A Design Journey of 35 years with Soma, Jaipur

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Soma, we speak to Andree’ Pouliot, Co-founder and Head of Design to know about her journey so far.

Beginning of a Design Journey

My first trip to India was in the ‘70s — I came to Delhi and Jaipur as my designer mother’s production assistant. I was 21 and I could hardly breathe for excitement. It was like moving through a dream or an illustration from the Victorian Age.

In those days, the men in Rajasthan wore enormous, colourful turbans and Arabian Nights slippers. The women billowed through the bazaar in hand block printed, flowing skirts and pink and yellow-coloured veils and were covered in heavy silver ornaments.

The variety, the exquisite design quality and the technique of the traditional, hand-crafted fabrics was so inspiring. And so, very early on in my travels in India, I became determined to learn about and to document as many handmade crafts as I could.

Since then, the close study of the textile and craft treasures of India has served as a touchstone throughout my working career and in my art practice. I have no choice but to be a passionate champion of these artisans. I am always learning about Indian artisanship and hand craft and, in that, I join many contemporary artists and designers in India who are experimenting and creating wonderful, new handmade articles using traditional craft techniques. Certainly, creatively speaking, India is the liveliest, most stimulating and energetic place to live that there is — anywhere.

Large amounts of skill and patience

Certainly technology and computers have helped the design process but, at Soma, there is no substitute for the skill of hand drawing for our unique print designs. So, ultimately, we combine some tech with age-old techniques. We hand draw the design on paper and transfer it accurately totracing paper — one for every colour separation. The block carvers then must transfer the design to wood and create a detailed, multi-block design — one block for each colour. Then they carve out the wood blocks using small chisels and large amounts of skill and patience.

A skilled colour master is responsible for mixing up the specific inks for each day’s printing and approving the colour swatches (by eye) before production can begin. The colour master must maintain a cupboard full of recipe books as the inks come in powdered form.

The design-room computer helps us to make the layouts for each specific product to be printed, and is invaluable for tracking and archiving the hundreds of prints we create and produce annually.

Authentic wood block prints have become scarce and more expensive than in the past. Sanganer, the town near Jaipur where hand block printing has been the main industry since the mid-1700’s, was overburdened once the printing and rag paper industries expanded rapidly in the 1980’s. Now the town is beset by significant water shortages and printing waste water disposal problems. Still, printing goes on, much of it by hand, and much of it by screen process, which is faster and cheaper.

It takes great skill, patience and effort to produce block print. For this reason authentic hand block print will be a little more costly than screen or machine print by the time it reaches the retail market. The lifelong master printers and block-carvers are now retiring age, and the young printers of today demand and deserve recognition, respect and upgraded pay for their fine craft work. Many Jaipur block print companies are meeting the challenge, (if I may speak for others) we feel we are all in this together to support the good health of this unique fine art.Please support the craft artisan, seek out authentic block print. The support of India’s fine craft artisans is, as I see it, vital. 

India needs continued growth and innovation in the hand craft sector.You do not want your Living Treasures, India’s master craftspersons, to disappear for good. The market decides, by demand and sales, whether the next generation will continue in the family craft footsteps, or not. Cultural exchange is very exciting now, cross pollination of design, materials and techniques is enriching all global art communities.The Indian design bank has always been enormously rich, with it’s deep heritage, inter-cultural influences and continuous developments.Today India’s wealth of talented and sophisticated designers and craft innovators are moving ahead, and I can hardly wait to see what’s next. 

Andrée Pouliot is an artist, a principal at Soma Blockprints and the creative force behind the new fashion brand Andrée Jaipur.

Visit http://www.somashop.com/

Sharp turn

When I discovered that I could transform my drawings on paper to wood blocks and then to printed fabrics, my life took a sharp turn towards India — and to Jaipur specifically, which has been the hub for the art of hand block printing for over 300 years.

We started Soma Blockprints in 1984. In the early days we began experimenting with new techniques, cajoling the printers to use larger blocks and to layer colours.

We were learning in the field, traveling to villages to find out about natural dye practices and picking up local knowledge, such as: the dry climate and desert sun of Rajasthan is essential to achieving good, clear block prints and speeds the process as the fabrics must be dried between each colour change. Back then I designed the first few hundred block prints we produced for export; I learned by observing the printers at work day after day and eventually

I also learned Hindi.

Soma look

In time, as we opened Soma stores, we needed more designs so we took on local print design trainees and foreign interns. I taught them what I had learned and so guided the development of the Soma “look.” SomaBlockprints is one of a handful of established Jaipur block print companies, and our cohort of producers have always created our own prints with our own in-house designers.

From the beginning, we have seen it as our mandate to always use the best quality, indelible printing inks, and to always print on high-quality base fabrics. Today we print over 5000 meters daily and we have our base fabrics custom woven in order to maintain quality.

We faced many obstacles over the years: shoestring budgets, local opposition, riots, curfews, political unrest that cut off supply chains and caused some of our home-based artisans to lose their homes. And, like all businesses, we have faced our share of unhelpful bank managers, unscrupulous suppliers, staff and transport shortages: the works. Things are so much more stable now in Jaipur than they were in the 80s. However, on the down side, the master hand block printers are aging, and their skills are rarely being passed on to the younger generation

— although, fortunately, we do attract skilled printers who migrate to Jaipur from different states in India.