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E030 Fabrics of Culture with Aditi Jain – Part 1

In this episode, we speak to Textile Designer Aditi Jain.

Listen here:

Aditi tells us about her decision to pursue a career in textiles and the learnings picked up during her course.

She takes us through the process of designing and making handloom textiles at Gandhigram where she currently works.

She talks about the subject of textiles as both art and science, and gives an example of the story beneath the surface of a fabric.

We discuss the barriers that prevent traditional textiles from mass adoption and the relevance of khadi in today’s context

We talk about plagiarism by fast fashion companies, as one of the dangers to traditional textiles and Aditi explains the distinction between inspiration and appropriation.

We wrap up part 1 of this episode reminiscing about craft exhibitions and their role in helping Indians discover textiles. Aditi stresses on the importance of reimagining craft retail online, and creating better support systems for artisans going forward.

References:

Mr.Prasanna, Founder of Charaka talks about why handloom Co-ops are having to shut shop: https://www.deccanherald.com/video/hanging-by-a-thread-879770.html

The governments’ decision to shut the Handloom board : https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/what-does-the-dissolution-of-the-all-india-handloom-board-mean-for-the-industry-ministry-of-textiles-6545819/

An excerpt of John Forbes Watson’s catalog of Indian Textiles https://artsandculture.google.com/search/asset/?p=dr-bhau-daji-lad-mumbai-city-museum&em=g11f06lxbkw&categoryid=artist

Aditi currently works at Gandhigram. She talks about her project with KASKOM and Desi Cotton

We talk about the importance of Dastkaar exhibitions and Creative Dignity as forums to support Artisans in a variety of ways.

Angie shares Daily Dump as an example of supporting the customer in making sustainable choices.

Transcript

Angie: Hi this is Design Lota

Sushi: The podcast about life as Indian Designers

Angie: I’m Angie

Sushi: And I’m Sushi

Angie: The past few months have been a challenging time for a number of industries, the craft sector being one of them. 

Sushi: At the same time, crafts have been in the news quite a bit lately, particularly textiles. 

Angie: Why don’t you give us the headlines Sushi?

Sushi: Let’s see…some of the oldest handloom co-ops, including Charaka announced that they were shutting down because of the cash crunch, the government made a highly controversial decision to scrap the Handloom board, and then a certain document happened to resurface around the same time…

Angie: Yes, it was a catalogue curated by John Forbes Watson. This document showcased about 700 samples of different patterns, materials and textures of Indian fabrics.

Sushi: Sounds like a dream, right? Except that this guy was a Britisher who was also the museum director of the India Museum in the 1860s. 

Angie: And – it was intended to ‘inspire’ students and manufacturers in Britain to replicate low cost fabrics and sell them back to the Indian Market.

Sushi: Even today, when it comes to traditional and indegenous art forms, there’s a thin line between showcasing or giving exposure versus benefitting unfairly from the work of socially and economically disadvantaged communities.

Angie: As confusing as it can be to navigate that fine line,  this is a good time for us as Indians to learn all we can about the richness and the stories behind our Indian textiles – be it as designers or as consumers.

Sushi: Aditi Jain, a textile designer who works with handloom weavers helped us dive into this conversation.

————– Interview ————–

Sushi: Hi Aditi and welcome to design Lota. What are you upto these days?

Aditi: Surprisingly, despite the lockdown I’ve still got a lot going on. I’ve been working with Gandhigram the past 2 and a half years. And now that we’re all working from home, all the coordination is happening via email and Whatsapp. My family also owns two businesses – Sarangi and Rasvihar. Sarangi sells handloom saris and all things handmade. I’ve been trying to diversify our products to other crafts. Rasvihar is all about customised fine jewelry, so I’m experimenting with some new products there too, dipping into some product design. 

Sushi: We’re all really curious to know how you ended up doing what you’re doing. We would love to hear the story of how you got into working with textiles, specifically traditional textiles.

Aditi : It actually started with a short stint at Sarangi with my father. So I guess sometime in 2013, I had just finished my Visual Communication course from MOP Vaishnav Chennai, and I was feeling pretty lost and clueless about what I wanted to do. Honestly, Vis-Comm didn’t excite me much. Now hat I was working at the store, I was surrounded by a lot of beautiful textiles and that was really inspiring. Textiles seemed like something I could get into – I was still not sure – but at this point I really had nothing to lose, so I applied for a textile design course at NID for my Masters and somehow managed to get in. That really set the solid foundation for me in terms of how to understand craft. For me up until then, textile was just fabric and material – the stories, the process and the techniques, all that I only learned at NID. Shortly after graduating, I heard of this opening at Gandhi Gram and I had to find myself over there somehow. So yeah, that’s basically the short gist of how I got here.

