Colourful sari scarves from my photoshoot last week

scarves

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Return to Blighty and the ‘coldest winter for 100 years’!

It has been a while since I wrote anything for the blog, been a tad busy ya’ see! The transition from India to England is finally complete, and ran as smoothly as could be expected. Needless to say, the weather has been a shock to the system and my body has gone into hibernation mode. There has also been a lot of DIY to do, which stopped me from opening cases and unpacking my design work for the first couple of weeks.Despite all the commotion I now have a working studio and have started unpacking my delights from India. It has been a great boost to the system to reunite with some of the beautiful textiles I purchased on my travels, each one with its own memory and story. Some of them have been earmarked for different projects while others, like my Lucknow rugs, are happily scattered around the house. I have some beautiful pure silk saris from Kanchipuram which I am planning to make into patchwork quilts at some point. I also have the Kanchi cotton scarves, made by the wonderful women at RIDE, as part of our new venture. I have a huge variety of colours which will be available for sale very soon on my website www.emmamcginn.com – they are wonderfully lightweight and soft making the perfect accessory springtime!Even the exotic smells of India have travelled back with me in the form of hundreds of joss sticks and, most importantly, in the two huge bags of Sambar mix (spice mix) made by the wonderful Britto from RIDE and given to me on my last day in India. I have already made three meals using the magic mix and they have all been delicious! So even if I don’t get back to India this year, I know that I will have to go again at some point to stock up on Brittos super spice! Woo hoo!I have a busy time ahead, in the coming weeks I am planning to spend some time on my website (in between DIY of course!) with an aim to get ecommerce up and running. I will also be doing some product shots of the Kanchi scarves so that I can get them online asap and share them with the world! My indigo project is still going on, but I have to very patiently wait for a parcel from India. It is therefore on the back burner at the moment and part of my ability to be patient is the blatant fact that there is nothing I can do to hurry it along. I also have an article to write for Ethical Fashion Forum on Indigo dyeing, it is well overdue but should be a good one once I get it finished. I am arguing the case for using natural indigo in the denim industry – which seems the obvious choice when you understand the harmful chemicals used to produce synthetic indigo.

So a busy time ahead, and I am finally feeling up to the challenge now that spring is round the corner and life is feeling a bit less hectic.

indian-delights

Weighing up our Christmas loot!

Thanks to the generosity of the Sew Scrumptious ‘Dress a Girl’ campaign, along with donations from family and friends, we are proud to say we have a huge amount of clothes to distribute to the children at RIDE‘s 2nd Christmas bash (you can read about RIDE’s 1st Christmas Here)!

The parcel of clothes arrived last week. All the hand made dresses and shorts (made by people in the UK) are just so cute I couldn’t help but start photographing them. I was on my own, looking through the suitcases, and just had to share the excitement! I couldn’t photograph all of them, there’s about 150 dresses and 70 shorts, but they really are all beautiful, even more so because they are made with love.

As with last year, we will be gathering children selected by RIDE organisation, they will include children from RIDE’s Love to Learn project and those who are living at the orphanage. We are looking at up to 150 children, that’s more than last year eeekkkk!

The afternoon will start with some fun and games (I’d like to say organised but not sure it will be), followed by tea and cake. We will distribute the wonderful clothes and take as many pictures as we can so we can share the day with those who made it possible.

The remainder of the clothes will be distributed by RIDE in the coming weeks, during their regular visits to smaller, local charities, and amongst targeted groups and villages.

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!

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

Dirty White Gold : The film set to make waves

Image from Dirty White Gold film

Ethical fashion advocates have been pushing organic cotton into the spotlight for some years now, even a few mainstream retailers have committed to switching some production to organic. H&M has been the biggest user of organic cotton since 2010. But how many consumers actually know why conventional cotton is bad, and organic good? A new film in the pipeline is setting out to raise awareness of just such issues, and make some waves across the whole supply chain along the way.

The producers of the film Dirty White Gold are giving the public the chance to be a part of the change by asking them to directly support the making of this ground-breaking film.

What are the issues?

The people affected most by conventional farming practices are farmers and farming communities who work and live with these chemical pesticides on a daily basis. Serious health issues caused by inhalation of pesticides are common There are also major adverse affects on the natural environment and complete destruction of delicate eco-systems. These issues and many more face thousands of small scale Indian farmers caught up in the cycle of conventional cotton farming.

All farming started as organic, reliant on well balanced eco-systems. Then came some clever representatives who persuaded farmers that using chemical pesticides and GM seeds would bring them greater crops. Excited by this huge potential many farmers converted.

The sad truth is that although they may experience increased yield initially, the pests build up resistance and the farmers are forced to use more and more chemicals to sustain their crops. After a few harvests the natural ecosystem becomes so damaged that any benefits provided by the once rich soil has completely disappeared, creating a total reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and GM seeds.

Just a small number of multinational agro chemical companies control all sale and distribution of pesticides, seeds and chemical fertilisers in India and across the world. They have the power to control the market and create demand for their products, increasing prices as they wish. The farmers have no choice but to pay, they must purchase their seeds.

While the majority of organic farmers use local seeds stored from their previous harvest, the pesticide reliant farmers must purchase seeds from the same companies selling them their pesticides. And there is no guarantee of a good harvest; if the crop fails the farmer has no come back on the companies who supplied the seeds. They must start over again by purchase and re-sowing more seeds.

The ever increasing price of seeds and pesticides, along with failing crops, are causing farmers to get into spiralling debt. They are leading simple, rural lives and do not have the knowledge or power to challenge the system they find themselves in. They take loans to pre-pay for their seeds and chemicals, and when their crops fail, many have taken their own lives with the same chemicals that had promised them a better future. The irony is sickening.

Organic Cotton – a way out?

