There’s a reason why so many artisan brands produce in India. It’s a huge country, geographically and culturally, whose varying climates and rich diversity of traditions drawn from its 1.3 billion people can provide pretty much everything you need to go from seed to sewn within its borders.
There are the arid cotton fields of Gujarat in the west, the traditional weaving in mountainous Varanasi to the north, silk farms in Bangalore in the South, the leather tanneries of Kalkota in the East, and skilled tailors and sewing units in every large city, just to name a few resources at India’s disposal. The government is also an active supporter of artisanship, providing funding and infrastructure to organizations and cooperatives who are certified as traditional makers. And India is not one of those countries where items get inexplicably lost in the mail or customs. “Import and export for artisan items is easier,” says Devonne Niam of the Singapore-based artisan brand MATTER Prints. “The most important thing is the sourcing of the materials. Let’s say we’re doing block printing. It’s very easy for our artisan block printers to source the cotton, and then send it to sewing. ”
So yes, sourcing artisanship in India is easier than other developing countries, but it’s still not easy, per se, for well-intentioned Western designers new to the scene. You still need to find the right workshop that has a digital presence and is open to working with Westerners on innovative patterns and prints. (The domestic market for traditional textiles in India is robust, so many small business owners and artisans are perfectly happy producing saree fabrics and men’s shirts.) Then you need to verify that it’s actually ethically run. It’s still artisan work, so you need to patiently work with them to realize your vision within the parameters of what they can do for you using traditional techniques, and that will take some time. I also strongly suggest you visit them in person to establish a good relationship, if possible. But many of these workshops can fulfill your order by email and send you samples via courier if that is what you need.
Finally, I want to emphasize that you shouldn’t contract with these artisan workshops on a lark for some samples, then disappear. Except for the case of the sewing unit at the bottom which specializes in sampling, all of these workshops use traditional, time-intensive techniques. You should approach them in good faith for the purpose of building a long-term relationship that will lead to full production of a collection season after season.
When I decided we were going to India, I reached out to all my favorite artisan brands that I knew produced there, asking if I could visit the workshops that produce for them. What follows is a tiny, tiny sampling of the breadth and depth of what you can find in India. But I came away impressed, and with the desire to repay their generosity in hosting me and teaching me by connecting them directly to designers and brands in the U.S. who are looking for quality, fair work.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for below, the U.S.-based organization Nest, which is helping to build a global handworker economy, can help designers like you find more workshops that can ethically and skillfully bring your vision to life.
Ready to be utterly inspired? Read on.
My favorite pair of pants that I packed for my trip by MATTER Prints were block printed and sewn right in Jaipur by this family business. I met with Khushiram, a young fifth-generation block printer who runs it now, at the Awdhesh Kumar shop, which is filled with robes, skirts, preppy men’s shirts, and home textiles, all with gorgeous hand-printed designs. His father now teaches block printing at five local institutes of learning, and Khushiram brings a fresh perspective and an eagerness to innovate to the business, as he studied textile design and marketing at the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design in Jaipur.
First, he took me to the block print carving workshop, where several skilled artisan men chipped away at wood to form intricate patterns. These artisans are a common sight in Jaipur, which has long been a center for traditional block printing.
Then we went to the printing shop, where I scanned the boxes on the walls containing traditional block prints for sarees and new block prints for Western brands. I even spied MATTER’s thumbprint logo on one of the boxes. Translating a digital design to a block print takes a certain marriage of modern and traditional skills that Kushiram and his team excel at.
Kushiram gave me a personalized block printing lesson and I came away with a pretty cotton scarf with a pattern of peacocks holding swords –– the mascot for a university they did some work for, it turns out. I also got some amazing pictures out of my lesson, see below! Khushiram’s other passion is for photography, and he’s exhibited in shows. Check out his work on Instagram here.
If you go to Jaipur, you can email him ([email protected]) to sign up for your own block printing workshop. He asks for at least four people, at $25 each.
Bhaavya Goenka was inspired to create her zero-waste fashion brand Indo Ito (formerly Iro Iro –– she is in the process of rebranding) when she saw the mounds of offcuts accumulating in her father’s small cut-and-sew factory in Jaipur. Bhaavya takes these off-cuts to a family weaving unit an hour outside of Jaipur so they can weave the scraps into a beautiful textile that is then overdyed. The result is an utterly unique coat. When you see its wabi-sabi style, you can understand why it’s such a hit in Japan. Now Bhaavya is working with MATTER to create a coat for them out of their own offcuts from their Deli factory. The coats will launch this spring.
Bhaavya is also working on a project to revive and document the use of a local traditional fiber called aakh which grows wild all over Rajasthan in the form of a bush with pods. It look similar to the pods of the South American and African kapok tree, actually. Its short staple length makes it unsuitable for fiber mills, so British-supported cotton cultivation displaced it. It grows right out back of the weaving workshop, and the indigenous weavers that Bhaavya works with still retain knowledge of how to home-spin and use aakh. Bhaavya is determined to bring this low-impact fiber back. (Interesting side note: it can and is used by some villagers in Rajasthan as a narcotic. Hopefully that doesn’t prevent its uptake by fashion labels in the future!)
