This post will feature the exhibitions in and around CASA – be warned that there are lots of photos!
CASA is a former cotton mill that was converted into a stunning arts centre by local artist Francisco Toledo in 2000. Its hilltop location gives amazing views, and it has two exhibition halls and smaller rooms for running workshops.
There are also some interesting sculptural plants!
Indigo Earth: Shibori Kimono, Past and Present
This exhibition, curated by Yoshiko Nakamura and Consortium Arimatsu Narumi, featured a selection of historical and modern Japanese indigo-dyed kimono from Arimatsu and Narumi in Japan.
Optica and Haptica
This exhibition showcased 12 pieces of clothing designed by Mexican designer Carla Fernandez, highlighting connections between the Mexican and Japanese traditions of ikat (known as jaspe in Mexican and kasuri in Japan).
The contemporary garments were wonderful, combining Japanese silhouettes and designs with traditional Mexican rebozo patterns.
Contemporary Art of Shibori and Ikat
The main exhibition hall at CASA was given over to a wide range of contemporary shibori artworks and wearables, curated by Yoshiko Wada and Trine Ellitsgaard.
And here I must apologise profusely to artists whose work I photographed but whose names I failed to record. I did photograph the name labels but because of the low lighting many of them came out blurred and unreadable. I have credited artists whose names are legible or whom I remembered, but if your work is featured without a credit, do let me know and I will remedy it as soon as possible!
A short walk downhill from CASA is the papermaking cooperative Arte Papel Vista Hermosa, also founded by Francisco Toledo. Its members use bark, plants, flowers, cotton, hemp, silk, linen and pieces of shiny mica in their products. As well as seeing the artisans at work, visitors can have a go at making paper themselves.
For this exhibition they worked with artist Kiff Slemmons to produce some stunningly intricate paper jewellery. And yes – I did end up buying a piece! 🙂
I’ve visited this exhibition twice – there’s so much to see and take in that a single visit is simply not enough. With more than 200 handmade pieces, mostly from the V&A’s own collection, it’s a feast of colour and texture.
After a fabulous opening printed summer carpet of poppies dating from 1650, the exhibition starts with the raw materials – dyes and fibres. The main species of indigo native to India, Indigofera tinctoria, contains some of the strongest concentrations of the active compound indoxyl, so the Greeks named the plant Indikon, the same word they used for the Indian subcontinent.
But there are other blue dyes available in India, including Strobilanthes cusia, found in Assam, which gives lighter blues when grown in the sun and darker blues when grown in the shade.
Red was obtained from the lac insect (related to the cochineal beetle), Indian madder and chay root, yellow from pomegranate and turmeric.
Samples of dyed pieces included some impressive bandhani, ajrakh and block printing as well as these amazing lahariya turbans.
After a brief diversion to show a bhitiya hanging of appliqué elephants and figures from Gujarat, found on a New York pavement in 1994, the exhibition moves on to fibres. Fascinating videos cover the cultivation of cotton and indigenous “wild”(tasar) silk – I love the way they casually walk around carrying branches of huge caterpillars!
There’s another engrossing video of ari embroidery in the next section on techniques, which includes block printing and weaving. Ari is a kind of chain stitch produced using something that looks like a mini crochet hook. The embroiderer pushes the hook through the cloth and winds the thread around it underneath, so he can’t see what he’s doing, yet works at incredible speed.
There were several pieces in this section that I particularly liked. They included an early 20th-century kantha coverlet. (Interestingly, kantha is a more domestic pursuit done mostly by women, whereas professional embroiderers, such as the ari workers, were men.)
And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.
And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.
The next section on textiles and religion features an impressive temple cloth of printed and dyed cotton showing tales from the Katamaraju epic. Cloths such as these were used in portable shrines (we tried to find someone painting one of these when we were in Ahmedabad but failed).
There was also an intriguing talismanic shirt made of starched cotton minutely inscribed with text from the Koran, which would be worn under battle dress for protection. This one was certainly worn, as you can see the sweat marks in the armpits!
The undoubted highlight of the section on court textiles is Tipu Sultan’s tent, cotton block printed with stylised floral designs, now owned by Powis Castle in Wales.
I also loved the 17th-century Mughal riding coat, densely patterned with ari embroidery of wide-ranging flora and fauna, from lions, gazelles and cranes to daffodils, poppies and irises.
In Britain we are familiar with the popularity of Indian chintz and muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving poorer people who could not afford woven silk the chance to wear colourful patterned fabrics. But Indian fabric fragments from the early centuries AD have been found in China and Egypt, showing that India’s export market was established much earlier.
What is interesting is how the designs were adapted for different markets. Examples in the exhibition include tiny intricate block prints for Thailand, patola (double ikat) for Indonesia and an extraordinary Portuguese 17th-century kantha coverlet embroidered with coats of arms, hunters on horseback and fleets of sailing ships. The photo does not do it justice – it has to be seen to appreciate the detail.
