Woven Stories with Designer at Women Weave

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY SAYAN CHANDA

WomenWeave is a Charitable Trust that collaborates with designers from over 20 countries to create and market bespoke accessories woven by the delicate, skilled hands of over 100 women in Central India. Their products are unique. Many yarns are hand-spun from organic cottons, dyed with 100% natural dyes and loomed with the utmost care and attention.We spoke to Sayan Chanda, a design consultant at the organisation, currently based in London to get his opinions and views on Indian textile representation globally and also understanding processes of making woven fabric.

You have a wide range of portfolio of working with designers like Abraham and Thakore and also organisations like WomenWeave. How do you think commercial designing marries crafts creating a balance of modern and traditional?

The key is to seamlessly meld the old and the new; taking what time-tested traditions and narratives offer and giving them relevance and universality through innovation.

Commercialisation of a product is not synonymous with modernness, nor does craft imply only tradition. Traditions are a great resource - for inspiration, for new interpretations, for applications that resonate with the current time and need. An example of this approach is the relatively new movement of clean and minimal design in Indian fashion and textiles. Contradictory to what many assume, this minimal design language has not been borrowed from the West. Rather, it has emerged from a considerable number of designers tapping into the minimal aspects of traditional textiles. When we think of traditional Indian textiles, we think of intricate and decorative; at the same time, India has also had the finest Muslins, the hand-spun Kora Khadi, exquisitely minimal Jamdanis and Brocades with the most sophisticated use of metallic threads. 

In my opinion, a fine balance of tradition and modernity can be achieved if we look back into the vast repository of ancient knowledge, pick out instances that inspire us, and link them to the present through our personal experiences.

Dyeing at Aranya

Dyeing at Aranya

Commercialisation of a product is not synonymous with modernness, nor does craft imply only tradition. Traditions are a great resource - for inspiration, for new interpretations, for applications that resonate with the current time and need.

You have lived in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Madhya Pradesh and now in London. Could you weave a common thread in these places in respect to its textile traditions? 

What I find immediately apparent in places I live is the use of colour in traditional textiles. Traditional textiles have always echoed the natural and human history of the region of their origin. Along with the material, technique, motifs and composition, the use of colour in textiles has deep cultural and geographical connotations. This has greatly influenced my work since my student days at the National Institute of Design (India). I remember saturated brown and blues being a part of a majority of my projects at the NID, because that is what I was surrounded by in the serpentine lanes of the old pols of Ahmedabad. Similarly, when in Calcutta, I tend to include a lot of red in my work as it is a defining hue of the Bengali culture and textile traditions.

Weaving at Fulia

Weaving at Fulia

At the Loom

At the Loom

What do you think is the scope of Indian crafts representation in the west? How can we achieve it? Are there any interesting projects and exhibitions that have recently achieved that? 

I believe the world is slowly getting over the stereotypical exotic representation of Indian crafts and understanding the true value of the artisanal work. Indian designers have been drawing from the pool of a collective contemporary design aesthetic that values the technique of the craft, and using these techniques to make products that are beyond the periphery of traditional Indian visual language.

While the traditional vocabulary needs to be respected and represented, I see a huge scope for the vernacular techniques and indigenous processes to be harnessed and reinvented to create products that have a universal appeal.

I think the way David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of the Indian fashion brand Abraham and Thakore have represented India globally is a perfect example. To me, their double Ikat sari at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a part of The Fabric of India exhibition is a bold statement about Indian design in the 21st century.

An example closer to me would be my association with WomenWeave for the last five years. All the textiles I have worked on are executed using vernacular weaving techniques and yet the products are non-traditional in their use of motifs, layouts and colours. The yardages woven in remote pockets of Madhya Pradesh lend themselves effortlessly to brands practising sustainable and ethical fashion across the globe.

Dyeing

Dyeing

A piece of textile which has taken longer to make, naturally inspires longer use and most often, like the wispy cotton of Bengal, gets better with time. The process of making respects both the material and the maker.

Where does craft lie in the conversation of fast fashion? Is it a solution to go back to slow ways of creating fashion? 

Fast fashion and craft are driven by completely opposite value systems. Fast fashion is intended to make us consume more and faster. Clothes are designed to be usable for a very short duration after which they either become unusable or fall out of trend. On the other hand, the philosophy of artisanal textiles and clothing is based on principles of sustainability, ethical production and longevity. A piece of textile which has taken longer to make, naturally inspires longer use and most often, like the wispy cotton of Bengal, gets better with time. The process of making respects both the material and the maker.

