The Fabric of India at the V&A

Muslin border decorated with beetle wings (click image for source)
Muslin border decorated with beetle wings (click image for source)

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?

Rashmi Varma, 2015. This natural-dyed 'Khadi' has the traditional look of a sari but the convenience of a fitted-garment: the pleats are sewn in and there's a side zipper.

Rashmi Varma, 2015. This natural-dyed ‘Khadi’ has the traditional look of a sari but the convenience of a fitted-garment: the pleats are sewn in and there’s a side zipper.

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.

WIP: Raw Silk Bamboo Shoot Dress

WIP: Raw Silk Bamboo Shoot Dress

The Fabric of India exhibition is until 10 January.

With thanks to Jo 🙂

11 thoughts on “The Fabric of India at the V&A

    • The daughter’s apartment is really earning its keep isn’t it 🙂

      But seriously, this is a lovely time of year to visit museums: there’s a buzz about when you travel but away from the shops it’s not manic (and you can buy a pressie or two in the gift shops). I’m planning to see a couple of non-sewing exhibitions soon: the Eames at the Barbican and Escher at Dulwich.

  1. Love the look of those beetle wings Marianna, but I think I’d find them creepy to wear? Just the other day i found a dead Christmas beetle which had amazingly coloured wings, for a moment I was tempted to put those wings to use on a garment, luckily there was only a pair!
    Your bamboo shoot dress is looking lovely, chevrons from waist to shoulder line are so flattering, especially on one so slight as yourself!

  2. Marianna, this is absolutely stunning. You always make me want to become a much better seamstress, so I can do things like this. The darts coming up from below like that and the seaming is so flattering. I look forward to finding out a little more about how it came about. I believe that the fabric is lovely to sew. And that colour! I remember the first time I sewed with silk thread – was amazed at how it disappeared into the fabric.

  3. I saw that a few weeks ago. My friend and I were going to the Shoes but decided to pop into the fabric of India first, several hours later we emerged and found we didn’t have time for the Shoes! It’s the soft of exhibition the V&A does really well – very informative and enjoyable. I loved the room a the beginning where they were talking about dying techniques and embroidery (loved the film about he crewel work). The pieces of crochet were fabulous too.

    • It’s wonderful to become absorbed by something new, and going with a friend means you notice more than if alone. Will you go back to see the shoes? I would love to see that exhibition again as I didn’t blog my visit and now my memories are hazy!

  4. Thank you for the little review on the exhibition – it sounds wonderful.
    Your WIP looks amazing – I can’t wait to see the big reveal. Is it to wear over the Christmas period for a party or other ‘do’? From what I can see it will be a fabulous evening dress and I can imagine that colour is stunning on you with your dark hair.

    • It’s for a Christmas Dinner (at my AC club) but more to demonstrate the bamboo shoot working on a dress rather than to dress up.

      The fabric was bought in a hurry from the market stall (my nearest fabric outlet). The choice of colours wasn’t ideal and there were too many two-tone silks that change colour depending on which direction they’re viewed from. Green seemed to the best of the bunch but I was worried I’d look like a Christmas tree. Then I decided oh so what if I do!

  5. I think I can say with authority that the green of your dress is definitely beetle wing and absolutely rich and glorious. You’ve got me thinking about sarees and what I could make with all those border prints and shifting colours…….

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