Indian textiles have long held great appeal to European consumers; so much so that in the 17th Century the Indian textile industry were seen as a direct threat to British textile manufacture. This resulted in the ban of textile imports from India and in turn gave rise to a lively trade in smuggled chintz. Since then, Indian textiles have inspired plenty of British fashion trends across the 19th and 20th Centuries. However it is unusual to find much for sale in the UK these days that is handmade using traditional methods and designs, and even more rare to find the uncut cloth.
This weekend I had the pleasure of travelling to Rye, on the South East coast, to visit the drapers Merchant & Mills. Merchant & Mills is a shop for committed makers: it is filled with serious haberdashery for serious projects, alongside beautiful linens, cottons and wools that invite you to take extra care in making them up. The stock and packaging masterminded by owners Carolyn and Roderick is united by an elegant and utilitarian aesthetic and positions their brand in far remove from the pink and flowery look that characterises the majority of shops aimed at the home dress maker. Next to the subtle linens, cottons and wools from Europe and the UK, Merchant and Mills also stock a selection of hand printed textiles from India.
For the ladies of the 17th and 18th century the attraction of Indian textiles lay in the intricate, multi-coloured, vibrant and colour-fast modern designs possible using complicated chintz processes (You can find out more about the techniques and trade here). In contrast, Carolyn is drawn to the more simple designs. She believes that these traditional textiles are relevant to the 21st century exactly because of their imperfect handmade quality; the visibility of ’the craft’, especially since ‘today producing textiles is easier than ever. With digital printing you can do anything and it is perfect every time’. She explains that it’s not about: ‘thirty different colours on a print, or not at the level we are buying at. What charms me most is the traditional technique and motifs that we can bring into a context that makes it look modern’.
Carolyn talks throughout our meeting about the importance of keeping a ‘modern’ look in order to appeal to the contemporary buyer: ‘We limit what we buy, we’ve got quite a specific taste to reflect what we do and to keep it modern’. Having partnered with an Indian textile co-operative to source stock for some time, in April this year Carolyn and Roderick made the decision to go to India and do their own research. On their first trip to India in April they:
‘bought loads of stuff back, even a scrap that big. If we liked it, we bought it. […] sometimes we’d buy a few bolts or just a couple of meters – so as to bring it back to the UK and say “now I see it in the UK, what do I think of it now, do I still love it, or is it a bit bonkers?” – fortunately most of the stuff that we bought back we really really loved’.
Since this trip they have sold through a lot of the stock that they initially bought and are now ‘honing down the range to what we are going to stock long term […] We’re looking for great colours and simplicity really, so we don’t buy anything really traditional.’
They focussed their visit on Bagru a district thirty kilometers from Jaipur known for its block printing and natural dying. She describes with excitement how:
‘in Bagru you could see how incredibly hand done it is. From the washing of the fabric, all the way through the block printing and the dying. I was just amazed – you get an old lady on a low a stool, just printing by hand, and then covering it with sand before it is dyed. I couldn’t believe it is so hand done, there is no mechanics to it at all. And I think that comes through in the fabrics, you get all these nuances, where the block doesn’t quite match up. And it is what we want from it, we want it to be non-mechanical and handmade.’
She later shows me a shift dress made from one of their most popular Indian prints and you can see what she means: the simplest of garments to make becomes something really beautiful when made up in a fabric that bears its own inherent irregularities. She likens it to the difference ‘between a machine knitted jumper and a hand knitted jumper’: it bears the makers’ mark – placing it in absolute opposition to the bulk of textiles commercially available today. Carolyn observes that today there is ‘a huge desire to keep craft alive, to keep the weavers working […khadi] is a vehicle that you can buy into to keep that going, to keep the craft alive as we in the west, and in India, get more and more digitised, we need to keep these fabrics alive’.
Merchant & Mills continue a centuries old tradition of finding a place in contemporary society for handmade textiles produced in India on a small scale using traditional methods. We hope to tell a little more of the global story of handmade Indian textiles in the exhibition through showcasing some of the earliest existing fragments of exported Indian textiles to destinations all over the world alongside pieces from the twentyfirst century.