Manchester  Alison Welsh: Hand Made

Hand Made is the outcome of a research project by Alison Welsh which investigates the fashion design potential of new fabrics made from ‘old world’ organic Kala (Gossipium Herbaceum) grown in Kachchh, in northern India. The work was shown at Bunka University, Tokyo, in November 2014.

Unlike most of the cotton grown in India today, which is hybridized with other plants or genetically modified, Kala Cotton is indigenous and genetically pure. The Kala Cotton Project, managed by Indian crafts support agency Khamir, is working with growers, weavers and designers to create new products from fabrics made of this cotton. Hand Made outlines Alison Welsh’s involvement from a designer’s perspective, working with rural artisans in Gujarat to develop a range of contemporary womenswear garments, in order to test the design potential of these fabrics.

Welsh has worked with Bhujodi master weaver Shamji Vishram Vankar, developing organically dyed fabric designs, which blend British and Indian heritage cutting techniques with a more minimal western fashion fit and sensibility. Initially sample garments were developed and manufactured in England and India, referencing traditional Indian detailing and pattern cutting methods. More recently, fieldwork carried out within the Rabari community in Bhujodi has led to the introduction of embroidery into the range of garments. Hand Made aims to deliver positive social and economic impact to the rural artisans of Kachcch, through the creation of new and sustainable products, and the promotion of Kala Cotton to the international design community. This ongoing project endeavours to develop a range of flattering, commercial dresses made from this indigenous variety of ‘old world’, genetically pure, organic cotton.

Background

Located in a scorched, waterless region in the far north west of India is one of the world’s most prolific areas for traditional crafts and textiles. Since the devastating earthquake of 2001, the region has rapidly changed, largely due to external investment, and is fast developing into a centre for heavy industry. The climate is harsh; it is one the warmest regions in the country, with summer temperatures of around 45°c, and water is scarce. It is here that the NGO Khamir has set up an initiative to develop and promote the use of Kala Cotton, and to improve the supply chain between the organic cotton farmers, spinners and weavers in the region.

The history of Kala Cotton goes back much further than living memory, and it is revered as a fundamental part of India’s rich textile heritage. The fabric it produces is very appealing, though not in a sophisticated or luxurious manner; it is a quiet humble, raw and pure fabric. It feels uncontaminated and kind to the skin, slightly rough and crisp to handle.

Working in parallel with Khamir, designer Alison Welsh’s goal is to investigate the fashion design potential of newly developed woven fabrics made from this organic Kala Cotton. Welsh’s practice has been mainly connected with Indian garments since her first visit to Gujarat in 2007. This initial research trip, visiting craft villages in northern Kachchh and the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, proved be the start of a long research journey. Welsh is not alone in being inspired by the rich textiles of this region: it is a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and designers have focussed on the regions rich, heavily decorated, vibrant textiles as a source for their research or their products. However, it was not the richly coloured embroidered garments that caught Welsh’s imagination, but the humble, plain white occupational clothes worn by the farmers in northern Gujarat. There are three types of robes worn by the men in this region: the angarakha, the jama and the kediyun. All three are variations of a traditional garment, which is normally white, skilfully cut and constructed and gathered at the waist.

Welsh’s early research led to the development of the project Translating Tradition (2011), which investigated methods of working with Indian tailors. This was a collaborative research project, which combined Western design practice with contem­porary Gujarati tailoring techniques. Welsh analysed the cut and construction of the angarakha, the jama and the kediyun in museums in India and London and developed a private collection of everyday garments, which were used for design reference. The outcome of Translating Tradition focused on the individual interpretation of a single design by four Indian tailors, and revealed an interesting variety of skills, techniques and detailing.

This experience prompted Welsh to look more broadly into the cut and construction of traditional Indian garments, and to reconceptualise these as womenswear. This resulted in the project Field to Fashion (2013), which established a new collaborative model involving both Khamir and the growers, weavers and dyers of Kachchh. Field to Fashion resulted in a series of design prototypes: dresses, skirts and scarves, which were exhibited in The Queen’s Gallery at the British Council, New Delhi in November 2013. Audience feedback from this exhibition led to Welsh’s decision to include embroidery and hand-stitching in a new series of garments, and to experiment with hand-sewn garments using the skills of the Rabari embroiderers.

Kala Cotton

The plants of Gossipium Herbaceum are small, almost dwarf like, and are among the most water efficient cottons in the world. The seeds grow well in Gujarat, despite the level of drought this region suffers from. Kala Cotton is naturally highly resistant to pests and diseases. It is hand-picked by the village women just after a rainfall, and every part of the plant is fully utilised. The pod (calyx) has to be picked along with the actual cotton lint. This is soaked and boiled to soften the shell, before being fed to the cattle and buffalo. The women separate out the seeds by hand and press them to make oil. These by-products provide the growers will an additional income.

Khamir (an organisation which supports traditional creative industries) is working with Satvik (an organisation which promotes environmentally sound farming practices) to support the farmers and artisans of Kutch in developing the supply chain of organic cotton between the farmers, the spinners and the weavers. The aim of the Kala Cotton project is to develop holistic and sustainable cotton. Khamir is also working with designers to create new products from fabrics made of Kala Cotton. Welsh was invited to work with these rural artisans to develop a range of contemporary garments which test the design potential of the fabrics.

