Travels in Textiles


Monday, 22 November 2010

knitting, stitching and pairings

In spite of the weather warnings, I braved the journey to Harrogate on Sunday to visit the Knitting and Stitching show, at the harrogate international centre. The journey there was smooth, but the snow came six hours earlier than forecast so of course the whole town came to stand still, and on the way back, what should have been a 2 hour journey turned into a six hour feat.

However, I was glad I made it. Never having been before, I was overwhelmed at the amount of yarn, stitch, crafts, beads and all sorts of other curiosities and wonderments associated with knitting ans stitching in one huge centre.

The textile gallery was of the most interest to me, and I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of my fellow students and staff at Manchester metropolitan University. It was to accompany the recently published Machine stitch perspectives by Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating. Both the book and the exhibition celebrate the beauty of the sewing machine and the vast amount of results it can produce.

The two are now working an an accompanying book, Hand Stitch Perspectives. Jane's chapters will include some of the communities in India, particularly Gujarat, working in hand embroidery, and some of the projects that are working alongside the artisans to help create sustainable markets for them.

Alice and Jane's work also featured in the MMU project Pairings which was exhibited in the university library from July to November this year. I was intrigued at the outcomes of the collaborative of artists from different disciplines and how two contrasting mediums worked alongside together.

The above work must have been influence by the envelope dowry bags distinctive to embroidering communities in India. Below is the back of one of these bags made by the Dhebaria Rabari community of Kachchh.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Holi article

I'm please to see my article about Holi published in the new issue of Masquerade magazine. - page 9. It fits nicely into the celebration theme, and I love the vibrancy of the images and the way its been laid out.

Celebrating with the locals, Holi 2008 in Hampi.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

an unusual spot to find a rug

The other day I went walking in the Goyt valley in Cheshire and came across this scrap of fabric imbedded in the track leading to a farm. It was sad to see that a rug had just been left to perish. However I had to take a photo of it as I liked the effects of the textures of the woven patterned cloth intermingled with the stones of the path.

Men of Cloth

Gavin Fry

I've just come across lots of pictures from past exhibitions that I've visited. I meant to write about them earlier but have never got round to it.
'Men of Cloth' was at the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale, Greater Manchester from 3rd July to 4th Sep 2010. I can't seem to find out whether it is touring.

It was really refreshing to see a collection of beautiful art work in the textile medium produced by males when it has so often been an art associated with women. I though it was a really nice idea to collate this work into one exhibition, as it is a way of changing and challenging that perception of the textile arts.

This was especially after I had seen so much enthusiasm, passion and skill of the block-printing artisans whilst working with them in India, which is traditionally a male activity.

I have added some pictures of the work I particularly liked.

Michael Brennand-Wood I have always admired the forms his sculptural textiles take.

Matthew Harris explores the 'Symbiotic relationship between textiles and music'

James Hunting reminds me a little of Alice kettle. I love the soft painterly textures with striking details of delicate embroidery stitches in bold colours.

Kazuhito Takadoi This picture doesn't give justice to Takadoi's work, the delicate simplicity and sensitive homage to nature. I just found them so pleasing to look at.

Colin Jenkins - I was attracted to the way he brings what, to me seem like quite boring furnishing fabric swatches to life with quirky embroidered illustrations

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Moroccan Islamic patterns

Above: The same star pattern seen in 4 different contexts. This was something that kept re-occuring.

Blue and white is a common colour combination in the tile work. This pattern can appear quite jumbled and like a random scattering of squares. But when you squint you can see perfectly shaped diamonds. It has many different dimensions, as have the majority of the Islamic patterns.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


There were a few highlights during my trip to Paris which are worth mentioning. Of course we visited all the obvious sites. We experienced one of our few strokes of good luck arriving at the Louvre on the first Sunday of the month which meant free entry! However this did mean constantly squeezing through hoards of people, as if gallery visiting isn't exhausting enough already! Not too bothered about the over praised Mona Lisa, i went in search of ancient artifacts and any clues to some origins of my Indian block printed textiles patterns.

