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Textiles

If beautiful handmade products are your thing,

Embroidery artisans doing initial sketches at a design school in Gujarat.

there is no place to be like Gujarat. Art and embellishment are everywhere — in the markets, on the women, and laid out on the front porches. There are numerous traditions in Gujarat: tie dye, embroidery, printing, weaving, copper bells, lacquer, woodcarving, and jewelry.

I am personally partial to the textiles, which are amazing in this part of the country. Delicate mirror work, labor-intensive tie dye, block printing, and painstakingly counted embroidery are staples. For full access to the amazing artisans producing this work, the only requirement is an 8-hour train ride to the end of the line and the desert town of Bhuj.

As you step off the train, it is almost as if you’ve been transported back in time to the Wild West. People here eek out a living in a mostly inhospitable climate and hold strong to their traditions. This is a region torn apart time and again by politics and religious conflict, and yet as soon as you enter the villages you would have no idea. Temples and mosques are as close and intertwined as the Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods they serve. Hindu embroiders work on cloth tie dyed by Muslim artisans, and copper bells and woodcarvings are sold to and used by both.

The best of the artisans here make their living by cleverly joining innovation and tradition. They use their art as a way to interact with, tell stories to, and enchant Indian and international consumers alike, while holding strong to techniques and forms that have been passed down through families for generations. The combination creates something that is authentic and unique.

This, to me, is art at its best.

The initial stage of tie dying – setting the pattern.

A sari covered in thousands of tiny blue knots, ready to be dyed – next to it, a completed piece in green and yellow.

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You don’t have to be in Nepal for long before you’ve become acquainted with beautiful topi hats the village men wear. Look closer and you’ll notice that in certain parts of the country the women are wearing the same fabric for their blouses, the children for their suits, and it is strewn throughout the homes. This traditional fabric, known as dhaka, is a trademark of Nepal.

Dhaka comes in a wide variety of fibers, designs, and colors, but it all has a certain geometric aspect and the colors always seem somewhat subdued. A closer look reveals that this subdued color comes from the warp running over the inserted threads responsible for the fabric’s design. Beautiful and elegant, dhaka is another artistic tradition threatened by the increased import of cheaper substitutes from abroad.

Mysore is a city of yoga and spirituality. Having just finished my yoga training, I am sure that you could imagine my excitement at getting into the yoga scene here – instead I was quickly distracted by something that to me is just as interesting, the silk scene.

This is one of the several places in India where there is a long history of silk production. You can see it everywhere, in the advertisements, the stores, the saris the ladies are wearing as they do their afternoon shopping down the street. Silk seems to be woven into the culture here as surely as the strings of jasmine are woven into every woman’s hair.

Silk production in Mysore is controlled by the government, which means that if you want to see the process you have to go to a government facility – so, government facility, here we come.

Most of the silk worked in this area is mulberry silk, which is a strong, fairly white variety of silk with a longer staple (fiber length). The initial phases (and probably the most interesting parts) of the process are off limits, but the spinning and weaving are open for tours. Unlike silk production in some parts of the country, everything here is done by machine. As we walked into the spinning room, we were greeted by huge spinning machines and the whirl of pink (S twist) and green (Z twist) threads flying onto multicolored plastic spools. Speckled among the machines are women in beautiful blue floral saris slowly making their way around to see that everything is in order.

Making our way into the weaving center, the dynamic totally changed. The thumping of heddles in the old Swiss and Japanese machines was deafening, and the beautifully dressed women are gone. Wooden pegboards are fed through the looms telling the heddles when to lift and lower to make the appropriate pattern. Hanging off the end of almost ever loom is a dirty button up shirt. And watching over the flying shuttles is a man on a stool. Weaving is a man’s world apparently, perhaps because they aren’t required to wear the cumbersome 6 meters of fabric a sari encompasses and can therefore easily bend over the loom.

Even if walking through the factory could make us feel like we were back in England during the industrial revolution (or for me, back in undergrad), the gods won’t let us forget that we are in fact in the southern subcontinent. Watching over the whole operation is a myriad of Hindu gods. Each wall has its own image, and each image is surrounded by a string of flowers and blinking lights.
Only in India.

Those of you who can conjure up an image of the iconic late 1940’s plaid woolen ladies suit, have theperfect visual in your head for this post (if you can’t, see image on the right). That iconic suit represents over 100 years of history for the American company Pendleton. For the rest of you who have no idea who Pendleton is, that is ok too. They haven’t really been on the forefront of fashion lately, but they do continue to embrace their “Made in USA” advantage and to create high quality woolen products.

If you happen to find yourself in the Pacific Northwest and are looking for a great introduction to the American textile industry and the dyeing/spinning/weaving process for wool, a visit to one of Pendleton’s two mills (in Pendleton, OR or Washougal, WA) is a must. The tours are free and take you through the whole process from raw material to finished fabric and blankets. Of course we know that nothing in this world is free, so it is no surprise that after this one hour walking advertisement, you will be convinced that you need a new blanket or blazer. Hopefully you’ll also be persuaded to pay more attention to your labels. Seeing Americans at work creating a high quality and beautiful product, might just entice you to buy only one of those “Made in USA” t-shirts for $50, instead of the two “Made in China” versions for $25 each.