Organic cotton farming is one way to stop the heavy reliance on chemicals, but converting to organic is a transitional process which takes up to five years. Only then can ‘organic’ status be applied for. Many consumers are aware of organic cotton, but at the moment there is little awareness of ‘transitional’ cotton; cotton on the journey to become organic. One other lesser known classification is ‘better cotton’, identifying that not all farmers will have all the right conditions to produce organic cotton, but still want to work within improved ecological systems.

For farmers to consider converting to organic they need to see the financial benefit. This can often be gained through the higher premium offered for organic cotton, but at the moment there are few companies who pay high premium for ‘in transition’ or ‘better’ cotton. Education is needed to show farmers the wider benefits of pursuing more sustainable farming practices which include increased health, more fertile land, possible crop diversity, no reliance on third party, possible self sufficiency and less financial risk. But going organic or making said improvements is not an easy process and requires an initial capital investment which for many is enough to scare them off. It also involves re-learning farming and eco-systems which will differ from farm to farm, depending on their location, availability of water and many other factors.

The solution?

If governments and multinationals put as much effort into supporting the organic movement as they do into promoting, supporting and selling chemicals and GM seeds to farmers we would no longer have a problem. But that may well be the problem; multinational agro chem companies are happy travelling to all these remote farms promoting and selling their own brands as they get a nice financial return.

But who will pay for the organic farming training programs? The Indian government? it is the government who for many years have been offering subsidies on chemical fertilisers. Earlier this year they announced that they would reduce the subsidies on chemical fertilisers to encourage the use of more ecological fertilisers. But this kind of action needs to go hand in hand with educating the farmers about the alternative options, otherwise it is just taking more from those already reliant on chemical fertilisers.

The team behind the film ‘Dirty White Gold’ have decided enough is enough, they are out to make some waves by exposing the truth about conventional cotton production and its link to the many thousands of farmers committing suicide in India.

I hope this film can not only raise consumer awareness on the cost of cotton, but also ask serious questions about why only a handful of companies are allowed to control the livelihoods of vulnerable farmers. It is too late for so many, but this film has the potential to instigate lasting change. The more people involved and backing it, the harder it will be for those in power to wriggle out of their responsibilities.

Dirty White Gold : The Cotton Film:

This film will illustrate the horrific fiscal and physical effects of pesticides on cotton production, explore the viability of fairtrade and organic alternatives and try to prove that you don’t have to look like a patchouli-scented 60s throwback to have an ethical fashion industry.

Filmed in the fields and factories of India and the high streets and catwalks of London, this film and campaign incorporates reportage, video montage, direct action, artistic intervention and a multi-platform transmedia distribution plan. It will call for supply chain transparency across cotton industries….

Here is a great article from Urban Times which gives an overview of the film, including interview with the director Leah Borromeo. CLICK HERE

You can show your support by sponsoring the film : CLICK HERE

And follow Dirty White Gold on FACEBOOK

Here are a few links to further information on the subject:

PAN North America : Chemical Cartel – This is a real eye opener, we should be worried.

Times of India – Farmer Suicides You just need to search on Times of India for farmer suicide to see the scale of the issue.

PAN Europe – Pesticide Campaign Lots of info about pesticides including health and environmental risks.

EJF Foundation – Have you picked yours carfully EJF campaign for organic cotton and have evidenced the negative impacts of pesticide use.

Article: Greenpeace and farmers welcome government plan to shift subsidy from chemical fertilisers to ecological fertilisation

People Tree – Organic Cotton Fibre – Comparison between conventional and organic cotton.

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)!

Testing out some of my new batik blocks!

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 day of reflection on Day of the Girlchild

Today is the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, so I wanted to share with you why this day is so important in the little part of the world I am currently living. Based on my experience through volunteering with NGO RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), in Kanchipuram, South India.

In rural Kanchipuram there are still many landless tribal communities living pretty remote lives and affected by the caste system. Due to lack of education they are extremely poor, without any particular skills many end up working in stone quarries or as day labourers when the work is available.

It is still common in some of these communities for men to marry more than one woman, or girl; I’ve met a girl as young as 13 with a baby on her hip, accompanied by her husbands first wife. The role of the women is an isolated existence shared only with the other wives of the group. They don’t have the understanding of education to realise that it could help them out of poverty and provide their children with a better future.

RIDE tirelessly encourages and aids enrolment in school through all levels of society. They have had some success with the tribal communities through offering support, assisting with enrolment, paying for books and providing help with school fees.  However, even when the children do attend school, the girl is still vulnerable. She will be the one pulled out of school if help is needed at home, if someone is ill, if there is a younger sibling to look after, or if there is only enough money to send one child (the boy) to school. Without education, these girls are very much at risk, without sex education they are open to abuse.

RIDE has set up a system of support that reaches out to these children whether they are at school or not. Understanding that they will not necessarily get the encouragement from home to attend school, RIDE creates a safe and positive environment for the children at their centre in Arpakkam. They invite children from different communities to attend regular programs, to promote a positive attitude towards learning and play, and to create a safe and trusting environment where the children feel happy and able to express themselves. The children are taught though fun workshops, and encouraged to think positively about education and develop their own love for life and learning.

Being a grass roots organisation, RIDE is able to monitor and keep tabs on the children they feel are at risk, knowing them by name and understanding their individual circumstances. At the moment RIDE is focussed on the girls, as there are a few who are reaching womanhood without any real parental guidance. They are in need of support and counselling to help keep them out of danger and protected.

This is a slow, day to day challenge, but without RIDE, and many other grass roots charities and NGO’s around the world, these children and many like them would have no-one looking out for them. They are a great credit to OUR society as a whole and we should do all we can to support them in their tireless work.

To find out more about RIDE visit their website WWW.RIDEINDIA.ORG or their FACEBOOK PAGE