I thought the patterns on this important looking man's coat showed similarities to Indian Ajrakh block printing and in colour also. Looking back at my notes, I can only make out that it is dated 2600 BC. Although I'm now not trusting my roughly scribbled translations from french, as it doesn't look this old. I will always take a proper notepad to galleries in future, and create a clear coding system for the photos

Geese seem to appear constantly in ancient artifacts, and seem to hold important symbolic meaning for the ancient civilisations that created images of them. They are also seen in the patterns on the oldest textiles in evidence found in Egypt, thought to have come from India.

Many other geometric patterns painted onto pots used similar patterns and in the similar natural colours in use today.

By the side of the vast Louvre is Le musee des arts decoratifs. A beautiful old building, it exhibited fashion, art deco and nouveau interiors, jewellery and other styles of decorative art, including a temporary exhibition of design using animal imagery - collection of very garish objects. For me the exhibitions inside were not as impressive as the building, although I did enjoy the exhibits of fashion by some of Paris' famous designers.

In complete contrast to ancient art were the eccentric, eerie sculptures on the pond overlooked by the dominating Pompidou centre. I loved just sitting and viewing these crazy objects, but if sat at night with few people around, I imagine listening to their creaking movements would have created a really eerie atmosphere.

There was something good to come out of missing our train due to the strikes. We had an extra day in Paris and hadn't yet had chance to see the Institut du monde arabe, which I had wanted to visit. We picked up one of the public velos and took our own tour along the seine. Paris architecture does amaze at almost every corner. And this was yet another fascinating building because of its uniqueness and contemporary design. I loved the continuous symmetry in the building's surface pattern that is such a big part of Arabic culture and Islam.
I loved the way geometrical and symmetrical patterns that are so often used in traditional Islamic art and architecture, were here applied to a contemporary context to create quite a striking effect.

Unfortunately you weren't allowed to take photos inside. The building inside wasn't quite as striking as it appears on the outside, although they have an extensive collection of Arabic artifacts and art. Pieces of contemporary paintings were exhibited alongside Typically we were there when they were renovating a whole gallery as well, so usually there would be a lot more to see.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Moroccan mysteries

I've just returned from travels in Morocco. It is the first time I've been somewhere and returned exhausted and baffled by the experience. We hoped to travel by train all the way from Manchester to Tangier by train and boat, and continue on train around Morocco. However, we only managed to make it as far as Paris, where French train strikes prevented us continuing on to Madrid, where we hoped to head through the picturesque Spanish landscape (as a Spanish friend of mine had described it) to Gibraltar to see the exquisite Islamic architecture and sail across to Tangier, the 'city of dreams'.

Overcoming the disappointment, we booked a flight directly from one French romantic city to another, once French romantic city, Casablanca. We then made our way by train to Rabat, a city I became much more entranced by than Casablanca. Maybe it was the warm welcome in a police station with offers of delicious home cooked food, the Eid celebrations and the beautifully decorated and peaceful riad we stayed at. The heat was blistering, and sometimes caused us to drink tea in shaded courtyards, the mosques were a peaceful escape from the bustle of the traffic and Medinas. A friendly, eager museum worker talked me through artifacts on display at the archaeological museum where there were only one other couple visiting. My favourite site was the Kasbah, and its winding brightly blue and white painted streets inside that led up to a view of the sea and the city.

Two storks nest, thought to bring good luck and success according to Moroccan suspicion, atop of a tower at some 13th century ruins.

A train journey from Rabat to Fes, despite the uncomfortable heat due to lack of air conditioning, was highlighted by the company of cute and playful Moroccan kids who loved the attention and abundance of kisses, and playing with my sparkly bracelet!
Fes didn't meet my expectations either. By friends I had been told it was more magical and less touristy than Marrakesh, which it was but much more touristy than Rabat. I did enjoy the walk up to the hill overlooking the Medina and the hills to the other side. I experienced my first antique shop filled with beautiful old Berber and Islamic textiles, pots, wood work, jewellery and brass. The owner was helpful and not pushy or persistent like so many of the sellers in the many souk stalls. He was excited on hearing that I was a textile researcher, and I promised to return when I had the money to buy an authentic Berber textile piece.

