The Fabric of India at the V&A

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.

fabric of india opener

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.

Indigo Dyeing from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

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.

fabric of india 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!

Cultivating Tasar Silk from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

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.

Ari Embroidery from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

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.)

fabric of india kantha

And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.

fabric of india green beetles

And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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).

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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!

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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.

A wall panel from Tipu Sultan's tent. Cotton chintz with a white ground, patterned with acanthus cusped niches, each enclosing a central vase with symmetrical flower arrangement, predominantly in reds and greens, the green achieved by over-painting dyed indigo with yellow (a fugative pigment which has partially disappeared). An enlarged version of the flower-head motif appears in the main horizontal borders on a green ground, and scaled down on a yellow ground in the spandrels of the arch. Triple vertical borders separate the panels, at each end of which is a metal eyelet that has been whipped with thick cotton thread. A black and white merlon and rosette band runs along the top of the qanats. The outside of the tent is a seperate layer of coarse white cotton. Later Mughal, c.1725-50.

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.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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.

Image: V&A
Image: V&A

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.

Bandhani scarf by Aziz and Suleman Khatri Image: V&A
Bandhani scarf by Aziz and Suleman Khatri
Image: V&A

The Fabric of India runs at the V&A until 10 January.

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Mud resist printing in Jaipur

[Warning – this is a long post with lots of images!]

Brrr! I’m still adjusting to the drop in temperature since returning to the UK after four weeks in India. 🙂

mud ingredients

The last week was spent in Jaipur, on a mud resist block printing and indigo dyeing workshop organised by the Jaipur Virasat Foundation. Along with mud resist, there were also workshops on stitching, miniature painting, mirror mosaics, photography and Indian cookery, so it was an interesting mix.

The tutors for the mud resist workshop were Natalie Gibson, Head of the Fashion Print Course at Central St Martin’s College of Art & Design, and Di Livey, former Senior Lecturer in Textiles & Applied Print at Middlesex University, and visiting lecturer at other institutions. Both were wonderfully colourful characters, both figuratively and literally, with endless supplies of patience and guidance.

Natalie and Di
Natalie and Di

The workshop was held about 30km outside Jaipur, near the village of Bagru, at Ojjas, a company that specialises in hand block printed textiles. Company owner Raj Kanwar has 40 years’ experience as a textile designer and was instrumental in the revival of hand block and mud resist printing techniques.

The premises are in a specialist light industrial park, designed to minimise the environmental damage that dyeing can cause. So there’s an effluent treatment plant to recycle water and minimise discharges, and the emphasis is on natural and formaldehyde-free dyes.

Most of the other workers were block printing with pigments on huge long tables – one person would print one colour with one block, then others would fill in the colour with other blocks and colours.

block printing

But we were there to print using mud as a resist.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

We started by seeing how the mud (known locally as dabu) was mixed up. Potters’ clay (which they get from dried up lake beds in summer), wheat powder, gum and lime are added to water in a shallow stone bowl, and then the mud mixer mixes it with his feet. It’s quite mesmerising to watch as he swivels and scrapes – like some kind of ritual dance! Once it’s thoroughly mixed, the mud gets sieved through fine muslin – he again uses his feet to push it through.

mixing mud sieving mud

Then it’s on to the printing. The blocks used for mud printing are different from those used for pigment printing – the carving is deeper and not as fine, as otherwise it would clog up with mud. There was a block printer at Ojjas, carving every block by hand.

block carver

After printing, the mud is covered with sawdust to prevent smudging and absorb the moisture. Then the fabric is laid out to dry in the sun (on the roof or on the pavement), weighted down with stones.

printingadding sawdust demo piece

Indigo and other dyes

After printing a few samples on the first day, we did our first indigo dips the next day. Ojjas uses synthetic indigo in a fermented vat, sunk into the ground. The vat is 10 feet deep, and had a very impressive “flower” (foam) on the top each morning – a good sign of a healthy vat.

indigo flower

To prevent too much of the mud coming off, the printed fabric was not wetted out before dipping. Instead, it was gently submerged, flat, and moved gently from side to side for about a minute. Then it was removed and held over the vat to allow excess liquid to drip off, and laid on earth for a couple of minutes to soak up the rest. After that it was laid to dry on the roof or pavement as before, until it was dry.

first dip2first dip

After the first dip we could print again on the fabric before another dip to get two shades of blue. We also had the opportunity to use kassis, a dye made from rusty iron, and pomegranate. Kassis requires a mordant, harda (myrobalan), which is made from a small yellow plum (also used in ayurvedic medicine).

kassis

Removing the mud and finishing

Once all the printing and dyeing was finished, the fabric was soaked in warm water for a few hours to soften the mud. Then came the hard work (and fun part), rubbing it and slapping it against a stone slab to remove the mud, before rinsing and drying.

washing

We could also overprint the finished pieces with red, blue, gold or silver pigment, creating highlights and more layers.

