WHITER THAN WHITE Chikankari, a Flowering of Muslin
Chikankari is embroidery of great delicacy that appears like lace on diaphanous white cloth and is associated with the Indian city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. A form of white on white embroidery, it is comparable to Dresden and Ayrshire whitework, the latter known as ‘flowering’, and at first glance they are sometimes hard to tell apart, especially since fine Indian muslin became increasingly favoured in Europe over linen and cotton lawn. Chikankari however is traditionally worked with unbelievably tiny stitches on the finest Indian cotton or muslin with specific embroidery techniques and motifs.
The ethereal appearance of chikankari has, like muslin, caused it to be enveloped in myths, reinforced by both commerce and the ‘heritage’ industry. Its invention is ascribed variously to Nur Jahan (1577-1645), wife of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, as a pastime for bored princesses in Lucknow, or to a now revered saint who is said to have passed on his embroidery skills to a Lucknawi peasant farmer who offered him sustenance on his journey. Literary sources have dated it to the era of Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE) and that of the north Indian emperor Harsha (c. 590647 CE), who is said to have greatly admired embroidered white muslin garments. The 17th century French physician François Bernier described workshops associated with the Mughal courts in Delhi where he saw people making dress ‘which lasts only a few hours, [and] may cost ten or twelve crowns, and even more, when beautifully embroidered with needlework’. Chikankari (chikan work) has also been given an
‘Indo- Portuguese’ provenance, deriving from the Portuguese presence in Bengal, historically the most important source of muslin. Even the origins of the term chikan are disputed, although the word itself and possibly the stitching skills came from Persia, probably via Bengal where embroidery developed to embellish the locally produced muslin cloth. The embroidery took on different forms in different parts of India, although in its most developed and distinctive form is definitively linked to Lucknow and specifically with the splendour and patronage of the Awadh (formerly Oudh) court in the 18th and 19th centuries, before it was annexed by the British East India Company in 1856. Another, less refined, form of whitework was made in south India.
Chikan is usually worked with white cotton thread on white fabric, but sometimes pale gold untwisted muga silk from Assam is used as a subtle contrast. Textured stitches are often combined with jali (lattice or openwork). Unlike European whitework where threads are drawn out of the base cloth to make an openwork effect, in chikan embroidery the threads of the cloth are teased apart with a slightly blunt needle. This pulled thread work is combined with minute embossed stitches. Sheila Paine, in Chikan Embroidery, identifies the six key stitches used in chikan embroidery: tepchi (running stitch), bakhya (double back or shadow stitch, worked on the back of the fabric), hool (detached eyelet), zanzeera (chain stitch), rahet (stem stitch) and banarsi (‘no European equivalent’). In addition, besides a variety of names, there are variations4
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The Future is Handmade
Carla’s work is about transforming tradition into contemporary art. She does it through fashion and through collaborations with artisans and artists all over Mexico. She looks with the eyes of an activist at the immense treasure that Mexico can contribute to the world by sharing its traditions. ‘Haute couture is found in the mountains in Mexico, in the heights of Chiapas, in the Mixteca coast, in the canyons of the Tarahumara where people have 5,000 years of experience in their craft… Clothing made by hand is more than just fashion; it’s an expression of our essential humanity,’ the designer affirms. In fact, she lives and designs by the mantra: ‘the future is handmade’.
Her motto ‘zero waste’ defines her processes from the roots to the final creations and it is deeply connected to her knowledge of the indigenous Mexican dress. Through her travels and research, and from her personal passion for everything Mexican, Carla came to understand Mexico’s pre-Columbian way of constructing clothes. All of these techniques stem from precolonial Mayan and Aztec practices and all come down to one single denominator: strict geometry. These old ways work along origami-like principles with squares and rectangles taken directly off the loom and sewn together, a system that does not produce any waste. She calls this system the square root and her inspiration lays in the garments that most Mexican women have worn for generations: rebozos, jorongos, enredos, quechquemitl, fajas, etc. But that’s just a starting point, because Carla not only innovates from tradition but also has her own approach on how she works with artisans all over Mexico. She has designed a unique way of working where ideas, tradition and handwork are all respected, given credit and compensated.