Sushi: wow. So what’s the design process like at Gandhi gram?

Aditi: I actually have an interesting anecdote. I have learned textiles very academically right? So I wanted to make a proper spec sheet of every design. So I presented this to the weavers and asked them if they were able to understand it, and if I should change anything. They just stared at me for a while, and then one of them said, “listen, we don’t understand this at all. Tell us what to do, and we’ll do it. This paperwork is not for us.” I was a bit disappointed in the sense that now I had to figure out how what would be an efficient way of handing out and documenting design. Eventually I just decided to go with the flow and see what happened. The way we used to work is, that every week when they would come, we would have a discussion of the design with may be a small sketch with just a ball point pen and that’s it. Ninety percent of the time time, the design would come out as per the discussion!

Each weaver would be given undyed Corra yarn, and each weaver would come to the dyeing house and get their warps dyed in whatever colors they had to. With this process there were issues because, each time, the dying house had to stop their production to attend to the weaver. Also when you’re dying small quantities the raw material wastage is more. So one of the first tasks I had when I joined was to standardize the shade card.

Sushi: And I bet you loved that!

Aditi: Yes! that was a lot of fun! We had to mix a lot of dye colors to get a particular shade and sometimes we would mix different colors and still get the same shade…so it was a lot of fun experimenting with that. Once we had arrived at one set of colors, I realized that we needed to dye these in bulk – Bulk meaning, about 500 hangs. Typically a warp requires around 200. So I thought that if we could have 500 hangs in 4-5 colors on standby at all times, it would probably make it easier. And it eventually did! For the weavers, one step of the process was taken care of. So they would come and we just had to hand over the design and the colors, and they would pick the readily dyed yarn.

After this the weaver has their own pre-loom processes where they need to do the sizing. Then they join the warp ends. Each of these take about a day. So it takes a weaver 2-3 days just to set up a warp to pull out four saris.

Sushi: wow

Aditi: yeah! After this is marketing and sales, which I thankfully don’t have to trouble myself too much with. I do like talking to customers, because that’s how I get design feedback, or get an idea of what people are looking for. During an exhibition, if a customer says they don’t like big borders, they want just a bit of color at the edge, I start incorporating that in the next set of designs. It could be a technical feedback too, like a certain yarn is getting stuck to their finger. So that way, I like customer interaction, but I don’t enjoy the sales part of it.

Sushi: You talked about textiles and having to make specification sheets, and it comes across as a very technical sort of discipline. But as someone who is not from a textile background, its something we look at as something very surface level and aesthetic. Do you feel like textiles are more of an art, or a science or both? And can you talk about how art and science play a role in defining textiles?

Aditi: Ahh it’s really an interesting question! Recently at Sarangi, we just published a blog article – the title is “what you get is more than what you see”. We just launched these organic desi cotton towels from KASKOM and they look really plain and simple of the surface, but theres a big back story to it which is not visible on the cloth. The cotton is an indigenous variety of Karungani cotton which is local to Tamil Nadu. It is resilient. It is completely rain-fed with no need for pesticides or chemicals of any sort. Its hands-on and handwoven. you need to be told all of these things to know that this simple fabric has this story behind it. These are also decision making factors. Only when a customer knows that this is everything that has happened, will they be inclined to buy it. So to me, it is sort of like art in the sense that its the value that the end user or consumers see in the product, and therefore are willing to invest in it, whether it is monetarily or emotionally. I guess most Indian crafts are valuable because of these intrinsic qualities, whether it is the community support that these crafts have built, or whether it is a dying skill – it thrives because we all do value the art element in it. Science, of course, textiles is a science, whether it is mathematics – theres a lot of mathematics involved in weaving – or whether it is dyeing…

Sushi: Chemistry!

Aditi: yeah, and if you go beyond traditional textiles into technical textiles, there’s a lot of science and tech that goes into those. So textile, like you said, looks very surface, but there’s a lot of depth to it.

