Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

Four Warps plus Four Colours equals variations on a theme

I have not touched a loom since my early days at primary school when we sat at our desks with a small table loom and wove ourselves a woollen scarf. If I remember correctly it was a heddle box loom (similar to the image below) and I loved working out what would or might happen when various wefts met various warps - the intersection of art and mathematics! I cannot remember what happened to the scarf or which colours I used although I have a vague recollection of yellow somewhere in the mix. My ancestors in Scotland and Denmark wove using colours foraged in fields and fjords and set with steaming pee in boiling, steeping cauldrons - but here I am carried away again in the myths of time! So it was with some primitive understanding that I embarked on a collaboration with Bhujodi weaver Rajesh Vishram Valji, then a recent graduate of Kala Raksha Vidhylaya, and son of master weaver Vankar Vishram Valji. For his final presentation Rajesh designed a series of scarves, stoles and shawls based on Rabari designs and it was one of these that caught my eye as a potentially marketable product. I knew the colours were not to Australian taste and as I do prefer to work with natural dyes, I suggested to Rajesh that we adapt the designs to nature's palette. Working on the adage that less is more, I also lessened the original amount of embellishment. In my own design ethos, when too many ideas converge in one piece, I revert to the rule of three and that was how we proceeded: 3 x colours per piece, 3 x motifs and 3 x decorative elements (in Rajesh's aesthetic it was less and in mine more). I love these cultural differences - they are the dynamic on which we thrive.

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The kind of loom I used when at Waiwhetu primary school; a simple single heddle box loom. Image courtesy Internet.

We chose four warps in natural colours; madder, lac, indigo and the natural wool itself. That allowed for variation in the weft - indigo with lac, madder with lac, lac with lac, and white with lac and so on. The possibilities opened Rajesh's eyes to seemingly endless permutations. I set a limit on accent colours - grey/green (pomegranate and indigo mix) pomegranate (pale yellow) and catechu (brown). I duly ordered one warp of each of the four colours (one warp, 45m, is a minimum order) and gave Rajesh free reign to play with wefts while still maintaining the rule of three. I waited a long time (standard practice in India) for the order. When the pieces finally appeared on one of my visits to Kutch 18 months later I was thrilled with the results and departed with some 80 pieces. Selling was another story; it took a very long time and yet, here I am five years later, with only a handful left. It is a pity that our aesthetic leans towards the European, towards easy care and low cost (ergo synthetic) and that our appreciation for the natural and traditional is limited only to admiring.

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Top Left: Natural fermented indigo; Top Right: Only natural; Bottom Left: Detail scarf; Bottom Left: Lac warp on loom;

And what did I learn from the experience? I learned (once again) that patience is required when working with traditional artisans; I missed the winter selling season that year and in itself that was not an issue because I work beyond trends. It is an issue though when one requires return on investment - this approach would never do in banking! There is a limited market for goods such as these in Australia, competition is strong within a small pool of suppliers and one needs a good marketing strategy (not my strength) in order to succeed. Would I do it again? Yes, probably, but not to this scale. I have since learned that I can do smaller warps (full is 45 meters - about 22 scarves) and I would limit the variations. The other major consideration is cost; at the current landed price wholesale is not possible and this reduces opportunities. While online shopping increases potential I also know that potential can only be realised when the market can be reached. Marketing again!

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Top Left: Lac warp and weft; Top Right: Indigo warp, lac weft; Bottom Left: madder warp and weft; Bottom Right: lac warp natural weft; Details/accents: pomegranate, indigo, catechu, madder, lac;