The results

After all this work, it was fascinating to see the final results. Most people experimented with clothing, dyeing T-shirts, tunics and trousers, but I stuck to lengths of fabric, including silk, linen and cotton. I also added a bit of stitching to some pieces for extra texture. Here are some of my pieces at various stages.

piece1 piece2 piece3 piece4 piece5 piece6 piece7 piece8 piece9 piece10 piece11
We had an exhibition on the final day along with all the other workshops, where we certainly exceeded them in terms of quantity of work. 😉 And we even made some bunting!

bunting exhibition1 exhibition2 exhibition3 exhibition4 exhibition5

Bagru

We also visited nearby Bagru, a block printing village where every surface seems to be covered by drying fabric – that is, unless it’s occupied by cows or pigs. 🙂

bagru1 bagru2 bagru4 bagru5 bagru6

What I learned

  • I’ve never used a fermented indigo vat before, so this was very interesting for me. A single dip resulted in a mid-range blue, but I don’t know how dark the colour would go with successive dips, as we only dipped each piece twice (the mud starts to come off if you dip it more than this).
  • Is mud resist a practical method to use at home? You don’t have to use blocks – I used the rim of a terracotta cup, an old piece of circular rubber, and a stone, as well as blocks, to apply the mud to fabrics. A large space helps, but we also saw villagers in Bagru printing on small padded boards while sitting on the floor. Something for the “possibles” list I think!
  • I am slightly concerned about the fastness of the indigo with only two dips. The fabric was left for 24 hours between dips and before washing, so it will have oxidised well. But I generally dip a minimum of four times to build up colour and fastness, rinse till the water is nearly clear, wash with a gentle detergent, and rinse again. In Jaipur we soaked to soften the mud and then rinsed – no detergent was used. Given the quantity of fabric we were washing, it would have been a lot of work! But I wonder whether this is the normal practice anyway. I bought some natural-dyed garments from Anokhi, and the information on the label recommended washing before wearing to remove excess dye.

Shop till you drop

One of the advantages of having Di and Natalie to hand was their knowledge of the local shops in Jaipur. Here’s a selection of my favourites.

  • New Madho Store, Shop no 138, Bapu Bazaar
    Fantastic haberdashery shop spread over three cramped floors – start at the top and work down. A real treasure trove of buttons, beads, trims, and thread.
  • Khadi Ghar, 320 MI Road
    Government-run shop selling hand-spun, hand-woven cotton, silk and other fabrics at fixed prices, providing the weavers with a guaranteed sale of their work.
  • Saurashtra, 7-9 Inside Jorawar Singh Gate, Amber Road
    There’s a whole row of shops next to Jorawar Singh Gate that belongs to the same family. Kishor Kumar Maheshwari and his brothers sell everything from bags and scarves to pashminas and blankets, as well as some antique textiles.
  • Ojjas, 663 Hanuman Nagar Ext, Viswamitra Marg, Sirsi Rd, Khatipura
    This is Raj’s retail outlet, with a great selection of contemporary block-printed clothes, cushions and curtains.
Ojjas
Ojjas
  • Nayika, Tholia Building, Opposite Niro’s Restaurant, MI Road
    Tucked away in a small courtyard off MI Road, near Khadi Ghar, this boutique sells an exquisite selection of printed and embroidered clothing and homeware.
  • Anokhi, 2nd Floor KK Square, C-11 Prithviraj Road, C-Scheme
    Traditional block printed clothing and popular café serving safe tasty salads and cakes.
  • Jaipur Modern, 51 Sardar Patel Marg, C Scheme
    Sleek Italian-owned boutique selling stylish contemporary clothes and home accessories at Western prices. Also has excellent restaurant.
jaipur modern
Jaipur Modern

Finally, here’s a selection of images from other parts of my trip.

 

More Indian craft films

The latest work from Indian film makers Nidhi Kamath and Keya Vaswani maintains their previous high standards.

The first one describes the philosophy behind Anantaya, the company that commissioned these films. It talks about the importance of modern designers helping traditional craftworkers in India to extend the scope and reach of their work.

The other one looks at metalworkers in Sultana, Rajasthan. It includes a fascinating demonstration of making a metal vessel – I wonder whether a similar technique could be applied to felt? 🙂

Chelsea MA Textile Design show 2013

Given its rich textile history, it’s no surprise that India was a common source of inspiration for this year’s MA students of textile design at the Chelsea College of  Art and Design Postgraduate Show.

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.

Kathryn Lewis

Kinza Foudil Mattoo displayed some contemporary adaptations of traditional ajrak block printed fabrics, based on a trefoil motif, using digital printing.

ajrak1

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.

KAIXI LIN

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.

lucinda chang

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.

zahra jaan

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.

maria afanador leon

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.

Yijin Sun

Yuning Wang’s innovative weaving with a metal weft resulted in garments that wearers can shape themselves.

Yuning Wang

Finally, Lin Zhu‘s charming needlefelted creations gave a certain oriental twist to a technique that I don’t normally associate with China.

Lin Zhu

The Chelsea Postgraduate Summer Shows run until 12 September.