I was able to visit various workshops and factories in India: some were very tiny and basic, some much larger concerns involved in mass production. Conditions for workers vary enormously; everywhere, employees work long and hard.
Some workshops I visited were making textiles for every day use. Some were producing very traditional work, for example wood block and screen printing in Ahmedabad, hand embroidery in Jaipur, while in Varanasi (Benares), weavers using often ancient Jacquard looms, still produce gold and silver thread and silk bridal saris.
I started in Mumbai, home of Bollywood, where film has a great influence on fashion. I wanted to understand much more of â??behind the scenesâ?? and was fortunate to be allowed to visit a company, Jardine Arts and Exports, owned by Mr and Mrs Khan. Here the workers are highly skilled and highly valued.
Jardine make lavish hand embroidered fabrics involving beading, appliquÃ©, and the finest needlework on net and sheer fabrics. These dazzling fabrics, of unmistakeably â??Indianâ?? origin, are exported, largely to the U.S., for all sorts of uses: western style wedding and evening gowns, for example. Jardine is a good example of an Indian firm whose skills enable the manufacturing of textiles which are internationally desirable (as Asian fabrics always have been). Hollywood stars have worn garments originating here, to the Oscars – an interesting cross over in ideas of film glamour.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the way in which the firmâ??s output is ultimately produced in a dialogue with fashion houses in New York, because this contemporary international exchange seems to echo the centuries-old conversations over textile design between South Asia and Britain.
Mrs Khan kindly invited me to spend time with her as she went through two days at the end of her working week. The techniques used in her company are age old and ubiquitous in the textile industry in South Asia; but her firm has developed them to a high level.
She explained how she employs a young designer who produces the first pencil designs on thin paper (see the first image above).
The drawing is transferred by the age old method of â??pricking and pouncingâ?? on to the fabric â?? the design is pricked out with a needle and chalk is rubbed through the tiny holes, creating removable, ghostly guidelines for the embroiderers.
Mrs Khan then selects threads, beads and other findings and works with her two talented male embroiderers to interpret the drawn design, producing a swatch. The second image above shows the chalk guidelines, if you look closely.
The next series of images shows a swatch developed with a western wedding dress in mind. The swatch is sent to a designer in New York who uses it as an inspiration to create a life-size sketch on paper, for an entire gown. This drawing is sent back to Jardine, often with suggested variations to the original swatch. Mrs Khan then liaises with a much larger workshop to interpret the drawing, now producing the pieces for the actual gown, the panels, sleeves, etc. The final making-up will be done in New York.
Once complete, the pieces are laid out on a large light box and inspected for quality. Do the edges match? Are there any errors? Still before packing, the Swarovski crystals used must be painstakingly counted. The women workers who inspect and count and pack are also skilled, and the process is fast. Before you know it, the beautiful dress pieces, the long, long veils in swathes all over the inspection table, are being brought under control, are neatly folded into tissue paper â?? have gone.