Sourcing Textiles from Around the World, Joanna Williams speaks on Indian Textiles

Joanna Williams is a Creative Consultant from Los Angeles, who sources Textiles & Rarities from Around the World on her travels. She founded the Kneeland. co, a design concept studio and inspiration resource through which she works with leading design and interior brands on textile projects. We speak with her to understand her views on Indian textiles and it’s relevance in contemporary design culture.

Start of a journey with Design and Textiles

I grew up in Houston, Texas, which is where I also went to university.  I wanted to work in fashion from a very young age, and pursued that path throughout college and after.  I wasn’t sure exactly of which area in fashion I wanted to work in, but I was completely enamored by magazines and found myself working in public relations and advertising after I graduated.   My first job was at a luxury fashion publication in Houston called PaperCity Magazine, and it was there that I realized I would have to get out of Texas in order to really pursue my dreams.  I moved to Los Angeles and worked for about a year at an apparel trade publication, then found myself working for a major trend forecasting company that was based in New York.  I started as the West Coast Correspondent and soon began traveling the globe to report on trends in fashion and design and culture.  I did that for 3 years, then worked as a trend reporter and consultant for a bit before having the idea to launch my own company in 2010 focused on vintage and antique textiles, which has since evolved.  My early influences: My older brother, who was a skateboarder with great taste in music; my older cousin Cassie and my aunt Yolanda who introduced me to fashion; my Mexican grandmother who had impeccable taste and manners; Mexico City where my family is from; new wave music; and fashion magazines.

For the past 15 years I had been dreaming about visiting India, especially as my textile business was growing and I was learning so much about the history of textiles from various regions in India.  I took my first trip almost four years ago and have since been back three times.  I feel like it’s my home, and I have a very deep connection to it.  I am fortunate that my career allows me to travel to many parts of the world, but nothing compares to India.

Current state of Indian and Asian Crafts globally

I think it’s an exciting time for Indian and Asian crafts.  What has been made for thousands of years is receiving recognition on a global scale and I think that’s important and worth noting.  I wish that all of these artisans were being paid more for their skills, and that more people were working with them.  I know that certain styles or motifs, etc. have been commercialized, and I just wish cultures and artisans were being fully recognized for their influence.  But I do think more people are paying attention to the importance of craft, which in turn leads to more knowledge about how these textiles and products are being made.  There is so much to consider and pay attention to: water usage, environment, the history and preservation of textiles, etc.  In time, I think this will become part of the norm of discussion.  It’s already happening.  

Slow ways of creating fashion

This ties into my answer to your previous question: Fast fashion works at a face pace, and I think most of these corporate big brands are just thinking about the bottom line and not about how clothes are made.  I am optimistic in that I think things are changing, but it’s mostly the small brands who are aware and working to change manufacturing processes, and being thoughtful about what they put out into the world.  I don’t participate in the world of fast fashion.  I’m not into the idea of just churning out product for the sake of always having something to offer a customer.  It’s not inspiring to me and it’s not how I shop.  The term ‘slow fashion’, to me, means taking the time to think about what you’re creating and why.

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Travelling to Kutch

I’ve been fortunate to get to know the Pathan community in Kutch, which happened because of a very dear friend who is a textile dealer and guide in Bhuj.  In this particular community, the women are known for their embroidery work which has been passed down from one generation to the next.  Before I met them on my first trip, my friend told me that out of every family he has met in his twenty years of being a guide, they are the most joyful even though they don’t have much.  Hearing that and then meeting them really gave me perspective on what it means to create and live.  And fundamentally, we all want the same things: to be able to survive on what we make and put out into the world.  And really, we don’t need much in order to be happy and thrive.  

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A balance of modern and traditional

It makes me happy to see brands working with artisans, who are the most highly skilled craftspeople, to create products to sell to consumers who appreciate the beauty and workmanship that goes into creating what they’re wearing or living with.  I wish mass brands, the really big commercial ones, would work with them more.  I think there is a desire to, it’s just a matter of time and capabilities.  Making something with your hands, whether it’s an embroidery or a block print takes time, and mass brands don’t often have the luxury of time when they’re having to turn out thousands of units by a deadline.  As awful as that sounds, it’s the reality.  But I do think it’s only a matter of time.  For me personally, it’s important to support artisans to keep the traditions alive and to keep them employed.  And honestly, what is more beautiful than something that is made by hand? A global economy, for me, means supporting artisans and makers across the globe.

As far as collecting, I mostly purchase based on love or instinct.  I have to keep my clients in mind who are purchasing textiles, but I don’t source by trend.  If I find something I love and don’t know where it’s from or how it was made, I buy and then I do my research.  

Cultural Background influences aesthetics

I would say yes, my cultural background influences my aesthetics.  Both of my parents are Mexican-American and I travel to Mexico often as a good part of my family on my mother’s side still resides there.  I have fond memories of being in Mexico when I was younger, and that has had a huge influence on me.  My grandparents, who made there way to Houston in the seventies, were (and still are) very cultured and made sure they instilled in us a sense of curiosity and exploration.  Having an older brother and cousin who I idolized was a also a big cultural influence.

When I curate pieces, I go with my gut.  I am also a highly visual person and I like to see or envision pieces together.  I think about what I currently have in my collection, what’s missing, and what seems relevant to whomever I am working with.

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

Not all textiles are works of art.  There are textiles that are poorly made without care, and in traveling the world I often see textiles that are made for the sake of selling and making money.  I understand that everyone needs to make a living, but for a textile to be a work of art (in my opinion) it has to be made thoughtfully with consideration.  I have pieces in my personal collection that are over the top beautiful, and are true works of art because they are no longer being made.  I also have pieces that are contemporary and simplistic in design but made with the most exquisite fabric that was woven in a village somewhere in India or elsewhere by a master weaver.  And of course, there are moments when I come across a textile that I immediately see as a work of art without knowing anything about it.  Whatever is a work of art to someone might not be a work of art to someone else, but I do think there are parameters on what constitutes a textile being a work of art.


Rise in interest in Indian textiles in the west

From my observation, the rise in interest in Indian textiles (and textiles in general) really stems from social media.  There are many entrepreneurs from the west who have been working in India for years, but they didn’t have the exposure that they have now.  The same can be said for working in textiles in Mexico, Africa, etc.  I think it’s a positive situation.  It helps people around the world see how cultural traditions, both old and new, are celebrated.  We are truly living in a global economy and social media has helped to spark interest in textiles around the world, and I think that’s a wonderful thing to celebrate.