via the Ethical Fashion Network.

I have also connected with an NGO called Rural Institute for Development and Education (RIDE) who I’ll be working with on a long-term basis.

Image: http://www.rideindia.org/activities.htm

RIDE work to support those people living and working in the rural villages of Tamil Nadu in the areas surrounding Chennai.

They carry out fantastic work by supporting children in the villages out of child labour and into education. They provide them with catch up lessons until the children are ready to enter regular schools. They also help the adults to start businesses which have the means to create sustainable income for their families. This is supported by their Entrepreneurial Development Programme which offers practical training in various different fields.

Many of the villages that RIDE work with are known for their exquisite hand-loom woven silk used for the most luxurious saris. This is an area I am very keen to learn more about and develop my understanding of this traditional craft. I’m also interested in the possibility of creating a knowledge transfer programme for those who would like to develop their skills in the fashion & textiles industry.