A Link in the Chain

Judy Ross is all about chain stitch

In her company’s early days, Judy Ross commuted between her houseboat and her production facility in a shikara – a slender skiff with palm leaf paddles used in the lake region of Kashmir.  Daily life looks rather more ordinary today, with both home and office in plain old Manhattan. But the quality and originality of Ross’s textile and rug collections remain definitively out of the ordinary.
 
Ross’s fabrics, pillows, and rugs build from millennia-old chain-stitch techniques. Starting with scarves, and now working in all manner of home textiles, Ross has arrived at a combination of the right raw materials, extremely high (and consistent) quality standards, and an original design voice – which is why her work is sold at the best stores in the US. And why her customer base is so loyal.
 
The design voice comes in large part from her college training as a painter and textile designer. “My painting style was always decorative, so it was easy to move back and forth between painting and textiles. When a fashion designer asked me, as a painter, to design prints for her line, I jumped right in.”  The fashionista in question was an East Village designer very popular in the 1980s, and she had great success at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s with Ross’ painted print designs. These earned Ross lots of attention and lots of work from Seventh Avenue. However, after five years of working in “big apparel,” Ross wanted to get back to a sense of freedom and creativity. She wanted to travel.
 
Not long after her wanderlust took root, she admired artist Robert Kushner’s chain-stitched Indian scarf at an opening at Holly Solomon’s gallery. Ross put chain-stitch and wanderlust together, ruffled through her Garment District rolodex…and three weeks and a couple of phone calls later she was rowing the aforementioned shikara back and forth to work to develop an all-chain-stitch collection of contemporary home textiles with Kashmiri embroiderers.
 
She cleaned up the traditional appearance of chain-stitching and made it into a smooth, dense, completely embroidered field of even and perfect stitches.  She brought her painterly sense of design into the development of archetypal patterns that call up nature and architectural ornament in an abstract way.  And she added a new twist to building a home collection: in order to create visual variety without violating the minimalist impulses of the 1990s, she rendered most of her patterns in a positive-negative assortment. Some items in a collection would feature colored pattern on a neutral field, and others neutral pattern on a colored field. Her aesthetic caught on fast with influential retailers like Takashimaya and Ultimo, and then were embraced by boutiques and interior designers.
 
If you are in Manhattan and feel the urge for something exotic, eat at Indochine on Lafayette Street, where Ross’ fabrics are used on cushions and banquettes – just one of the ways in which interior designers have embraced Ross’ textiles.
 
“My clients are super loyal, and my client list today still looks a lot like my client list from the beginning.  They support my experimenting with new things, which encourages me to take risks and keep going,” she comments.
 
She is also inspired by the Kashmiri artisans who make the goods:  “I still remember walking into a little mud-brick production building where an early collection was being prototyped, and seeing all the full sized paper collages I had done to show placement and coloring of all the motifs hanging on the walls like a gallery show.  The artisans support me in what I do, and I support them, too, with a lot of loyalty and steady business. I think the company makes a difference by employing people.  And as more Kashmiri women move into wanting (and needing) work outside the home, I am happy that we can be a part of that.”
 
“There’s something intimate and personal in working with artisans that I don’t think I can live without. If the textiles we do put me in conversation with machines everyday, I would have moved on a long time ago. That doesn’t interest me. People do. Creating new things with people interests me.” 
 
Ross also says that her way of making chain stitch relevant in the 21st century keeps the tradition alive for the future: “If people can’t make a living from a craft, it will die out sooner or later.  We can keep some of it alive just through our small business.”
 
Keeping a tradition alive will have Ross at her shikara paddles for a long time.
 
For more information about Judy Ross, visit www.judyrosstextiles.com.  
 

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