Sushi: The work that you do currently is more focused on the slow and timeless and sustainable process right? Of late, a lot of millennials and even middle aged people are opting for these slow timeless pieces as opposed to fast fashion now. But I feel like this is still a niche and there hasn’t been mass adoption of slow textiles. What do you think are the barriers that prevent it from becoming mainstream and becoming the status quo?

Aditi: I guess the first would be price – everyone is used to paying a lot less for a lot more. So that’s the first barrier one would have to cross. I guess the second is design options. In fast fashion, you have a lot of options – sizes, colors, fits – but with conscious clothing it is not possible to have all of these options, and also not everyone has well designed products. For someone to be able to find that one classic piece which they know they are going to be able to savor for the next, at least 8-10 years, that can be quite challenging. It also does take a lot of effort to remind yourself that the price of that one expensive well-made piece really trumps a lot of fast clothing.

Sushi: So the high price really does seem to be a discouraging factor when it comes to opting for any of these authentic Khadi textiles

Aditi: yeah

Sushi: I’ve also heard people commenting about how its ironic that Khadi, which is the very symbol of democracy and independence, as how we Indians know it, is now unaffordable by the masses. Do you think it’s really unaffordable, or do you think its more of a perception, depending on the sales channels where you find it? And what do you think we can do as Indian designers to aid the democratization of Indian textiles, not it a way that cheapens them, but in a way that it becomes accessible to everybody, because it is our heritage?

Aditi: I’m a bit torn between this too – it’s an important question. I do believe that these products should be available and affordable to the masses and reach the local markets. Even the makers sometimes don’t get to wear what they make because it is inherently expensive, so the idea does seem a bit far-fetched at the moment. But the whole concept behind Khadi was self-sufficiency, when Gandhi ji brought it up. So the idea was that each person makes their cloth and they were not dependent on any external  entity for their clothing needs. In the recent decade, that has obviously changed. Our aspirations have changed. We don’t have that kind of time or the skill set to be making our own clothes. SO when we want other people to be making our clothes, to do the work, and we want a variety of options, naturally, we have to pay the price that comes with it. Each step, you have to pay the person who is involved. Especially with hand processes we want to give the weavers a high quality of living too so that’s where my dichotomy is. Specifically with Khadi the government does throw in a subsidy to make it slightly more affordable. We do buy these branded pants for 5000-6000, so I do think in comparison, it doesn’t seem like a crazy amount for something that is consciously made. And as designers and as a country, we need to actively work and design for that 90 percent and not just for the richest 10 percent, which is what we’re all currently doing.

Sushi: Branching off from what you said about self-sufficiency and designing for not just the one percent, recent global happenings have drawn our attention to a whole range of discussions about history and traditional crafts, and even colonialism. We also see a rise in Indian companies claiming to use khadi and traditional fabrics with a minimalist twist. And these products tend to be geared toward a western audience, and upper class Indians. How do you feel about this, as someone who works so closely with the makers of these traditional fabrics.

Aditi: It could seem like it’s pretentious but not in all cases. Many times getting the right quality is the hardest part. Since these are all handmade, it’s natural to have some differences in quality. Sometimes it goes way par acceptable norms, and I don’t even mean by any industrial standards. I don’t think any of us (as consumers) would like to accept sub-par quality. For brands to get it right is quite a challenge. I think a lot of them do work really hard to achieve that and naturally they design according to the tastes of their target audience. Myself included, I wouldn’t like anything that is too flashy, or an outfit with a design element just for the sake of putting something there. So I’m all in for brands that are working with the current trends, because we also need to sell right?

The weavers too feel very happy when they see their products being worn by someone, say, in the US or in the UK. They feel like what they’ve made has travelled so far. So its probably not as horrifying as we think it is. 

Sushi: If the brand is owned by say, a British person, or an NRI in Great Britain, would that have the potential to grow into a form of colonization?

Aditi: Any form of exploitation, whether they are NRIs or Indians is wrong. At this point I’m not too worried about that. There are in fact a few artisans who don’t like to work with Indians because of the lack of discipline that many Indians in their experience have shown. I’ve called a couple of organizations to get some sampling done, and they said they only work with international brands you know! I was quite disappointed, but I also get that they want something easy to work with. The argument could go that Indian brands should work for India first. Also, I think we keep talking about craftspeople, but we all consume our gadgets and entertainment – none of that is specifically Indian, or Indian owned. So if we’re worried about colonialism, I think we’re all colonised anyway. 