So in the context of fast fashion, a utopian solution would be to completely shift to slower ways of creating fashion. But first, craft has to become more relevant to the user of fast fashion. There is a distance that exists between crafts and the convenience of modern everyday use. To reduce this distance, we as designers, need to adapt and simplify traditional knowledge and dispel myths about the usability of handloom textiles. We need to emphasise on the positive difference that such a shift brings to us, the environment and the economy. Most importantly, we need to respect the makers - spinners, dyers, weavers, printers, embroiderers, tailors, so that users of our products can do the same. 

Yarns ready to be shipped

Yarns ready to be shipped

'A piece of textile is both a work of art and design'

‘To let the threads be articulate again and find a form for themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at is the raison d’être of my pictorial weavings’ This quote by Anni Albers comes to mind when I think of textiles and art. Exploring the visual aspect of textiles, letting their tactility guide the process of creation, has been a strong motivator in my recent work. 

At the same time, while working with handloom textiles, I believe that is it very important to maintain functionality. I have always attempted to prove that handloom textiles from India are strong and balanced, contrary to a popular notion that they are difficult to stitch. And this is where design is integral to my thought process. 

Time and again the lines between art and design have been blurred by their practitioners and that is exactly where I see myself. To me, a scarf woven by the skilled weavers of a remote village in Madhya Pradesh is as much a piece of art as it is a functional versatile piece of clothing. Contemporary textiles defy pigeonholing and I think it is a natural progression. And this blur is not a new occurrence . An intricately woven 19th century Muslin Jamdani sari or an elaborately embroidered Bagh textile from Punjab, is as much a piece of art as it is a product of a carefully executed design process. 


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To participate write to us at sayali@cocoaandjasmine.com

The Craft Project wishes to document tangible anthropology i.e material culture of a place and comment on its relevance in the contemporary space. We also wish to bring together a community of cultural travelers and craft entrepreneurs and create a collective of common motivation. The Craft Project celebrates Diversity in culture through objects, folk arts, crafts, and design.  Through this project, we will be conducting community-sourced primary research and publishing about crafts and will involve brands, NGOs, collectives, makers, designers, curators, thought leaders, other publications etc. 

I believe that is it very important to maintain functionality. I have always attempted to prove that handloom textiles from India are strong and balanced, contrary to a popular notion that they are difficult to stitch.
Yarns and shuttles

Yarns and shuttles

What is the relation of textile and mythology and folklore? Could you share an interesting story that you may know?  

This is something of great curiosity and intrigue to me. I find it very exciting to observe textiles being used as a medium for communicating narratives, both in mythology and folklore and at the same time how some of these stories are in turn shaped around indigenous textiles, often elevating their value.

An interesting anecdote comes to mind from one of my research visits to the interiors of Midnapore district of West Bengal in search of the impeccably woven Masland, a superfine mat made out of locally grown reed grass. A master craftsman, while recollecting childhood memories told me a story of how one of his ancestors had a dream about the Goddess Kali, their family deity. She complained about standing on the cold floor of his mud house and instructed the man to go to his backyard and to make a mat for her with whatever he finds there. On waking up he diligently goes to his backyard to find wild grass which he cuts, splices and eventually weaves into a reed mat for the goddess. And according to the weaver I met and his ancestors, this is how mat weaving started in his family. 

Such stories not only add an engaging narrative to the rigour of practicing a craft, but also ennoble indigenous skills and give a richer justification for pursuing the craft and family traditions. 

kora, indigo and madder

kora, indigo and madder

Indigo and silver

Indigo and silver

Process

One of my recent projects was with Aranya, a natural dyeing unit employing the specially abled, nestled in the hills of Munnar, Kerala. The brief entailed designing a range of saris, woven using the yarns dyed at Aranya. While the yarn dyeing happened in Munnar, I chose to work with a weaver in Fulia, West Bengal for the weaving. I wanted to combine the natural hues from Aranya with the fine cottons and silks of Fulia. 

This project was interesting because it involved collaboration between two artisanal clusters separated by a considerable geographical distance, but was equally challenging because accessibility to both these places was difficult during the monsoon. 

Nevertheless, the monsoon itself somehow became my source of inspiration. Monsoon has been an integral part of my growing up in Calcutta, hence I wanted each sari to be a representation of the different moods of a rain drenched day. I included Kora and pale blues to represent clear skies which transformed into approaching clouds with the use of wispy grey Linens, transitioning into rain and storm in the form of deep Indigos and blacks. Having such a narrative while working on a range of textiles always helps me segregate a collection into more practical categories of morning and evening colours, etc.  

I worked with Aranya's existing dyes, from Indigo, Madder, Eucalyptus, Tea, and others, to create a colour palette. The challenge was to get an even tone across yarns, but once we got that right, I moved on to working with the weaver. We worked on the materials and composition to get the weight and hand-feel right. Constant iteration on the dyes, design and fabric helped overcome logistical and other challenges, to produce the entire collection.