It seems that Britain took a leaf out of India’s book, for after protests by British textile workers in the early 18th century about Indian textile imports, industrialisation in Britain led to the export of cheap machine-made cotton fabric to India, undercutting Indian manufacturers. Fabric samples collected in India were held up as examples of good design, and British manufacturers were encouraged to copy these to sell back to the Indian market.
This led to hybrid products such as a traditional Indian garment, a choli (woman’s bodice), made from fabric printed in England using synthetic dyes in colours like mauve and violet, which are not exactly characteristic Indian colours.
Already unhappy with British rule, Indian mill owners and businesses started calling on people to buy local handmade products and boycott foreign goods. In the 1920s, Gandhi elevated khadi, fabric woven by hand from handspun yarn, into a symbol of defiance and freedom, spinning in public. Hence the spinning wheel on the Indian flag after independence.
After independence, there was a move towards industrialisation and modernisation of the handloom. The exhibition finishes with examples of how modern designers have adapted and developed traditional techniques and materials, using the skills of local artisans.
The work of Kathryn Lewis particularly appealed, as her collaboration with Jabbar Khatri, an artisan based in Gujarat, used bandhani binding to shape garments, resulting in textures not dissimilar to nuno felting. Not very practical, perhaps, as the knots are left in, but a nice example of bandhani being used for form rather than pattern.
Kinza Foudil Mattoo displayed some contemporary adaptations of traditional ajrak block printed fabrics, based on a trefoil motif, using digital printing.
Upcycling/using waste or found materials was another common theme. My favourite pieces here were by Kaixi Lin. Inspired by Japanese boro – heavily patched and repaired indigo cloth – she collected discarded clothing from her family, and unravelled and reused the yarns to weave new fabrics.
Lucinda Chang combines textiles and ceramics. Inspired by coral after a visit to the London Aquarium, she knitted, crocheted or stitched waste textiles into underwater forms before dipping them into casting slip.
Zahra Jaan went to the other extreme, producing disposable fashion that you wear two or three times and then throw away. Made from airlaid paper (described as “fluff pulp bonded with air”), these boldly patterned garments and their packaging are completely biodegradable.
Maria Afanador Leon‘s impossibly delicate crocheted pieces were stimulated by her concern for the fragility of culture and nature and the environmental issues related to consumption.
Judging by the names, there was a big Chinese contingent on the course – around a third of the students by my reckoning. Yijin Sun focused on her Chinese heritage with a selection of monochrome garments with interesting pleats and prints that looked as if they had been created in a heat press.
Yuning Wang’s innovative weaving with a metal weft resulted in garments that wearers can shape themselves.
Finally, Lin Zhu‘s charming needlefelted creations gave a certain oriental twist to a technique that I don’t normally associate with China.
While in Gujarat we visited Patan, famous for its patola, or double ikat, where the design is dyed into the threads before weaving.The process of making this cloth is incredibly labour intensive and time consuming – it takes three to four months just to dye the warp and weft threads for a single sari!
The Salvi family showed us round their showroom and workshop and explained the process. They get their silk thread from China, wind it into hanks and degum it to remove the sericin. Then they twist the threads and set up the warp and weft threads.
Now comes the hard part. Using a similar technique to bandhani, they tie portions of the silk threads with cotton thread before dyeing. The cotton acts as a resist and prevents the dye from reaching the silk threads. They repeat this for four or five colours, untying and retying the resist threads each time. And they do this on both the warp and weft threads (hence the “double” ikat).
The pictures below show some of the tied threads that have been dyed once, below a diagram of the final pattern, and the final dyed warp threads set up on the loom.
As you can see, the dyeing process requires a very detailed knowledge of the pattern and extremely precise calculation of the thickness and tension of the threads, not to mention how the colours of warp and weft will combine. No wonder it takes so long!
The actual weaving is relatively straightforward by comparison. It’s done by two people on a hand-operated loom, with careful matching of the warp and weft threads to ensure that the pattern is maintained. The weavers comb four needles over the fabric afterwards to help align the pattern and ensure an even tension.
The Salvis use mostly natural vegetable dyes, such as madder, persimmon, indigo, onion skins and turmeric. They have a waiting list of three years for a natural-dyed sari, costing between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the design. They make four or five a year.
They say that originally there were around 700 families in the area producing double ikat – now it’s only two or three.
The Patan Museum had a small section on patola, and said that there were originally different styles for four different markets:
Jain and Hindu: all-over patterns of flowers, parrots, dancing figures and elephants
Muslim Voras: geometric floral patterns for weddings
Maharashtrian Brahmins: plain, dark-coloured body with borders of women and birds, called nari kunj
In response to Jennifer’s comment on my last post, I thought I’d post a bit more about bandhani and dyeing, as otherwise my reply would be rather long!
Sadly, for some reason, I didn’t get any photos of the wedding saris at Kachchhi Print, in Dhamadka – and they don’t have a website. However, it’s easy to find pictures of bandhani wedding saris online – I’ve posted a couple below, just to give you an idea. Many of them incorporate embroidery and brocade, as you can see.
As for the dyes used, I didn’t ask – but I suspect that most of them are chemical dyes. Certainly this article suggests that chemical dyes are in widespread use.
