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  • Writer's pictureKaren Selk

Amazing Fibre Art in BC and India

Vancouver Island Surface Design Association is hosting its annual exhibition, Current Threads at CVAC in Duncan, June 7 - July 5. In conjunction with the exhibition, they are sponsoring a workshop series with instructors: Eleanor Hannah, Gill Riorden, Eve Russet, Lesley Turner, Yuki Yamamoto, and Doreen Zerr. Exhibition:

I am proud to take part in this exhibition of talented fibre artists. It is always a visual treat with a variety of outstanding work from thought provoking to whimsey. A formal opening will take place on June 16 with artists talks taking place from 4 - 6. If you are in the area during this time, please stop in.

I will be available to sell and sign my book: In Search of Wild Silk: Exploring a Village Industry in the Jungles of India, at the Grand Hello of the workshop series the afternoon of June 13 and June 16 at the formal opening of the exhibition. I would enjoy meeting you there.

Following is another Journal Entry from my book In Search of Wild Silk. Weavers singing rug patterns -bicycle inner tube to tie ikat patterns - natural dyes to paint village scenes on cloth and more.

October 1986 - Introduction to Exotic Textiles

Our first journey to India started with a folded blue airmail letter sent to Gulshan Nanda, our only contact in Delhi, stating the date we would arrive at her office. She was the head of the government agency, Central Cottage Industries (CCI), under the Ministry of Textiles. Her staff traveled to the far reaches of the country gathering the best of the hundreds of traditional handicrafts to sell in the CCI stores in the cities. Gulshan was a compassionate, no-nonsense woman who listened with every pore of her being to who we were, what we wanted to see and why. She comprehended immediately! We sat quietly on the other side of Gulshan’s desk, our heads spinning, as she made notes, all the while informing us of what we “must” see and do.

We would start our journey in the northern state of Kashmir to meet the spinners and weavers of cashmere so fine you could pull a shawl through a wedding ring. While there we would absolutely have to witness a master weaver singing the instructions for a complex pattern of colors to weavers sitting side by side hand-knotting fine silk carpets. From the mountains of the north we would have to travel on to the western desert of Rajasthan to meet semi-nomadic embroiderers, who live in their village half of the year and travel the other half by camel, in search of green fodder to feed their cows, sheep and goats. We would see pristine houses constructed of mud and dung with thatched roofs, decorated outside with geometric designs applied with ground up earth of different colors. Inside their homes we would glimpse white walls with sculpted patterns sparkling with embedded mirrors the size of a dime.

Gulshan wanted us to meet the artisans in Rajasthan who made a cloth called dabu: block-printing mud onto cotton to act as a resist before dyeing it in indigo pits dug deep into the earth. Further south in Gujarat, we would encounter the tiers and dyers of bandhani, a technique using sewing thread wrapped tightly around pinches of cloth to create a resist to the dye making designs of dots so fine they look like stars in the night sky. Ahmedabad, home of the Calico Museum of Textiles, would give us an overview of the immense number of styles and techniques used to make Indian fabrics. While in Gujarat it was imperative that we go to the town of Patan, home of the Salvi family. Using natural dyes for millennia, the Salvi's make double ikat petola cloth treasured throughout the Asian world, especially by royalty. In Karnataka we would visit silkworm rearers and reelers (those who unravel silk from the cocoon). We would go to the cocoon market auction house where, before sunrise, farmers bring burlap sacks of cocoons carried on their heads to be auctioned to the reelers, a cocoon Wall Street.

Gulshan insisted we travel onto the east side of the sub-continent to Andhra Pradesh where artisans use natural dyes absorbed into a bamboo pen, wrapped with cotton cloth and tightly bound with string to create kalamkari. Cotton cloth is block-printed, or design outlines drawn by hand with a burnt tamarind stick, then painted using this unusual pen to depict religious and everyday village scenes. A little further north in Odisha, we would spend time with the remote forest-dwelling tribal people who tend wild tasar silkworms. In the nearby villages we would watch women reel the tasar silk from cocoons, using their thighs to twist together the strands of silk. We would learn to understand how handwoven ikat patterns emerge when strips of bicycle inner tube rubber or heavy string are carefully and tightly wrapped around a bundle of threads. Using this precise resist method of dyeing the threads, feathery edged geometrics and depictions of flora and fauna come to life.

Gulshan decreed that we must end our journey in Assam, a northeastern state on the east side of Bangladesh. Assam is the home of two more wild silks, muga and eri. The array of textile techniques and exotic places to which Gulshan insisted we needed to travel was beyond our dreams. This insightful, efficient woman arranged all of this through sectors of the Ministry of Textiles: the Weavers’ Service Centres, Handloom and Technology Centres, and the Central Silk Board. She telexed all of them to expect us and to request they provide us with assistance in the way of transportation and guides. Communication was always dubious in those days and sometimes non-existent in the remote areas, so she typed up letters of introduction for each of our visits on a fine tissue paper we called onion skin. We were so overwhelmed with appreciation and awe that we were temporarily struck mute. That gave Gulshan enough time to jot down the address of where we needed to get permission to travel into Assam and the address of Malathi Ramaswamy, a travel agent, who would help us make plane, train, and bus arrangements.

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