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.

A bit of stitching and smocking

I suspect many people reading this will, like me, feel the need to be doing something with their hands during dead time, such as sitting on a bus, or when apparently otherwise engaged, such as watching TV.

For me this is usually shibori stitching on scarves before dyeing them, but I’m having a short break from indigo dyeing after the pre-Christmas production line. Call it an indigo detox if you will. 😉 So I’ve had to find something else to do while watching the second series of The Bridge on Saturday nights.

As wet felting is not really an option (ESP objects to soapy splashes from wet bubble wrap), the alternatives are usually knitting or crochet. However, I’ve been looking at a lot of Japanese boro recently, especially this board on Pinterest. And I suddenly remembered that I have a large stash of shibori samples that I made at Morley College when just starting out. So I thought I would try patching some of these together, but using the kantha technique for stitching through several layers to create a 3D effect.

kantha boro1kantha boro2

I’m not quite sure where this is going yet, but if anything comes of it I’ll let you know!

colette wolfI was also inspired by a post on Stitch in Science about American smocking (among other things). American smocking differs from English smocking in that it’s not done on pleated fabric – the fabric is manipulated directly by the stitching. It’s explained in Colette Wolff’s comprehensive  The Art of Manipulating Fabric, which I bought a couple of years ago but as usual got sidetracked onto other things.

Seeing the photos in Avril’s post brought to mind the origami tessellations I’d looked at when I was experimenting with pleating – and I had a eureka moment about how the fabric could be directly manipulated rather than relying on paper moulds and steaming. It seems I’m not the first to make the connection between smocking and origami – I just don’t know why it took me so long. 😦

Here, for example, is a piece of lattice smocking I did which, when held up to the light, could be an origami paper tessellation.

lattice smocklattice smock light

I’m not sure where this is going either, to be honest, but I would love to work out how to use this in shibori dyeing in some way, and also experiment with using felt as the medium.

Looks like a busy start to 2014! 🙂

Morley Gallery Advanced Textiles Exhibition 2013

Despite all my grand plans to enter some pieces featuring my newly acquired felting techniques into the Morley Gallery exhibition, I ran out of time. I’m still experimenting and consolidating, and I didn’t want to show “work in progress” that I wasn’t really happy with.

So in the end I only put in two pieces, both made in the Easter term – the limpet scarf and the kantha embroidered tortoise shell. I included the real tortoise shell in the display for comparison, but you can’t see it in the photo.

limpet-scarftortoise-emb

 

There was only one other student from my course who was exhibiting – Jane Thistlewood, who makes beautifully light nuno-felted clothing in pale washed silk. But I did catch up with some of the tutors and other students who weren’t exhibiting.

No photos of other exhibits I’m afraid – the ones I took were terribly dark or full of reflections. The ones in this post were taken by ESP, who has a much better camera but didn’t take any other exhibits.

The show runs at Morley Gallery until 25 July.

Felt and kantha

I love the results of my kantha stitching experiments, but it’s quite hard on the fingers stitching through four layers of fabric. So I thought I’d see if I could produce similar results on something softer, like felt.

I stitched a couple of circles made out of prefelt, and then felted these onto a piece of flat felt along with two plain unstitched circles of prefelt. After felting, I stitched the two plain circles. This let me compare the results of stitching before and after felting.

kantha prefeltkantha felt sample

As you can see, the prefelt circles that were stitched before felting flattened out and distorted during the felting process, and the thread started to hang loose in places because the felt shrank. The circles that were stitched after felting were much more distinct.

Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched after felting
Circle stitched after felting

So I felted some grey prefelt onto a piece of silk crinkle chiffon to make a sample nuno felt scarf. As I hope you can see, the ruched texture caused by the felt shrinking onto the silk is enhanced by the stitching afterwards. I call it my limpet scarf!

kantha felt scarfkantha felt scarf detail

It’s a lot of stitching, but at least it’s easier on the fingers. 🙂

Inspired by kantha

I’m going through a bit of an embroidery phase. First there was the Threads of Silk and Gold exhibition at the Ashmolean, then there was all the stunning embroidery I saw while in India (which I have yet to blog about).

But today I thought I’d show you what I’ve been working on since I got back from Gujarat, inspired by a piece I bought there.

Ironically, given that Gujarat is famous for its embroidery, my favourite of the many pieces I bought was not from Gujarat but from Bangladesh. Mr Wazir, whol ives in Bhuj, is famous for his collection of around 3,500 textile pieces, mostly from Gujarat but also elsewhere in India. He’s remarkably hospitable to visitors who just turn up on his doorstep without appointment (like us), offering tea, showing them pieces of his collection, and selling at reasonable prices.

All his collection consists of older pieces of work, as he says the quality of modern textiles is not as good. Fifty or even 20 years ago, women were expected to start sewing pieces for their dowry from quite a young age, and the standard had to be good to impress their future mother-in-law, or they wouldn’t get a husband!

Today, thankfully, women have more opportunities for other work and education, so most do not choose to focus on embroidery skills, and the quality of pieces that are made for the tourist market is not as high (though I have to say I was still impressed with most of them!).

We bought several pieces from Mr Wazir, of which my favourite is a kantha from Bangladesh. I fell in love with this at first sight. Compared with all the colourful designs, fancy stitches and shiny mirrors in the other work around it, this shone out as a beacon of simplicity.

kantha

It feels, dare I say it, almost Japanese – certainly the texture of the diamond shapes reminds me of the patterns achieved through stitched shibori.

kantha close up

Close up shot of shibori circle

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, women make kanthas from old saris and dhotis, by folding them to create several layers and stitching through all of them. Traditionally they also used thread unravelled from the sari border – so a great form of recycling.

I just couldn’t work out how they achieved the textured effect, but of course Debby, my tutor at Morley College and fount of all knowledge when it comes to constructed textiles, knew. It’s simply parallel rows of running stitch.

So I had a go at a sampler of different motifs and tensions.

kantha sampler

Looking at the circular motifs, I noticed that if I kept the tension of the stitches very tight, the white ridges between the stitches would protrude more and the circles started to form little domes.

This reminded me of my turtle project from many moons ago, and I wondered whether I could use this stitch not only to create pattern and texture but also to create a 3D form – just like a curved turtle shell.

sunburst turtle

And it does! As you can imagine, it’s a bit slow, but here’s the work in progress.

kantha turtlekantha turtle close up