Sushi: Speaking of Indian brands, we also see a lot of Indian fast fashion brands incorporate elements of traditional design. For example, they may not have a really Ikat fabric, but maybe an Ikat print on a generic fabric. And they’ve not really thought about the community or origin of these fabrics and whether its responsible to do this. But for textile designers working in a fast fashion setting, I feel like there might be this constant need to churn out new designs based on what’s seen on a runway. Many times these are spinoffs from designers like Ritu Kumar or Manish Malhotra’s collections. Where does one draw the line? Where does it stop being inspiration and become appropriation?

Aditi: Printed Ikat cannot be called Ikat (laughs) since it has not gone through any of the processes that an Ikat is traditionally put through. It’s just blasphemous when I see these printed ikats and bandhinis…I can’t stand it! I had gone to an exhibition where I saw a sari hanging and it looked very similar to these saris that my friend designs. I’ve not seen work similar to hers anywhere in the last couple of years. So when I saw that over there, I was really taken aback. So obviously, I took pictures of it and sent it to her. It was a very very cheap knockoff of her work. I know she takes so many days and so many people and a lot of effort to make that one sari. She does this resist dyeing work and the copy that I saw was a printed copy! Its really sad, because she takes so much time to make them, and these guys are just printing it, by 100’s of pieces a day! Its really disturbing, actually. Most of these places don’t understand that there are ethics they need to follow and its definitely really sad to see when top brands also do it. 

There is an instagram handle called Diet Sabya where they call out people who copy. But I don’t think they go so deep into people appropriating traditional designs, because I guess you need a very keen eye to notice it. So obviously, if you’re copying, then that’s definitely not inspired work. Inspiration can only be the starting point of the story. It cannot be the story itself. And when youre telling a story that’s not yours without any sort of acknowledgement to the people behind it, then that is appropriation. 

It’s also myopic to think that only big fashion brands copy, because I’ve seen many artisans do it too, although for them, it’s like can I see that as a challenge and can I make it? This is where designers come in because we need to let them know that this is not ethical. It is not appropriate. You can imitate it and keep it as an experiment, but see what you can do different with it. Because of course, people do need to be able to imitate in order to learn and understand. 

Sushi: So I think the solution could be to look at how copying each other can result in something new and original rather than saying that is your work or my work. 

Aditi: This is where open source is important.

Sushi: That’s a really great point. I think more people need to start looking at tradition, art and textiles from that perspective. 

Aditi: Again, open source, but without copying!

Sushi: From a consumer perspective, how do you think someone can tell the difference between, say a real Ikat and an Ikat print, especially now that we all have Instagram and Pinterest – everything just looks so good in those photographs! So how is one to distinguish and not get ripped off while buying stuff on social media. 

Aditi: The first step I think is to ask questions. You should ask the people you’re buying from how they get it made, what is it, what is special about it…if you find something expensive, it’s okay to ask why it’s expensive. Most brands are happy to tell you what has gone behind it for them to price it a certain way. Also read as much as you can. I guess it’s naive to think that all the information will be presented to you. As consumers we need to have the onus as well to educate ourselves in what we’re buying. There are enough and more online resources on how to identify this from that, or what is an Ikat, or the process it goes through. Of course, if you notice that any small brand or any business is evading your questions, or not being very clear about it, then there’s a good chance that they’re not selling what they claim. It’s also important to take your time to shop until you’re really sure that it fits all the parameters that you’re looking for – whether its sustainability or authenticity. Although this is not really this situation for it (given the pandemic), visiting the designer’s studio or artisan’s workspace can really help. You can get a real feel for whether it’s genuine or not. So you feel more confident about what youre investing in, 

Sushi: That feels like a lot of homework for the consumer. 

Aditi: (laughs) and why not?!

Sushi: Maybe the future is not just about buying one piece but also the whole experience of how you looked for that one piece and found it, the experience of researching the process and everything behind that one piece and then finally owning it…hopefully at least for a couple of generations.

Aditi: Exactly! Its easy to throw mud on small businesses and say how do I know that they’re authentic but its difficult to do the homework behind it yourself. I mean, if you’re concerned about these things, then these are the things one must do. If you’re not, then that’s fine too, there’s no hard and fast rule. But I believe that the onus should fall on the consumer too and not just on the brand to prove that they’re working honestly. I’ve been on both sides now, so I understand both sides too!

