When I was about eight years old, I made an appliqué of the Taj Mahal for a school project. Looking back at that project seems to be the roots of my fascination with textiles and India.
I later trained as a textile designer in England, and worked for a textile company in Kolkata where I fell in love with the country and its people. In 2009, I was invited by a friend at the Alliance Francaise in Ahmedabad to participate in a project with SEWA (the Self-Employed Women's Association), which represents thousands of women embroiderers living in the remote villages of the vast Kutch region of Gujarat. SEWA are dedicated to empowering women home-based workers by helping to develop a market for their artisan skills. I wanted to create my own line of textile products utilising the ancient embroidery skills.
I was impressed by the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, housed in an old converted textile mill in Ahmedabad. It has a well-equipped production facility, with modern sewing equipment, capable of fulfilling large orders, as well as a small design unit, meeting rooms and offices.
In the first week several women artisans came to work with me in the design studio. Here I made the decision to arrive without any fixed ideas. I wanted to see their traditional stitches and techniques, and take inspiration from those.
Embroidery techniques are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. I became interested in the contrast between the intricate stitch work and the naive motifs, but wanted to pare down the design so that the eye focuses on the stitch work, and develop something quite new and fresh from these traditions. The stitches have exotic names like Aari, Rabari, Soi and Sadu Bharant, and one of the Stitch by Stitch designs, called Kukuben, is like a dictionary of these stitches. Peacock motifs are popular in Kutch embroidery, symbolizing beauty, love and compassion. I redrew the motif in my own naive style, and it appears frequently on Stitch by Stitch cushion covers and bags.
Early one morning, two design assistants and I set off on the three hour drive to Radanpur. Here, on the edges of the Kutch desert, is a large purpose-built warehouse where production is organised and controlled. Pre-prepared patterns for textile items, such as cushion covers, are sent here from Ahmedabad, and are usually distributed to the artisans living in the surrounding villages. The completed embroidery is then returned to Ahmedabad for making up into the finished product. On this occasion, a group of about 20 women had been invited to the warehouse to take part in a sort of mass "sew-in" with me, although usually the work is undertaken in their own homes, enabling them to fit it around their daily chores and childcare. The women always sit on the floor to embroider. It was here that I finalised the designs for Stitch by Stitch's first collection, Peacock Sportif. The embroiderers loved the fact that their traditional stitches were being shown to their full advantage, even if they were less than enthusiastic for my plain color scheme of red and black embroidery on crisp white cotton!
Stitch by Stitch's range includes cushions, quilts, throws, drawstring bags and table linen, and is available from www.stitchbystitch.eu.