Carla’s contribution goes beyond her brand: her products and processes embrace a multidisciplinary approach to fashion as part of the creative industries. She sees herself as part of an ecosystem to which all creatives, be them photographers, writers, DJs or chefs belong to. For the 2018 presentation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to coincide with the the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, she presented a live fashion show called Fashion as Resistance performed by a live chorus, accompanying the staging of pieces from five collections, in an event that highlighted Carla’s commitment to decolonisation, intersectionality and social justice. For her 2017 spring summer presentation, she chose a dance performance putting together the craft and ideas of 11 tribes. The choreography was done by Silas Reiner and Rashaun Mitchell, ex-dancers from the Merce Cunningham Company. Native art was also woven into the moving tapestry through five carved totem sculptures. Her new flagship store in Colonia Juarez, a hip, up-and-coming neighbourhood in Mexico city, is the perfect platform for this idea of bringing like minded creators together onto the same stage.
Carla Fernández and her husband Pedro Reyes, one of Mexico’s most relevant contemporary artists were selected as the 2018 Design Miami/ Visionary Award Recipients. They presented a4
TICKLED PINK Authentic Voices Juana and Porfirio Gutierrez
A few well-worn paths trace their way away from the town of Teotitlán, upward from the alluvial plain of Oaxaca’s Central Valley and into quiet foothills and rolling sheep pastures. From there, the paths lead upward still to the peaks of the Sierra Madre. Tradition explains this landscape’s sense of timelessness with the story that Teotitlán was the first Zapotec settlement. Although archeologists put nearby Monte Alban at the beginning of the Zapotec timeline, at around 500 BCE, this has not disturbed Teotitecos’ deeply rooted identity as the original Zapotecs.
what Juana herself learned as a child. As a youngster, Juana and her 11 siblings would often make a pilgrimage into the hills around the town. Their parents pointed out valuable dye and medicine plants, repeated their names, and shared their uses. This oral tradition extends back far beyond Juana’s parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. Plant knowledge is part of Zapotec heritage – integral to a life unfolding with the seasons, delineated by daily rituals and punctuated by annual festivals and religious observances.
The Zapotec language is also a cherished link to the past, as is ancient knowledge of wild medicine and dye plants, which sends townspeople upward along those mountain pathways to forage during the lush growing season. Most importantly, however, weaving remains a strong symbol of cultural continuity. In pre-Hispanic times, Zapotecs paid their taxes to the Aztecs in the form of coloured and patterned cotton blankets woven on backstrap looms. Wool became the region’s dominant fibre in the mid-16th century, when Bishop Lopez de Zarate brought sheep and upright treadle looms, which turned weaving from a woman’s craft to a male-dominated one, with women focused on carding, spinning and dyeing. The tools, materials, and gender roles of Teotitlán’s current weaving workshops descend from this period.
When Maria Luisa, the five-year-old granddaughter of Juana Gutierrez Contreras, comes for a visit to the family workshop, Juana repeats the names of the dye plants hung from the rafters – passing on
At 15, Juana began to master about 10 plant colours thanks to her family’s teachings. Almost 30 years later, however, she has a dye vocabulary of roughly 50 colours; tree moss makes beiges and golden tans, Zapote negro make rich browns, Maruush leaves render a lovely olive green and pomegranate skins yield black... These and a few other mainstays are deployed with mordant options and lots of overdyeing to achieve a rich colour vocabulary. Juana’s favourite colour is the deep burgundy she coaxes out of vats of cochineal and can also produce soft pinks, vivid pinks, various reds and oranges, and a rainbow of burgundies and purples. ‘I relate it to the red blood of Jesus,’ she says, ‘it’s emotional. It’s powerful. It’s alive’.
