Friday, 2 July 2010
In December 1998 I received a call from a friend of a friend, Annik Chandra Pelle, director of the Alliance Francaise, Ahmedabad office. She was setting up a cultural event in Ahmedabad for the following year. Part of this event would be a project with an NGO called SEWA, who did some very interesting work with women embroiderers living in the villages of the Kutch region of Gujarat. It was exactly the kind of project I dream of being asked to participate in! So without a moments hesitation I agreed. It was decided that my flight, food and accommodation would be paid, and in exchange I would spend 3 or 4 weeks developing some new products with these women. The results would be exhibited as part of the event later in the year. Having already had some experience of working with a textile design company in Kolkata a few years ago, I felt fairly confident that I could come up with something interesting.
So it was that April this year found me flying via Dubai to Ahmedabad with some considerable excitement, a stock of anti-malaria tablets and a few magazine cuttings for inspiration. My first day working was at the STFC (SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre) situated in a factory building that was part of one of Ahmedabad's old textile mills. This is the organisation's nerve centre, and contains a small design cell, a well equipped production facility set up with modern equipment and capable of fulfilling large orders and various offices and meeting rooms.
During my first week several women artisans came to work with me in the design studio. I had made the descision not to arrive with fixed ideas, I wanted to see their traditional stitches and techniques, and build up a collection from those. My objective was to try and develop something quite new and fresh from these traditions. Step by step samples were produced, patterns were made and samples were cut; we were now ready for the next stage.
I was collected early one morning by our driver and my two design assistants, and we set off on a 3 hour journey to the village centre. There I discovered a large purpose built warehouse on the edges of the Kutch desert, here productions could be organised and controlled. Generally kits are sent out here from Ahmedabad for the artisans to embellish pre prepared pattern pieces, then they are distributed to the artisans who live in the surrounding villages.
A group of about twenty women had already arrived to take part in our two day workshop and were eagerly awaiting our arrival. They were to embroider directly onto pre-cut pattern pieces, some of which had been part stitched (where embroidery needed to be placed over seams).
Picture a large empty concrete hall, the temperature is about 40 °C, heavy steel double doors are pushed open to allow a hot breath of air to circulate. The women sit cross legged grouped around these doors so as to take advantage of the breeze. They are dressed in their multi coloured traditional costumes. Each tribe or caste specialise in a different kind of embroidery. They chat away, working at their own pace and pausing from time to time to pass comment on each others work or to take tea, lunch or supper. It all appears to me to advance quite slowly considering the ambitious amount of samples I have planned. We all stay overnight, the ladies sleeping on the floor of another hall, and myself and the design assistants in the sweltering guest rooms, where I am afraid to open the windows for fear of swarming mosquitoes. The next morning I am taken out for a walk by Rhamabhai the gate keeper to allow the ladies to do their morning ablutions in privacy.
By the end of the day we prepare to return to Ahmedabad, but not nearly half of the pieces we have brought are embroidered, a heated discussion breaks out. How will all this work get finished? What will be left behind to be finished off here and how will those pieces get back the Ahmedabad? Which others will be taken back with us to be finished off by other artisans? At last a plan of action is agreed on, and we pack and prepare for the drive back.
Now for the final stage, the final make up of the home textiles and accessories. On the Monday morning before my departure in the night on Friday, it appears to me that I will see no finished articles before I leave. I have the impression nothing is progressing, I try my hardest to hurry everyone up, continually asking what’s going on? Who’s doing what? Why are they taking so long?
By Wednesday afternoon a kind of frenzy is beginning to work itself up and a few finished pieces have appeared, but it still seems to me that only a handful of items will be ready. By Friday afternoon it’s beginning to look more hopeful and by about 8pm most of the designs are ready. It is agreed that I will take the samples back home to do a photoshoot and to see what interest I can generate in the project. I need to leave for the airport at 1am. My driver arrives with the final finished pieces, and I happily stuff them into my suit case.
A few hours later sitting in the crowded airport lounge I reflect on my adventure. Stimulated by the result, I feel sure this is just the beginning for STFC and myself.
Over a year has passed and I am now preparing to launch my home textiles collection, ‘Stitch by Stitch’ made by the SEWA artisans, onto the European market. There have been ups and downs along the way, and most things that people warned me about when working in India have, to a greater or lesser extent, come to pass; especially regarding deadlines, which need to be expanded liberally. However the results are exciting. I am planning to return in August to start a second collection, and looking for a platform to show during London design week.