Sushi: And has the work you do also influenced the way in which you buy things?

Aditi: Yeah! Because I’m in this field, if I want to buy something very specific – my wishlist looks like I want an Ilkal of this color -its a very simple wishlist, but the idea is that I make it a travel list. So I will plan that someday when I go to Ilkal, I will buy Ilkal. So that way I get to do a trip there and buy it at the source. Its really slow because its obviously not possible to go as soon as I think of it. That way I also get to see the whole process behind it. Luckily most of my recent shopping has managed to happen that way. 

Sushi: Wow

Aditi: yeah. I’ve just managed to buy on my travels. And I actually stitch most of my clothes myself because I’m very particular about fit. So I just end up buying fabric at exhibitions and getting them stitched to my size. Most of my clothes have lasted me the past eight or ten years, and I’m hoping that the clothes I have made now will last me at least another ten years. 

Sushi: Speaking of shopping and your travels in order to shop, not everyone is that fortunate to be able to invest that amount of time, but since you’re a textile designer, that’s one of the privileges. But for the common public that is interested in buying innovative handcrafted products, craft exhibitions such as Dastkaar have been central to promoting craft and innovative textiles. Do you think that given the Covid 19 situation, these exhibitions may not be an option anymore? Are there any long term strategies to get through this in order to continue promoting innovation in craft, and allowing people to discover craft and finding textiles that they can turn into something for themselves?

Aditi: I think we’re all still figuring it out. At this point online seems like the best option because its easily accessible to a lot of potential buyers. On the other hand its not possible for the craftsman to manage all of the production, that is creating the fabric, AND the sales all by themselves. It’s too much to expect. But there’s this collective that has come up now, as a response to helping these artisans and the handmade sector, called Creative Dignity. So these are a collective of different people from design, craft and the social sector and related sectors. They have come together to help artisans in whatever capacity , for example sales – they connect them with potential buyers. In the long term a forum like this is super crucial, and we need to build on it for the future, so that buyers can connect quickly to the right people instead of having to meander about. 

I guess exhibitions will eventually open up, maybe in a year or so. The touch and feel aspect is definitely something that online cannot replicate. SO I’m hopeful that we will all be able to meet again at these craft exhibitions sometime not too far from now.  

—————

Angie: This was so interesting, especially for me because I haven’t had a chance to be so directly involved in textiles and crafts 

Sushi: Hearing from Aditi, about what goes into the weaving process was quite eye-opening for me as well. I was able to draw quite a few parallels to my own own experience working with traditional craftspeople. 

Angie: I think designers from all disciplines can draw some parallels from what Aditi mentioned about partnering with the craftsperson to design solutions.

Sushi: As someone who is pretty hands on myself, I can attest to the fact that a whole new world of possibility opens up when you move away from the drawing board and actually start working with the materials.  

Angie: This conversation also made me think about the consumer journey – from considering to buying to maintaining products, especially something like handmade textiles. 

Sushi: It definitely seems like the investment goes so much beyond just the initial monetary aspect. I feel like even our current way of living is not exactly conducive to the care that some of these products require. One of the reasons why fast fashion became so pervasive is probably because you could just toss all your clothes into the washing machine without a care. 

Angie: Maybe a decade ago, there existed a maintenance ecosystem when it came to delicate fabrics like the neighbourhood darning guy, – a white saree could be dyed or block printed if it got a spill on it. This definitely is not common anymore.

Sushi: That’s why I believe that the circular economy is so important! And as designers we need to think in systems, in order to create products that live up to their potential, and help consumers to see the value in investing in them.

Angie: And the continued support in educating consumers about the best option for them, to making them confident that – you can take care of this, we are with you. That can make the world of a difference.

For example, when it comes to making a decision of composting –  Daily Dump is doing a phenomenal job – like  they are very invested in your lifestyle of composting than just your one time purchase.

Sushi: That’s a great example of how a systems approach can convince people to make sustainable choices.

Angie: Hey listeners, what fascinates you the most about Indian textiles?

Sushi: And what challenges you? Tweet to us and you might just hear us talk about you in Part 2 of this Episode. 

Angie: Coming to your favourite listening platform shortly

Sushi: As always you can find the transcript along with the references for this episode on our blog, designlota.com

Angie: see you next time, bye!

Sushi: bye

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