This week, we are excited to have Meher Jetley, a designer, animal lover, handicraft enthusiast, green heart-er, write about her own experiences as a young designer navigating the world of Indian craft and textiles. She tells us more about the importance of community collaboration and what working with craft communities is like.
This is her story…
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As I recited this famous quote by Lao Tzu in my head, I entered the government office known as the Weavers Service Centre in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. On a cold winter morning in December 2017, I was beginning my journey to work in the craft & textiles space. I still recall, as I was sitting in a room full of bureaucrats, the skepticism on their faces as they looked at me, a designer from a metropolitan city focused only on her collection that’s set on unrealistic deadlines. A quick realisation hit me that their judgement was set in stone but little did they know, I came with a different agenda. Studying in a fashion college in Gujarat, you are exposed to the strong culture and textiles of the place. Gujarat boasts of a wide range of handwoven textiles, man-made textiles, and various other crafts. So, during my college days when I would be studying about these crafts, I would dream about working in the Indian crafts and textiles space. And here, in this government office, was an opportunity. I was assigned to work with a craft cluster that dealt with the indigenous textile known as Tangaliya.
Tangaliya is a weave that is practiced by the Dangasia community in Surendranagar, Gujarat. It's a 700 year old craft with a very interesting story to it. A young boy from the Bharwad community (they were shepherds) fell in love with a girl from the weaver community. This young man was outcast by his community and was later welcomed by the weavers where he started weaving shawls from the wool he had gathered. The offspring born from this couple were the Dangasias. They are a community that is very proud of their culture and heritage as well as incredibly welcoming, taking pride in showing guests around their village. And at each house you visit, it’s mandatory to have tea with them. It's a close knit community where everyone is related and, while weaving, they love to share the details of their lives with each other.
Whenever I would visit the cluster, I would spend close to a week to ten days with them. In that time, I could see a major shift in my approach to craft. It happened the moment I removed the “I” from the project and focused on the “We”. As a designer, it’s very easy to focus on your own, individualistic goals that arise from your ambitions. It’s not bad to be selfish, but it’s important to acknowledge that there was a bigger goal here. The goal was how to work in sync with one another and in alignment to further the craft. For any new designer or entrepreneur that wants to work with any textile or craft, I suggest following these steps that I learned through my own journey:
- The first step is gaining the trust of the weaver/craftsmen and their community. There’s a famous quote: “If people like you, they'll listen to you, but if they trust you they'll do business with you.” - Zig Ziglar. Trust is built on being honest with the craftsmen and the community about what you will bring to the table for them. Make promises that you can deliver.
- The second step is being extremely gentle in your approach towards the craftsmen. This is where I had a moment of introspection. I’m a perfectionist and a strong believer of deadlines, and on top of that I need things to be done in a certain manner with discipline. Now, I was expected to completely revamp my methods and asked to be very patient throughout the process. There’s a reason why craft is a slow process and that is that you need to acknowledge that there is a human being behind it not a machine where you can feed the meterage of fabric you want. This is probably the most crucial trait one needs to inculcate when you want to work in the crafts sector.
- The third step is being empathetic and sensitive to the demands of the community and really understanding where their priorities lie. Yes, money is crucial for them, but it’s not a priority. Their main focus is that people have a genuine interest in the craft they practice and honour their heritage. That is why younger generation weavers are invited by fashion colleges to conduct workshops and educate students on the importance of the craft. The craftsmen has a sense of great pride when they sit on their looms and begin their demonstration and love the recognition given by people to their culture.
To sum up these steps, it’s important to adapt oneself to the timeline and the temperament of the community. When you enter into their domain, come in with an open mind.
The importance of cross-culture education
A very interesting aspect of Tangaliya is that the weaving technique cannot be replicated by man made machines. Human touch is key and here the process includes wrapping of cotton or woolen yarn around the warp while weaving. This forms a bead (daana) in the weave, thus giving it the name ‘daana weaving’. I remember an incident a weaver once narrated to me on how Japanese buyers had visited their community, studied the craft and were adamant that they could make a sophisticated machine to replicate it, even after the weaver warned them that such a machine would be impossible to make. The Japanese went back and spent a big chunk of money to develop a machine. Needless to say, they failed to do so and they had to come back to Surendranagar to work with these weavers.
Designers and entrepreneurs are crucial people who have a plan and a vision that can help take a weave/craft forward. During our tenure in fashion or business schools, we are taught various business models and strategies that can be implemented in real life, hence, the importance of ‘cross-culture education’ is important in the evolution of craft. We have the knowledge, they have the skill, and so designers work in collaboration with craftsmen to simultaneously learn from each other. This way there is a big chance that the craft evolves. If it were not the intervention of designers, Tangaliya would still be a woolen shawl (seen on the left) used by women to wrap around their legs, meaning Tangalio, where the craft gets its name from. Today, it’s a fine silk saree (seen on the right).
Innovation in motifs was a very interesting challenge that I tackled. The Tangaliya weavers have been using the same traditional motifs for centuries and all these motifs have to be geometrical due to the constraints of the weave. Studying the weave and motifs thoroughly, I took out my graph notebook and started working on more contemporary motifs. With all the hits and trials, I managed to introduce a fish motif, a butterfly motif and variations of other geometric motifs. This was a major step as for any design to sustain in the market, it needs to adapt to the zeitgeist. In order to uplift the plain weave canvas of the daana weave, I also helped introduced the use of tie dye yarns. This step really revamped the whole perception of the weave.
At the back of my head, I kept brainstorming methods on how to promote craft/textiles and one such opportunity did arise in December, 2018. Craft Village organised the first edition of India Craft Week. I approached their team and presented the idea of promoting a Tangaliya weaver in their event. The team agreed to include the weaver on one condition: that he would bring his loom to the event. One weaver agreed to make the trip with his stock and loom and got a lot of recognition from those in the Crafts & Textiles circuit, both domestic and international names. He managed to make a great sale of his products and even found an eager buyer for his demonstration loom. The organisers of the event made sure the weaver got the recognition he deserved. Here was a sustainable method where the weaver continued to do business for months even after the craft week.
The Indian textile industry is one of the largest in the world. It is the 2nd largest manufacturer and exporter in the world. The share of textile and clothing in India’s total exports stands at a significant 13 % (2017-18) and it's all down to the uniqueness of the industry lies in its strength both in the handwoven sector as well as in the capital intensive mill sector (Source). When it comes to Indian crafts and textiles, I have been quite vocal for the promotion and buying of ‘local’. One must take pride in the fact that though India is a vastly populated country that follows multiple religions and speaks in more than 1,000 languages, what binds us together is our traditions. They have been with us for time immemorial and are reflected in the way we live, how we dress up on festivals, occasions and in our day-to-day life. (Source).
Taking traditions forward by tweaking it to the demands of the current market is exactly what we at Sui are also known for. The idea of taking a traditional textile, innovating the weave and the usage of contemporary motifs in order to make the craft/textile more relatable and contemporary is something we live by. We very much believe that our traditional crafts need to be sustained and nurtured to survive in our modern world. We currently work with multiple crafts and handwoven textiles that include block print from Bagru Textiles, handwoven weaves from WomenWeave and embroidery from an organisation known as Pins & Needles. For any design to stay relevant, it needs to evolve and we hope we can help our well-loved crafts grow.