Developing the fabrics

Kala Cotton fabric has many exceptional properties. The short or medium length staple cotton is just 22 to 23 mm long; it is very absorbent, strong, and surprisingly soft to the touch. It drapes and hangs well on the body, not unlike a soft, pliable linen. Like a good pair of jeans, the fabric improves with age and laundering. It feels warm to touch and is less crisp than conventional cotton. It is hand woven and naturally dyed, in natural earth based colours. Unlike most of the cotton grown in India today, which is hybridised with other plants or genetically modified, Kala Cotton is indigenous and genetically pure.

Welsh realised from the outset that the fabric possessed its own unique qualities, which were going to be very different to the Khadi cotton she had used for Translating Tradition. In December 2012 she had been given some tiny samples of Kala Cotton fabric by Barney Hare-Duke, the Director of A Fine Line, who had visited Kachchh earlier that year and made the link to the NGO Khamir. The samples were immediately interesting to Welsh. The graphic qualities of the weave construction looked contemporary and fashionable to her western eye.

In March 2013 Welsh visited Khamir herself, and also visited Bhujodi, a village with a reputation for producing very fine hand-woven fabrics. She interviewed the staff at Khamir, and purchased a wide selection of fabrics and scarves to test out the different fabric types and to become familiar with their different weights and qualities. She also began working in conjunction with Bhujodi master weaver Shamji Vishram Vankar, who developed weave designs for Kala Cotton, specifically to be make up into dresses. Shamji Bhai’s fabric is very soft to the touch, and hangs and presses very well. It is full of irregularities, as it is hand-woven, but this is a fundamental part of the character of the fabric.

Welsh’s design work started at this point, working in a sketchbook whilst in India, sometimes alongside Shamji Bhai. This initial stage was spent developing fast initial ideas, which blended British and Indian heritage cutting techniques with a more minimal western fashion sensibility.

Producing the garments

Welsh set out to explore the commercial potential of Kala Cotton by producing flattering, wearable garments made from this chemical free, lightweight fabric. The sales potential for organic products is often based on the actual ‘organic-ness’ of the fabric, but Welsh wanted to ensure that her garments would also have commercial potential because they would flatter the body. Her aim was to find out if it was possible to create garments which would sell for their aesthetic qualities first and for their organic properties second: dresses that women would want to wear, and that would feel good on the body.

The initial stages of designing and making patterns focussed on how to make the garments commercial and flattering whilst working within the limitations of the fabric, and proved to be challenging. The fabric frayed badly, and this limited the shapes that the fabric could accommodate. For example, tight fitting garments were not possible. The patterns were cut using western pattern cutting techniques, and by experimenting with shapes and grains to maximize the impact of the traditional woven designs. A level of technical sophistication was intro­duced through the use of tight sleeves and under-arm gussets, which are snug to the body. The tight fitting sleeves and upper bodice sections contrasted successfully with the fullness of the dresses. The shapes are deliberately understated, and volume was added through the traditional Indian use of an inserted ‘godet’.

These garments explored the juxtaposition of contemporary fashion with traditional Indian garments, combining Kala Cotton with traditional Gujarati shirt forms. They utilised organic indigo dyeing and made use of tasselled hems and the natural selvedge to celebrate the intrinsic value and the unique features of each piece of woven fabric.

In April 2014 Welsh resumed her fieldwork in Kachchh, accompanied by Barney Hare-Duke, visiting the cotton fields and interviewing the cotton farmers of Adesar village in Rapar Taluka. These visits provided an invaluable insight into the conditions in which the cotton grows. The cotton came from small, impov­erished plants. The farmers grow a range of crops in order to make a living, as cotton alone would not provide them with a livelihood. Welsh took along a garment to show the farmers, and this proved to be a moment of great excitement, as, surprisingly, they had never seen their cotton woven into cloth before.

Shamji Bhai and his brother Dinesh Bhai organised a series of workshops, making garments with traditional Rabari embroiderer Vala Ben and tailor Pachan Bhai in Bhujodi. Welsh spent a week working directly with tailor and embroider, explaining the pattern cutting methods that she had previously used to manufacture the garments in England, and in turn learning stitching and pattern cutting techniques from them. This period was crucial in developing her knowledge of the local embroidery techniques and the names of particular sewing methods, which enabled further design work to be undertaken on her return to England. Three prototype garments were produced as a result of these workshops, and Shamji Bhai has continued to develop new woven fabrics specifically for the project.

There is still more work to do, to enable the garments to be put into full production in India in the future. Further collab­oration is needed to ensure that the quality of production is consistent, and more testing is required to see how the garments withstand laundering and daily use. What is clear, however, is that Alison Welsh’s Hand Made project provides a fascinating model of international creative collaboration, and offers a glimpse of an exciting future for organic Kala Cotton.

Alison Welsh is Head of the Department of Apparel at Manchester Metropolitan University.

HAND MADE 18 – 26 November 2014, Bunka Gakuen University, Tokyo.

Written by John Macklin