Having a spare night between hotels booked in Fes and Marrakesh, we though we'd stop over halfway in the hills. However after a windy bus journey sat next to a boy being sick, arriving in Beni Melal to find it was much bigger, busier and stressful than the small mountain town we were expecting, not finding any guides to accompany us to the mountains and exhausted by the heat, we jumped in a grand taxi all the way to Marrakesh. We were frustrated to find the road was completely straight all the way after we had wasted money on booking a bus ticket for the next day, and a hotel checking in.
But we arrived in Marrakesh relieved and welcomed by friendly staff at a peaceful, riad with a lush green garden and lots of singing birds.
We managed to experience the countryside by heading to the vallee d'Ourika in the Toubkal national park on the edge of the high atlas. The break from hustle and bustle was very welcomed, and it was refreshing to meet a guide who did not cheat us out of money, and just loved showing people the beautiful valley that was his home.
Time in Marrakesh was spent wandering aimlessly yet again round the Medina, visiting the artisan ensemble which sold very similar wares to those in the souks, but at a cheaper fixed price and in the piece of a courtyarded hideaway, visiting the tropical Jardin Majorelle, being forced to buy leather goods after a visit to the tanneries, which we did not even plan on doing, but after getting lost thought a kind man was helping us out, but was actually trying to make money, like many others in this city.

The djeema al fna was what made Marrakesh stand out from the other cities because I had never experienced anything like it. A vast open square, that is dead in the daytime but gradually comes to life at night, with water sellers, entertainers of all sorts, a mass outdoor restaurant, and stall upon stall of orange juice, cake sellers, dried fruit and henna painters. I was fascinated. As soon as you step into the depths of the musicians and magicians and the crowds watching in the depths of the dark un-lit square, it's like you are carried away into another world.

At the same time the mass, dark open space opens opportunity for hashish dealers, sleazy men seeking to relieve their sexual needs through hassling the hoards of western female tourists, and of course the opportunity for pick pockets is endless. I clutched onto my bag, warned off any dodgy looking men, and was ready with an aggressive Arabic phrase should any of them try anything, and immersed myself into the repetitive sound of drums and singing.

The whole time I was searching for storytellers after reading Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights and becoming fascinated with the Moroccan and Arabic tradition of symbolic stories that have been passed down through the centuries. I thought there must be few if no story tellers left after only coming across musicians and conjurers, (the musicians might also have been telling stories but it was too difficult to grasp what they were singing about). However we finally discovered a large group surrounding one man who seemed to be part telling, part acting out a tale. Having an Arabic speaking companion was useful for this, (as it was during many other occasions on the trip). Although we couldn't stay long enough to catch the full story, as we were right at the back of a lot of people, strangely all who were men, which gave me more reason not to hang around!

Friday, 30 July 2010

Manchester's cultural and creative diversity

What I love about Manchester is its' rich diversity and mix of so many different cultures and people. In one city lies so many hidden stories and pathways to completely different worlds, though the people that live here.

I learnt from a lady who came along to my talk at Chorlton Arts Festival that there is a race relations centre within the University of Manchester. Its part of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust that was set up in 2001. It was set up in reaction against racism and named in honour of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah who was murdered in 1986 in the playground of a Manchester high school.

The centre's aim is to create an anti racism culture within education by providing information on immigrant communities who have settled in Manchester. There are narratives of people, from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who have told their story, and how they came to live in Manchester. There is also books on these cultures within different subjects such as education, health, art and more.

I found a book by an British Indian photographer Raghubir Singh who had displayed his photographs of Britain and then India side by side to show the stark contrast between the two cultures. It made me think what a culture shock it would be for anyone having been born and brought up in India to move to Britain permanently and vice versa, both being completely alien environments to the other. This must mean massive adjustments and a confused sense of one's identity.