Travels in Textiles gives a wonderfully detailed account of the process of ajrakh block printing by Ismail Mohammed Khatri in Kutch, whom I didn’t manage to visit. The dyeing processes involve indigo, madder, rhubarb root, henna, pomegranate skins and turmeric, among other things! But I guess chemical dyes are so much quicker these days.
The only dyeing I witnessed when I was in Gujarat was in Bhujedi, where a man was dyeing skeins of wool in a large metal pot of chemical dye over a fire. He soaked three skeins of wool in water and then rested them on two metal poles balanced across the rim of the pot. He then dipped each skein in turn into the dye, running his hands along its length to ensure the dye was properly absorbed.
His hands must have been made of asbestos, as he didn’t wear gloves! He said that it took about 30 minutes to dye each skein in this way – the surrounding courtyard was strung with washing lines of red, yellow and blue skeins hung up to dry.
The colour wasn’t entirely even, which led to a pleasing variation in colour of the final pieces that were woven from it next door. I did, however, spy two indigo vats sunk into a corner of the courtyard, which suggests they also used natural fermented indigo.
Also a postscript on bandhani: Having noted that I saw very little stitch resist, there was a wonderful shop, Kamala, run by the Crafts Council of India, in Delhi. This provided a showcase of innovation and fine workmanship, including some lovely woollen scarves and cotton stoles featuring stitch-resist bandhani.
Finally, here’s a video on bandhani, made by House of MG, the hotel we stayed in in Ahmedebad. It’s great watching the artisan using his feet when capping the fabric with plastic to prevent the dye from reaching it, and also shows how they pull it to get all the bindings on the finished piece to pop off.
I was really looking forward to seeing a lot of Indian bandhani, or tie-dye, while I was in Gujarat. And I wasn’t disappointed!
Bandhani is so popular in this area that a lot of it is now printed rather than tied and dyed by hand. It’s usually quite easy to tell whether a fabric has been printed rather than tied, as the dots are too regular – they lack the organic irregularities of something produced by hand. Also, the printed fabrics are usually synthetics, whereas the hand-tied pieces are cotton or silk.
However, just to reassure customers that fabrics are tied by hand, many shops leave the binding on, and just untie one or two sections to show the pattern. I love this, because for me the most exciting part of shibori is undoing the resist to see the final result for the first time.
So by buying a piece of bandhani that is still bound, I get the vicarious thrill of seeing the result without having to do all the work! 😉
The shots of different bandhani saris below were all taken at a market in Chhota Udepur, eastern Gujarat. It’s a big tribal area, and it was fascinating to see bows and arrows for sale alongside more conventional fruit and veg!
From the pictures you can see that most of the bandhani is of the tied variety, but I did spot one sari that used a stitch resist. Given the area’s reputation for stitching, I wonder why stitch isn’t used as a resist more often.
The skill needed to bind the dot patterns ratchets up to a whole new level for silk wedding saris.
At Kachchhi Print, in Dhamadka, it was incredible to watch the wife of the proprietor demonstrate her tying skills on a silk jacket she was making. In the photo below, the marks on the fabric are where the dots are to be tied, and you can see the density of the knots that she has already tied.
Tying at this level is usually restricted to wedding saris, which take around a month to make and start from around £100. Even though this was a relative bargain I couldn’t really justify buying 6.5 metres of such fine work, but at Kala Raksha later in the trip I found some very fine bandhani scarves that were more manageable in terms of size and weight!
When I was in Colombo I came across a wonderful shop called Rithihi, at 19 Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 3. (Sadly, it doesn’t have a proper website.)
Rithihi stocks a fantastic range of Indian fabrics, including amazing wedding saris (I fell in love with a block-printed sari depicting ducks swimming in a lotus pond, but it was a little pricey). I know it’s rather ironic swooning over Indian textiles when Sri Lanka has such a great industry of its own, but my eye was caught by a pile of bandhani cotton.
Bandhani is tie dye, the Indian version of shibori, and uses mostly the binding technique, tying small circles in the cloth with thread so that the final pattern is a series of dots. I bought a couple of pieces, shown above and below.
For me, the interest lay not just in the combination of colour and pattern, but also in the technique used. I could see this because much of the binding was still in place when I bought it – you can see this in the bottom left of the photo above. So as I pulled it out, I could see how it was done.
1. The fabric (fine muslin) was folded in four, and all four layers were tied at the same time. This obviously saved time and effort.
2. The binding was continuous over large areas of the pattern. By this I mean that the maker didn’t cut the thread after binding each circle, but continued the next circle using the same thread. So it was very easy to remove the thread – simply by stretching the muslin out on each side, the tension caused the threads to pop off. It was a bit like watching lots of little white flowers suddenly opening!
This was much easier than laboriously tying each single circle individually, and then trying to remove the thread after dyeing! Below is a sample of my own attempt at this technique – nowhere near as delicate!
So I may see if I can adopt this technique to speed up the process. But I doubt whether I will ever be as fast or skilled as the ladies below!