Juana and Antonio produce a few kilos of cochineal themselves, mostly so that they can show visitors the full story of cochineal dyeing. There are always several dozen paddle-shaped leaves of nopal hanging in their courtyard, protected from rain and birds. Every three months in warm weather,
mature beetles are brushed by hand into a bowl with a tiny flat stick. Bowls of harvested beetles are tossed into a sieve, which is tapped gently over fresh nopal leaves laid flat on the floor of the courtyard. Tiny young beetles pass through onto their new homes. It only takes a few hours for the beetles to bite into the nopal and begin feeding, and the leaves are hung undisturbed until the next harvest time comes around. The harvested beetles are dried and then ground on a stone metate prior to a dyeing session.
When Juana mordants her yarn with Lengua de Vaca leaves, she can produce pink cochineal shades – which darken to dusty violet in an iron vat, or fully saturated purples when overdyed with indigo. Mordanting with alum pushes cochineal towards the reds. An iron pot will darken these tones toward burgundy. Lemon juice pushes the colours towards orange. She achieves still other colours by using yarn already dyed with pericón, which when overdyed with cochineal turns coral, or warm red. A delicious aubergine comes out when these warm reds are immersed in a cauldron of pomegranate skins.
As a teenager, one of Juana’s younger siblings, Porfirio, left Teotitlán for the United States. In spite of the fact that English was his third language, he quickly worked his way up to earning a decent living, spending over a decade away from his birthplace. Eventually, he returned. It was a shock. ‘I wasn’t a tourist. I was home. But the simplicity of it all hit me really hard…the dirt floors, the reed fences, the outhouses. Everything felt harsh.’ 4
A WALK IN THE RICEFIELD The Embroideries of Somporn Intaraprayong
The textiles of Somporn Intaraprayong take us on a walk through the rice fields. Heavy stitches through hemp create an undulating surface, reminiscent of a landscape, shaped by paths and contours of thread. Organic rows of stitches create maps, like enlarged cellular drawings or currents in an indigo ocean, with hidden clues to the place and people that created them. Embroidered spider webs, picnic ants or numbers from a child’s maths book all give a sense of rural life in Thailand and tell the stories of the local seamstresses that work under Somporn’s guidance.
As we look closer the textural terrain reveals slubs of raw cotton, splitting hemp fibres and the uneven stitches of a human hand. Somporn’s work is locally produced. It begins with found or cultivated fibres such as cotton, hemp or linen then dyed using local indigo plants, abundant in the hills of Northern Thailand. Somporn describes how the work begins; ‘Every tiny piece of cloth has a long history. In the case of cotton, for example, the plant had to be foraged or cultivated, picked, spun, and then dyed and woven, or woven and dyed – all this before the cloth is turned into something else. To throw out even a scrap of material, therefore, is painful, so we keep everything.’ This understanding of how the cloth is made has lead to a deep appreciation for the irregularities of natural fibres, which are celebrated through her textiles.
Next, the raw cloth is stitched by many hands. Local women are taught how to become seamstresses to create densely stitched pieces that are sold at the best international craft markets. Somporn dedicates a lot of her time to sharing her sewing skills with anyone who wants to learn, creating work in areas where employment is scarce. There is a beauty that radiates through Somporn’s entire creative practice from the raw materials to the final stitch. She describes empathy as the most valuable tool in her process, which has encouraged her to reach out to those who may be struggling with poverty or lack of education.
Somporn is a self-taught artist, whose embroidered textiles are now coveted by collectors around the world. An influential moment in her professional development was meeting Vichai Chinalai of Chinalai Tribal Antiques, whist working selling jewellery in Bangkok. With an instinctive trust and shared passion for Thai handicraft, the pair began sharing sources and collecting unique and rare textiles. Together they have exhibited eight times at the Sante Fe Folk Art Market and have gained an enthusiastic following, including trend forecaster Li Edelkoort who featured Somporn’s work in last year’s New York Textile Month publication.
