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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

What is the future of traditional textile skills?

“The people who made these things have nothing else to give except their painstaking work. And now they are collected by people who have everything.”
The parting words of Griff Rhys Jones, from his latest programme, which saw him visiting the north Indian State of Gujurat in search of the area’s famed embroidery skills.

As the ways of the modern world transform ever increasing numbers of peoples and cultures, what will be the fate of the skills developed by these cultures over thousands of years? Should they be promoted? Protected? Revered as things of dedication and beauty, still current in their appeal? Or relegated to museums and books, as things of the past?

The value placed in embroidery and indeed textiles as a whole, in India is easy to underestimate. Throughout this vast country, made up of thousands of variant cultures, tribes and religions, textiles are held in high esteem. Even today, where fast fashion and global trends have entirely altered the views of the West, Indians have a huge affinity with the textiles their country has produced for centuries.
Since the middle ages traders from the West have traversed huge distances to the Orient in search of fine and exquisite cloth, of quality unrivalled in Europe. The styles of 19th century British produced pieces, from Paisley pattern to William Morris print have their origins in the imports which flooded in through the trade routes, as we searched for some exoticism and mystique.

As a textile designer travelling in India today, it is wonderfully refreshing to get a knowing smile and nod when you tell people what you do. In the UK, the response is more likely to be, ‘what, you knit all day?!’, but an Indian understands your role immediately, almost inevitably we found that they themselves were involved in the textile industry, or have a family member or friend who is, and it is a respected and valued trade. Textiles are a part of everyday life and consumed in a very different way to the West. Take the traditional man’s lunghi (a rectangle of cloth worn like a sarong), these are simply pieces of cloth, varying in weight, design, colour and embellishment, and their variations in wear are numerous in style and function. The lunghi can be worn long, or tucked up short, as a shawl around the shoulders or to cover the head from the sun. When they wear out or become damaged they can be used around the house, or turned into other, decorative items. There is a daily interaction with textiles in a rawer form and on a scale much greater than in England. And not only an interaction with their consumption but with their production; an Indian knows what has gone into making their traditional cloth, by whom it was made, what materials are and the meanings or stories behind imagery and style.
In many cases the skills to create such fabrics have been passed down generation to generation, with families continuing the trade which was, often in India’s caste system, predetermined for them by birth. But these skills developed over the years in turn require years of practise to learn and maintain them. How will they stand the test of the modern world’s pace of change?
Using the example of Rhys Jones when he visited the Rabari people of Kutch, Gujuat, who practise painstaking hand embroidery, one has to wonder, is this tradition practical or necessary in today’s world? Traditionally the women spend their youth creating clothes, bedspreads and wall hangings for their marriage dowry. Such intricate work takes years and women cannot marry until it is complete. These girls future is in their stitching, not in education or opportunity. And whilst the outcome of their labours is wonderfully beautiful, rich in colour, texture and meaning, one has to question the validity of such dedication as this in today’s world.
When I visited an organisation in the centre of India near Hampi, which sets out to support local women through the selling and promotion of their traditional embroidery, I found myself asking a very similar question. These are Lambani women, their tribe originating in Gujurat and whose work bears strong resemblance to the colourful Rabari work, nomads originally who wore their wealth in elaborate embroidered garments and striking silver jewellery and have continued to hand down the traditional craft. Providing work for around 100 women in a 30km radius throughout a handful of villages, Kushala Kala Kendra makes use of this skill to create pieces for the Western market and local Indian businesses, ensuring stable work and other community benefits. I was hugely struck by the apparently paradoxical forces at work in these villages and in the women’s sewing. Their embroidery patterns and skills have been passed down for generations from mother to daughter, enabling them to create their dowry pieces and decorate themselves and their homes. The patterns have meaning and history, following that of the tribe itself. Today, life for the Lambani is transformed, they are no longer nomads, nor even in the region of their ancestry and these villages are changing at an ever increasing rate, developing to become part of the modern global communities. The young women no longer wear traditional Lambani dress except on special occasions, in ten years almost all will be sari wearers. Mass produced products now fill their houses, dowries and their practice, particularly where the embroidery is concerned is on the way out.  What place does this embroidery play today? SKKK is providing them with work, creating Indian style pieces for the West, but with the products they make being so far removed from the traditional work what is it that they are achieving? The craft is being diluted and removed from the authenticity of its origins, the Lambani women are neither maintaining their true tradition nor are their customers buying into anything real.
And what really struck me was the regard in which the women held their own work. The consumer products they produce have little meaning in their everyday life, clearly made for a buyer who does not inhabit the same world as they, and they feel little affinity with this work. Their own pieces mean much to them, still revered for special occasion, but they admit that the world has changed. More and more women from SKKK are laying down their needle in search of more lucrative work. And when asked what they hope for their children, embroidery is not high on the list, indeed many of the teenage generation and younger do not embroider to the skill of their mothers. For their daughters they wish an education, a ‘good’ job and more opportunities than they have had themselves. And who can blame them? I know firsthand what hard work it is to earn a living from hand sewing, hard work with, for these women, little financial reward and in these modern times, little cultural reward either.
So what is to become of these skills, should we strive to preserve them at the cost of educating a generation of women or are they culturally and economically failing, an inevitable casualty of technology and global economic development?

Josie Warden, designer and co-founder of THREAD 
March 2011

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. You highlight some interesting and relevant arguments, some that I have been exploring in my MA by research thesis: 'An investigation into the change and adaptation of traditional Indian textiles for new markets, with specific focus on the ajrakh printing of Gujarat' The research follows a few design projects I worked on in India at both NGOs and textile companies. Coming from a printed textile background I'm focusing on a hand block-printing tradition in Kutch, Gujarat, but my research could be applied to many traditional crafts in India, or even the world that have experienced drastic changes at the onslaught of globalisation and mass production. My main aim has been to discover how ajrakh can be viable in contemporary markets while maintaining traditional craft skills, techniques and designs. I won't go into what I have found now, but the thesis is nearly done and I hope to post a link to it on my blog -
    Your project looks like a really important one, would be good to get in touch!