In my primary school days the Queensland Government thought a young gal’s education should include learning to sew. Needlework was part of the curriculum and I well remember my calico “sampler” with its rows of colourful embroidery stitches, carefully practiced rows of running, back, split, stem, satin, chain, blanket and button hole stitches. As the year progressed the sampler became longer and longer, and grubbier and grubbier. Despite the best efforts of the Queensland Government I never did become an accomplished seamstress, although I have called on various of those stitches to save a favourite jumper, do an emergency repair on a dropped hem, shorten new jeans or other general repairs. Recalcitrant though I was in nurturing my needlework skills, associations with Japan, south-east Asia, the Middle East and Mexico over past decades opened my eyes to the beauty of handcrafted textiles and exquisite needlework.
Weavers and their alluring wares.
India is a heaven for textile lovers with spinning, weaving and dyeing traditions stretching back at least five thousand years. The focus of our tour, Gujurat State, holds a special place. With Western boundaries to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea – water and land bridges for trading routes and transgressors – Gujarat was both a repository and recipient. Its remaining tribal regions are a treasure house of embroidery, mirror work, appliqué, and block making and printing, and the dyeing formulas creating such vibrance. Notes accompanying our Marieke’s Art of Living tour said archeological digs had unearthed cotton and spindles dating back to Harrapa, one of the major cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which covered significant parts of Gujarat. Ancient Vedic texts, on which Hindu culture is based, document early spinning methods and fabrics.
Popular indigo. From underground storage, to pit loom weaving, to dyed garment.
Precious designs, techniques and materials were nurtured and handed down over centuries. In many cases the crafts were the province of the women, practised at the end of a day after the other work was done as dowry gifts for the daughters. In turn, those daughters would do the same for their daughters. Thus family and village traditions were created and works done with love and therefore much valued. Many artisans, now translating their skills to commercial use in small family enterprises, would proudly relate to us the number of generations who had been custodians of their craft. In some cases it reached an astonishing 35 generations – around 700 years.
Intricate shibori tie-dye work – or bandhani – starts with a stenciled pattern.
Steps to shibori: dyeing, drying, catching the fabric to create the pattern.
A Gujarat must-see for textile lovers is the Ahmedabad Calico Museum of Textiles run by the Sarabhai Foundation, regarded as the best such museum in India and with an international reputation. It was founded in 1949 by the industrialist Gautam Sarabhai and his sister Gira and is housed in the elegant old family mansion in the Shahibaug district with haughty peacocks wandering the vast, lush gardens. The displays include court textiles of Mughal and provincial rulers from the 15th to 19th centuries, regional embroideries and tie-dyed and religious textiles. Exhibits of ritual art and sculpture, temple hangings, miniature paintings, South Indian bronzes, Jain art and sculpture, and furniture and crafts are also on show.
Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, and stunning exhibits featured in gallery notes.
The collections are regarded as so precious that visitor numbers are strictly controlled to protect the priceless artefacts from dust, air pollution, aberrant light and temperature fluctuations. Two groups of just 15 participants daily are allowed – and no photographs please! The tour guide has a fierce reputation – no mucking up and don’t fall behind. But we found her to have a sly sense of humour and a formidable knowledge of her subject. Her illuminating lecture on the beauty of the exhibits and the love and religious devotion artisans applied to their work gave her an “Indian Sister Wendy” appeal. With a new appreciation for the precision, patience and passion that has gone into the textiles of India I now regret the lack of dedication I applied to my childhood sampler.