I stumbled upon an exhibition catalogue of Contemporary Pakistani Print Makers as part of the Festival of Muslim cultures, something which particularly excited me as it the collaboration between British and South Asian artists and designers is something I'd love to help facilitate in within textiles. It was led by Sarah Hopkins who explained 'Working on the Festival of Muslim Cultures Print Project was an unforgettable experience. I am inspired by the fact that the arts can influence societal change, enabling people from diverse backgrounds to enter into the experiences of others, encouraging communities to embrace other cultures and heritages'.
Many of the artisans drew upon personal experiences or identity to inform their work. Samina Iqbal depicted her constant struggle to balance her art practice with her daily chores and routines, something I can relate to as I'm sure many can when one is one's own manager/employer, as well as working women and mothers. Samina had formed this struggle in a circle metaphor to symbolise the never ending tasks of the daily routine

I have also visited Shisha recently, an arts agency that works to promote South Asian arts and crafts. I had contacted Fareda Khan, the deputy director after having been recommended to by a few people. They facilitate residencies in the UK and internationally and commission art work and exhibitions to help artists develop their practice. Along with this they offer 'artists surgeries' to offer advice and help facilitate ideas for established and up and coming artists.

They also work with education establishments, galleries and curators to showcase the work of contemporary South Asian artists and craftspeople. The Asia Triennial, one of the projects they work on in Manchester will be happening in 2011. The 2008 triennial was very successful and included a diverse range of site specific installations, interactive projects and gallery exhibitions. I wrote about the project 'Between Kismet and Karma' in a previous blog posting, one of Shisha's recent exhibitions at Leeds art gallery.

There are a few things happening in the run up to the Asia Triennial. Currently at the Chinese Arts Centre, which I intend to visit, and there is an exhibition and workshops alongside with the women asian communities in Cheetham Hill.

I was grateful and delighted to receive really helpful and informative advice from Fareeda, who was interested in my research and my future hopes. This was especially nice to receive from someone whose work I strongly admire. We discussed future opportunities and she pointed me in some related directions and to people I should contact and meet with. We agreed to keep in touch, and I left feeling a new sense of encouragement and motivation.

I also went along to some of the Manchester Jazz festival performances, which included a huge range of styles and fusions of music from all over the world. I loved the Serge Tebu project because of the surprising mix of sounds, particularly in the two women's voices which resonated beautifully with the violin, flute (which I'm always drawn to, having previously played jazz flute), and the fundamental jazz instruments of bass, keys and drums.

Notes on Sindh's fascinating history and culture

It seems that often we only learn or know about another country by watching the news after a tragedy has struck it.

The flooding that is currently hitting Pakistan is an example of this amongst many other natural disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year and the South Asian tsunami a few years earlier.

In 2001 a devastating earthquake hit India and parts of Pakistan, the epicentre being Kachcch which lies south of Sindh and across the border in India. Many people I have told about my visits to Kachchh only knew of the area because of this earthquake. Although, a terrible thing to happen, the livelihood of many artisans who were struggling before the earthquake now have thriving businesses. This was due to the heightened attention the area saw following the disaster. Along with the prime relief effort of food and new homes came government and NGO help to re-start businesses and enable artisans to re-build their lives through what they know and have skills in.

Being so close to Kachchh, Sindh has many cultural similarities, especially because many communities now living in Kachchh migrated here from Sindh, and many still have family there. This has happened for centuries up until partition after 1947 which saw large movements of people between the two provinces.

Sindh is home to the Indus valley civilisation site of Mohenjo daro ( I have just found out it means 'mound of the dead') Evidence was found at this site the practice of weaving, madder and indigo dyeing and patterning cloth as well as symbolic stone carving that were found to have originated around 2500 BC. Other major Indus sites are Harappa in Punjab and Dholavira in Kachchh.

I have been searching for the origins of some of the patterns that are used today in ajrakh printing. As it originated in Sindh, this means looking to within this province for the meanings and stories behind these, and why they are so symbolic of both a Sindhi and Kachchhi person's identity.

While viewing the Sindhi ajrakh cloths in the V&A, I came across a familiar pattern of interlinking circles, which bear striking resemblance to patterns found on Harappa civilisation pots dating to the 2500 BC :

This is an image of the old patterns found at Harappa taken from the book 'Threadlines Pakistan'

This is one of the Ajrak cloths from Sindh, Pakistan, not dated but probably mid 20th century.

