An Indian Education
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Stepping off the beaten track
I had the great fortune recently of finding myself on a week-long journey through the western state of Gujarat in India learning about textiles, which this region is famous for. I joined a brand new friend Torrey Witherspoon, who is an ethical clothing designer and maker based in Iowa, US, and who coincidentally turned out to be my dream travelling companion (peaceful evening painting sessions, anyone?)!
Our exploration began in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state. We spent a long and delightful afternoon in the Calico Museum of Textiles, a truly remarkable maze of history set in lush, mysterious grounds. Unfortunately it was no-photography allowed and our tour was led by an unexpectedly formidable woman, so I followed the rules, tucking the camera away and vowing to commit as much to memory as possible instead. Full of wonderful textiles from throughout the ages, this museum was the perfect taste of things to come. We were eager to get on the road and leave the city behind for the visits to small communities and artisans we had planned for the days ahead of us.
Our first stop heading towards the Bhuj area of Kutch was a block printers where we were able to see the different stages of printing. It was totally fascinating!
Hand carved wooden blocks for printing
Printed by hand, the block is painstakingly lined up over and over again to achieve a perfect pattern
Natural dye in a boiling hot vat
Each stage of the process for printing and dyeing one piece of fabric
Dyed fabric drying in the sun
Quick paint sketch of a quiet corner of the workshop
Our journey in Kutch continued with visits to some local weavers. This wonderful craftsman was my favourite.
He made it look so easy but it really is an incredible skill! There is so much precision and calculation involved, not to mention the coordination you need to have everything moving in the right direction simultaneously. I could have watched him weave for hours.
Another interesting stop on our adventure in Kutch was at a Tie Dye workshop. This was not tie-dye as I have always known it! Teeny tiny little knots are tied with the use of a little tube, and beautifully intricate patterns are created this way.
(Side note: The mark on the man's fingernail is to indicate he has voted - we were in the area at the time of a big election)
Tied but not yet dyed. Several artisans will work on the one item. Some create rows of knots, others specialise in circles or a particular shape. Very interesting and as with our other workshop visits, very eye opening into the amount of work and attention that goes into each piece.
The pattern looks different when the fabric pulled. Many wearers like to try to keep the original crinkle of the fabric created by the knots for as long as possible.
This workshop was creating both traditional and more contemporary styles of clothing and shawls. Many international designers part-make the garment, send to the workshop for tie-dying their created designs, then the garment will be returned for the designer to finish it. This visit really gave me an appreciation for this craft, I had always considered tie dye to be a fun, but somewhat haphazard method but now I can see that precise and deliberate approach can produce some striking results.
The Bell Maker
One of our highlights of this week was definitely a visit to this traditional bell maker in Kutch. This stop was not part of our plan, and we were caught off guard by how mesmerising this master's workshop was. I'll let the video speak for itself.
For some reason neither of us can quite put our finger on, there was some sort of magic in the air here. I selected a few bells to bring home with me, and every time I hear one chime on my keys I get that warm fuzzy feeling inside!
The Living and Learning Design Centre
Another highlight of our time in Bhuj was our visit to the Living and Learning Design Centre: "A Museum and A Crafts Education & Resource Centre For The Craftspeople of Kutch". The museum works with the 18 nearby communities who practice their own unique crafts, preserving, promoting and celebrating the history and continuation of their work.
Possibly the most beautiful museum I have ever seen and incredibly inspiring, I couldn't resist sitting down to sketch the building! Two guides from the museum joined us and we had a lovely chat whilst I drew. The museum is very young, at only two years old, but is already making a hugely positive impact on the communities, as well as allowing visitors to gain a real appreciation for the crafts of the area.
The architecture of the building was so amazing, and walking around the grounds you were constantly presented with interesting new angles. The way the sun lit up the orange walls was simply delightful!
I really can't recommend this place highly enough. Photography was not allowed inside, in respect of the wishes of the community members whose portraits were shown in striking black and white on the walls. Visit http://shrujanlldc.org to view their beautiful project, and see some sneak peeks inside!
A walk in the desert
We reached the Little Rann of Kutch, a salt desert near the border with Pakistan and the end of our journey. In typical India fashion we travelled into the desert to find there was a vibrant party taking place. As we stopped I grabbed a few minutes to do some sketching of the camels.
An inspiring experience
We had the privilege of visiting many more artisans during our journey, all of whom possessed a craft inherited from their locality and passed down through generations. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience to witness the painstaking efforts that go into the creation of these beautiful textiles and other items, and this has inspired in me a much greater interest in and appreciation of these techniques.
Torrey uses natural dyes in her own work.
And I also picked up several items to bring home for myself and others. My treasure was this vintage donkey bag with traditional embroidery (and pompoms!!) that I completely fell in love with. No plans for a donkey any time soon but it's looking wonderful at my desk chair for now!
I left Kutch full of inspiration and excited to return to learn more about the rich history and traditions there. This experience has left a lasting impression on me and made me far more considerate of where my textiles come from, and how I can act to support artisans.
Thank you so much to Torrey, who reached out to invite me on this adventure after a mutual friend put us in touch. You can view Torrey's beautiful work here: