Fabric of 1001 Nights

Varanasi's hand-woven brocade in couture

HAND/EYE correspondent Pamela Ravasio interviewed Shazia Saleem, a London-based ethical and sustainable couture fashion designer. Saleem specializes in hand woven textiles and works in cooperation with Varanasi brocade hand weavers.

As a kid, Shazia Saleem marvelled at her mother's hand-woven saris and exquisite brocades, painstaking work made by weavers from Varanasi, a city famous its weaving tradition where an estimated 300,000 weavers live in and around the city. Weavers earn less than one dollar a day–but more than half the city's weavers have either swapped industries, if they were lucky, or are unemployed and living under even worse conditions. Linked with their fate is their trade and craft--the skills that led to the creation of some of the most stunning fabrics on our planet, so coveted in the past, could soon be lost.

After her fashion studies in Florence, Shazia went on a research trip to India after having read extensively about the decline in demand of hand-woven textiles.  The particular suffering of brocade weavers from Varanasi was highlighted often and she was naturally drawn to go and see for herself. She managed to meet weavers and heard their stories first hand, and realized that when buying hand-woven textiles, one purchases a piece of history, and makes an investment into the future of the skill by motivating another generation to continue the weaving trade. This was the point of no return: She created her own brand with the aim to raise the consciousness of hand- woven textiles and bring the term back into popular vocabulary.

HAND/EYE Magazine:
Finding brocade weavers in Varanasi seems the most straight forward thing imaginable thinking of the city's reputations, but at the same time, having been to the city myself, I have difficulties imagining where to start looking . . .

Shazia Saleem:
Yes, indeed. Trying to track down some of the weavers the city is renowned for, turns out to be, in fact, rather complicated. My approach was exploration, and I'll readily admit: it was not easy. Shops selling textiles are everywhere in India but finding weavers is very difficult. They do not reside in main cities and names and addresses are vague. I made enquiries from Delhi and then visited Varanasi to try to find weaver colonies and weavers to work with. I just kept asking people, anyone and everyone, where the weavers were based.

Finally I found some weavers and placed orders with them of my own designs. They thought I was completely crazy and wondered what I was doing there, in their houses, all the way from London.

But I have worked with these weavers ever since. The challenges were mainly locating the weavers in the first place and then communication becomes the challenge. I speak Hindi so that helped greatly, but technical textile and design vocabulary was not known to me then and I am still learning.

H/E: Would you tell us a little about the weavers' situation as you experienced it through your work?

SS: I met quite a few weavers and heard their stories. Each story is different, of course, but similar in that most of the craft people I work with are illiterate and self-employed. Middlemen frequently take the most profit and in addition over ninety days’ credit, severely stretching a weaver’s cash flow. Weavers were not encouraging their children to weave due to the poverty conditions many of them live in. Often, weavers could not even afford to purchase the silk with which to weave their designs! The Indian government is trying to step in but not all their revival programmes help and sometimes they simply just add to the disillusionment.

I have been to villages in Varanasi and surrounding areas where hundreds of weavers made colonies and now you would be lucky to find fifteen weavers still weaving. Looms have been dismantled and sold for scrap or fuel. In very extreme cases, weavers have even committed suicide feeling helpless at being unable to support their families. The knowledge and skill of weavers has been passed down many generations stretching back a thousand years. It is an industry that respects experience that comes with age and even though many master weavers are illiterate, they demonstrate their genius through their weaves.

Weaving brocade usually involves the labor of around twenty-five people. A weaver often involves the entire family in spinning and setting the loom up but even before this, different people draw the jacquard graph, another person will cut the cards for the loom and so on. Women traditionally have helped only in spinning yarn and other support services but I know of an NGO that is encouraging weavers to consider girls for apprenticeships.

One master weaver I work with is based in a village near Varanasi, close to where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon. Upon passing away, Buddha was enshrined in the finest Indian handloom muslin or so they say. Hence, hand weaving goes back a long time in this part of the world.

In fact, it takes a lot of hard work to take out the middlemen between the buyer – me, in this case – and the weaver/artisan. But by working directly with the weavers, I can obviously negotiate better payment terms [for both partners] directly with them. Over time we build trust through the direct collaboration, which is the important part and basis for all that comes in the future.

What is it specifically about Varanasi brocade that fascinates you?

SS: Brocade from Varansi is so luxurious and opulent and for me, it is directly connected to an equally lavish ancient past of Mughal rulers and palaces. Brocades from Varanasi reached Rome and Athens, not many textiles could boast such history. Varanasi brocade is not just a textile it is a piece of art and the weaver is an artisan who is proud of his work. 

Genuine handloom textiles from Varanasi are now protected under the Geographical Indication Act, which is globally recognized and are used by Champagne and Parma (Ham). Enforcing the act will be tough in India but at least it is a step in a serious direction.

H/E: You said you design the fabrics your self. Are your designs still guided by traditional patterns? How have you been influenced by the weavers' knowledge and skills when it comes to deciding the final design?

SS: I design and I work with the designs of weavers, but I make the color selections. Sometimes I take two or three designs from weavers and make them into one. I like traditional patterns as much as contemporary designs. I like the challenge of taking an intimidating, traditional and heavy brocade and turning it into a wearable cocktail dress perfectly at home in London or New York. 

The other thing to consider with traditional motifs is that they too are becoming extinct so where I can include them, and if they are relevant, I do. Motifs become extinct as consumers tire of old designs and slowly, the motifs become forgotten and weavers forget how they were woven. Of course some classic motifs, such as paisley, can be traditional and contemporary simultaneously.

H/E: In your work, you combine the traditional silk brocade with other materials to form contemporary designs – a rather original, if not to say odd, approach from a Western perspective. Design-wise, how do you manage to achieve a sense of an elegant whole?

SS: The reality is that hand-woven brocades take a long time to produce. Therefore it is not always possible to make an entire dress out of brocade. A piece of fabric large enough to make a cocktail dress, takes about six days to complete and is expensive – despite the cheap labor costs in India, brocade weavers are artists.

Regarding the designs, I have a rich ethnic heritage; I was born and raised in the UK. I have grown up completely and seamlessly immersed in cultures where less is more and the other where more is more. I love understated elegant style, but there is so much fun in dressing up in the opposite style. I hope to achieve understated glamorous designs through my collections.

H/E: What are the reactions of your customers knowing that the brocade is hand-woven? And that of your weavers when they learn their products are part of a high-end fashion garment of a London-based label?

SS: There is a big ‘wow’ factor in knowing that your dress has been hand-woven and it feels more special. Brocades from Varanasi are by their very nature not mass produced as weavers are not machines: they get bored weaving the same colors and designs so bulk ordering is not possible for these reasons and also due to the time scales. For a customer that means it is unlikely the brocade they are wearing will be re-produced in exactly the same design and this is very special in this age of mass- produced generic style.

The weavers feel a great sense of achievement and motivation when they learn the brocades are becoming popular again and it gives them a real sense of income stability knowing that they have orders for the foreseeable future.

Get to know more about Shazia Saleem and her designs on her website (http://www.shaziasaleem.com). Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the Award winning research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).



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