In such a simple pattern, there can be seen so many further patterns and shapes - as well as the circles, a four petalled flower can be seen, diamonds, squares and triangles. It is mesmerizing to look at and the fact it continues endlessly is why it has endless connotations and symbols in many cultures and religions. It is considered by some to be a symbol of sacred geometry, said to contain ancient, religious value depicting the fundamental forms of space and time.

The patterns of Ajrakh are made up of symmetrically geometric forms typical of Islamic art. Ismail Mohammed says the patterns come from God, and it is said that the perfect symmetrical patterns reflect the perfection of God's creation.

The trefoil found on a stone king priest at Mohenjo daro can also be linked with patterns still used today. It is thought by some to have strong religious links to the trinity, the unity of powerful gods of the sun, water and earth.

The ajrakh artisans think their kakkar (cloud) pattern derived from this trefoil pattern

Having never visited Sindh, I have little knowledge on the province. I do hope to visit there and learn more about its fascinating history, and find out whether old traditions are still in practice, such as the use of these historic patterns in the printed and embroidered cloths. I do hope that, like Kachchh the crafts can continue and provide the world with a positive and hopeful view of the country and its people through beautiful products with important history and fascinating stories.

A wonderfully written book Empires of the Indus, by Alice Albinia, provides a compelling insight into the world of the Indus valley civilisation. While touring the length of the river, she speaks to communities now living along the river banks, as well as giving a historic narrative of who once lived in the same spots.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Glimpses of goings on in London

An old Ajrakh block-printed piece from Sind, Pakistan in the V&A collection

A fragment of medieval block-printed textile found at Fostat in the V&A collection

I went down to London last week where as well as finding some valuable research material in the British Library and the National Art Library and viewing the V&A's collection of block-printed fabrics of Gujarat and Rajasthan, I managed to catch a few exhibitions.

I was just in time to see the Quilts exhibition at the V&A although it probably wasn't the best time. It being the last week meant hoards of people were rushing to catch it before it ended. This included big quilting guilds and WI groups, tourists, families, school groups and all sorts. It meant we had to book a time to view it to reduce the amount going in at the same time. There obviously weren't limited places though, as by the time it came to my allotted time the gallery was heaving. I don't think I've ever seen so much people in one exhibition at once. It was nice to see so many people are interested, but I could hardly see each piece and it was a case of queueing up and waiting your turn to see each piece!

Not being a quilter myself, I don't think I have enough understanding to fully appreciate the skills that goes into the making of them. However I have always found them fascinating examples of an object that is both functional, aesthetic, stimulates memories of warmth, comfort and security and as works of art that hold a wealth of memories and history.

Quilting is finding a new lease of life through the new desire for hand-made that is increasing since the realisation in a decline in so many traditional crafts. The above quilt 'Punctuation' by Sara Impey was created while reflecting on letters she found written to her by a friend hinting at a past relationship. Like so many of the historical quilts, this one has also been made to document important events in the makers' lives and to be used as objects for remembrance and reflection.

I love this one by Pauline Burbridge 'Applecross quilt'. Rather than summon up memories and histories, this piece seems to convey the artists' love and passion for the countryside and rural landscapes. Quilting is a medium that allows the embroiderer to play with texture and stitch and in this piece these techniques have created effects of appealing landscape textures.

I also visited the 'Magnificent Maps' exhibition at the British Library. It shone a new light on the history and use of maps for me and I'm sure many others too. As well as having a purpose of finding where countries and places are situated, a demonstration of power and propaganda or an education tool, this exhibition shows they are often masterpieces of art.

A map in the residence of a powerful ruler could show off his wealth and the extent of countries and land he had power over. These often filled whole walls of a gallery in the palace of a ruler, serving as decoration alongside sculpture and and furniture.
Similarly a map in the house of a merchant could show the source of his wealth and demonstrated his pride through the representation of his homeland, town or country estate.

The high level of skill and artistic quality in the maps is amazing considering the limited technology available at the time they were produced.

It is interesting to compare the uses and meanings of these historical maps with the way maps are used today. Google's Street view tool is one example of new technology opening up a world of possibilities, for the use (or misuse) of maps.