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

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

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.

Batik Indigo Dyeing

I’ve been spending time at The Colours of Nature in Auroville, South India to learn about the process of batik block printing. It was such a pleasure to be able to get down and do some printing, I miss having a good old play, haven’t done it for a long while. It wasn’t, however, just for fun; this experimentation has proved invaluable insight into how best to format designs when making batik blocks.

The print blocks I am using are made out of a series of nails banged into a block of solid wood to create a flat dot pattern surface, different size nail heads are used for different pattern qualities. Nails are used as they retain heat, this ensures that the wax remains at the maximum temperature and does not cool too soon. By retaining the heat, the wax easily absorbs into the fabric, which is key to successful batik work.

The fabric is spread over a bed of damp sand to ensure that the wax stays in the cloth, and the block is pressed hard onto the fabric. The tricky bit is lining up a repeat block, there are no markers it’s all done by eye. Once the wax is dry the fabric is soaked in water before being submerged in the indigo vat. When the fabric is removed from the vat it is a wonderful yellowy green colour, which reacts with the air and oxidises as the fabric turns blue. This process is repeated several times until the required depth of colour is achieved.

I’m so excited about creating my own designs, the blocks are ordered I just need to wait for them to be made! Watch this space!

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…