In addition to the zero-waste textile, the family weaving unit does traditional weaving, and is open to experimentation –– they even showed me some rugs they did in the style of Mexican Zapotec weavers! They let me know that they are eager for additional work. To work with them, you can email Bhaavya at [email protected]
Bhaavya’s father’s factory, Shivam International, is currently in the process of getting Fair Trade-certified, and hope to receive the certificate by the end of March. They can do a minimum of about 100 pieces in one style if it is artisanal textiles such as hand weaving or hand block printing, and 700 to 800 meters for screen printing or machine dying.
I think this was my favorite space in Bangalore. Not workshop. Not studio. Space.
Bangalore used to be called “The Garden City,” but green spaces are getting hard to find amongst the new concrete development. I took a taxi across town through thick traffic, but as soon as we turned through the gates into the Tharangini compound, everything quieted. Large trees provide shade, and if you look over the low wall in one direction, a green marsh stretches away into the large adjoining park.
Tharangini is housed in a family compound that Padmini Govind inherited from her family. Her mother started the block print business, collecting vintage block prints from around Bangalore. Now Padmini has turned it into a hub for ethical and sustainable fashion devotees in Bangalore. During the week she manages a team of 20 that uses traditional block print techniques and natural and GOTS-certified dyes, plus a rare reactive print technique called discharge print that uses natural resins, to create traditional sarees and modern prints. During the weekend, she hosts workshops and events, such as a talk on peace silk, or indigo shibori dying. If you find yourself in Bangalore, get in touch to see about a drop-in, all-day workshop that provides you with locally-sourced materials and hundreds of blocks to choose from to make your designs.
The compound may look simple, but the hand-painted signs advertising “made to order: fabric jewellery clothing furnishing” belies the tech-and-tradition fusion of Tharangini’s custom work. Padmini took me in the room where her printers, some of which have been doing this for four decades, quietly stamped patterns onto long bolts of cloth. Teak wood blocks, some of which Padmini estimates to be 90 years old, lined the walls, looking jumbled and chaotic. She pulled some down and showed me how they are actually numbered and organized. They have to be because the patterns are incredibly complex –– one print she showed me required 30 blocks to pull off! When I turned over another block, I was surprised and delighted to see a snakeskin pattern. The cloth being printed in front of me with a minimalist pattern was for a New Orleans designer. But Tharangini also produces for two modern Indian brands I adore, Roopa and Summerhouse.
“We are lucky that our team has been open to experimenting with us,” Padmini says. “Not all are willing to adapt. So I am blessed in that way.”
They work with a wood block carver with three decades of experience who carves at his home in Bangalore. A couple times a week he comes to the studio to pick up patterns that designers have emailed over, and figures out how to translate them into a block print.
“For them to think in terms of how it will map onto the 3D pieces of wood is almost impossible,” Padmini says of the designers she works with. “We just tell them, give us the PDF in the actual size of your design, the Pantone colors you want, and leave the rest to us.”
Paresh Patel, the third-generation owner of Royal Brocades, picked us up in industrial textile hub of Ahmedabad and drove us an hour to a small village named Ridrol, where the last remaining brocade weaving unit of Gujarat has for 70 years created the finest brocade textiles. The workshop has 30 looms and employs dozens of skilled weavers, who migrated here more than a decade ago from Varanasi to seek a better living.
Brocade weaving is immensely complex. A brocade cloth can have 5,000 to 9,000 threads densely packed into the width of a loomed cloth. It was invented in the northern province of Varanasi, then migrated to Gujarat in the 13th or 14th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, England invented a new weaving technology called Jacquard that uses a binary punchcard system to guide the threads for the elaborate pattern. That technology, called Jacquard, migrated to India and stayed about the same up until electric power looms were invented and introduced to India. Now traditional brocade weaving is almost extinct, and in Ahmedabad, only the elite class buys Royal Brocade’s exquisite fabrics.
But Paresh is finding new markets for his fabric, re-establishing the ancient modern trade route of brocade textiles. Since he got Royal Brocades on Facebook and Instagram, they have picked up customers all over the world, from Malaysia and Indonesia to the U.S. and Europe.
“Whatever you want, we can do it,” Paresh says. They offer woven fabrics made with threads that are AZO-free, but Paresh has seen the excitement around natural dyes and learned through internet forums and Facebook groups how to do it himself and established natural dye unit attached to the weaving workshop. Royal Brocade doesn’t have the certification from the government to officially market their handwoven cotton under the khadi name, but for all intents and purposes, it is. You can also choose from luxurious metal threads, raw silk, and they are the only weavers, he says, to offer silk and merino wool brocades.
And yes, you can send a digital design, and Paresh will translate it into a punchcard design for the loom. If you have something fresh and different to hand to him, let him know. After visiting his workshop, I’m excited to see what Paresh can do with your vision!
Bluhenn Sampling Unit
Saloni Shrestha of the ethical fashion brand Agaati brought me outside of New Delhi to visit this sewing unit, which does custom wedding sarees and sampling that is half the price of New York City sampling.
“I could never do business if I was sampling in New York,” Saloni says. “The sampling method is very flexible and accommodating in India. I get two rounds of edits. In NYC, you get one small edit, and each change costs more money. And you can’t do hand embroidery in New York,” she adds.
The owners of this sewing unit are passionate about bringing the ideas of a small designer to life, but have struggled with providing enough steady employment to their sewers to keep them from leaving to work for larger, less ethical sewing units. Definitely consider getting in touch with Prernaa, the female co-founder, at [email protected] for your next sampling project if you would like to keep your costs low and do a solid for this ethical sewing unit.