Lee Chinalai, Vichai’s wife and collaborator, explains a pivotal moment for the pair when they first came across the Sante Fe Folk Art Market; ‘With the prospect of an outlet for the now piles of new cloth, with Vichai’s guidance Somporn, who had been sewing since the age of 13 and is an artist in her soul, began to teach women to sew. She started with 3 women and now has close to 50, mostly small farmers and day labourers who have little opportunity to make money between planting and harvesting or when the work simply isn’t there’.
Part of her teaching is encouraging creative thinking, allowing women to develop their own motifs or specialise in styles that are best suited to their skills or interests. Through developing motifs the women are able to include their personal stories in the work. By educating local villages in traditional techniques, Somporn also helps to revive some of the rich heritage that has been an integral part of Thai culture. Indigo dyeing and embroidery are skills that have been practised in Thailand for centuries and can be forgotten in the modern world.
Lee explains how reverting to old techniques was not easily accepted; ‘At first the women viewed sewing as a source of shame… as sewing was only out of necessity and symbolised a certain level of poverty. Bit by bit they have learned and are learning from Somporn that needle and thread can be connected to the heart and their use is not something shameful. As the seamstresses receive respect from their spouses because the work is income4
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‘Haute couture is found in the mountains in Mexico, in the heights of Chiapas, in the Mixteca coast, in the canyons of the Tarahumara where people have 5,000 years of experience in their craft… Clothing made by hand is more than just fashion; it’s an expression of our essential humanity,’
COHABIT stunning interiors beautifully photographed 36 DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS At Home with Judith Espinar By Grace Warde-Aldam photography by by Peter Vitali
EVENTS dates for your diary 27 February 2019, The Politics Of Cloth, An Evening with Ed Hall, Anabella Pollen and Alke Schmidt, London. 16 March 2019, Stitched Pictures workshop with Janet Bolton, London. 30 March 2019, Selvedge Fair, Bath. 30 & 31 March 2019, Text and Textiles Masterclass with Rosalind Wyatt, London. 13 April 2019, Hand Stitch Quilting workshop with Abigail Booth, London. 4 May 2019 Wire workshop with Julia Griffiths Jones, London. 11 May 2019, Embroidered Portrait workshop with Susie Vickery, London. 25 May 2019, Stitched Cartography workshop with Ekta Kaul, London.
83 PRIZES THIS ISSUE A Susie Petrou voucher for two antique textile pieces worth £150 @susiepetrou on instagram.com A Hungarian rag rug from the 1950s worth £120 www.rebeccasaixhome.com A Terry Macey voucher worth £250 wwww.terrymacey.com
INFORM the latest news, reviews and exhibition listings
05 BIAS /CONTRIBUTORS A letter from the founder, Polly Leonard and comments from our contributors 07 NEWS Bill Gibb, The Jerwood Prize; Forest + Found, The Circus, Insiders/Outsiders, CTRL / Shift, Embroidered Stories Scottish Samplers, 84 READ Unravelled Contemporary Knit Art by Charlotte Vannier, reviewed by
Freddie Robins, Contemporary Muslim Fashions Edited by Jill D’Alessandro and Reina Lewis, reviewed by Emily McGuire 86 VIEW Dior: From Paris to the World, Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colourado, reviewed by JoAnn Greco, Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern, London, previewed by Ann Coxon, Inca Dress Code, Art and History Museum, Brussels, Belgium, reviewed by
Anne Laure Camilleri, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, Victoria & Albert Museum, London pre-viewed by Sarah E. Braddock Clarke 95 COMING NEXT The Geometric issue: The mathematics of cloth 96 SWATCH NO 47 Favourite Fabric: Mola by Sarah Jane Downing and Illustrated by Nina Fuga
SELVEDGE ('selvid3) n. 1. finished differently 2. the non-fraying edge of a length of woven fabric. [: from SELF + EDGE]