A very dear friend got V&A Museum membership for Christmas and I was delighted that she wanted to cash her present in early by suggesting we go to The Fabric of India exhibition.
I love saris. In TV programmes about India, I’m always struck by the beauty of the women who wear them: even girls from the disadvantaged sections of Indian society tend to have a kind of flawless delicacy that’s offset not just by swathes of the rich colour but also the cropped blouses worn underneath which expose the back and the narrow, short sleeves which flatter the arms. The V&A exhibition is not about the sari though. Some garments are for babies and men, princes and grooms. There are floor and wall coverings featuring the poppy and other flowers, themes from a variety of religions (there’s a very Indian-looking Jesus!) while the noble elephant – the nation’s undervalued beast of burden – is appliqued or printed in several of the designs.
This exhibition has given me a very necessary remedy for my lack of knowledge about fabric, beginning with information on how silks and cottons are woven, coloured and decorated. Embroidery and block printing are explained, and displayed are some very intricate pieces invested with centuries of traditional methods and hundreds if not thousands of hours of work. I used to dabble heavily in tye-dye; in fact for most of my late teens (i.e. the Fat Years) I’d be dressed in Indian dresses bought in ‘head shops’ which I’d tye-dye (along with half the kitchen) but the colours rarely survived much washing so I find it hard to believe that the use of wax and dye-fixers is so effective, but it clearly is, as most of the exhibits date back to the mid-19th century and some are centuries older.
The short videos were very helpful. I was mesmerised by the story of the rearing of silk caterpillars. After spending their early days indoors, they are taken outside and become the foie gras of the fabric world, feasting non-stop and growing up to 12 times their initial size in a month (I know it’s Christmas, but don’t get any ideas!). When all the leaves of a tree are munched bare, their human masters gently transport the caterpillars to trees new!
I particularly liked a film clip of a man producing (at quite a speed) the chain stitch, both hands working on each side of the fabric which is stretched taught over a frame. The hooking action of the bottom hand reminded me very much of the movement of the bobbin case in the modern sewing machine (you can see a similar demo in this video on YouTube). I also enjoyed the film about the growing cotton boll, pretty as a magnolia flower.
Next year I’ll be making some garments from saris for a client who’s had them passed down to her by her mum. When she showed them to me, I surprised by their variety in weight and designs – there are lots of possibilities for giving them a new life. I was very curious what the modern day collection of Indian garments at the V&A would offer but I didn’t see any refashioned saris. Instead I found this delicate chambray-like khadi. Isn’t it lovely?
After the exhibition when I got home, I began working with raw silk for the first time. The colour is
Christmas tree beetle-wing green. So far it’s been one of the easiest, most forgiving fabrics, for a brute like me. It stays put while cut, the stitches sink in and become invisible (though they’re easy to remove when discovering a mistake). But the best bit is that the rough layers grip each other so there’s no need for a walking foot or for those adjustments you make when the top fabric runs ahead of itself.
The Fabric of India exhibition is until 10 January.
With thanks to Jo 🙂