aboard the M/V sonofagun, embroidery and textiles

A hundred Indian textiles

My home as an Indian sweatshop

It was Wednesday. Kris was (and still is) on a sail boat somewhere between here and Bali, so I have been alone these past 2 weeks. I had the day off…something I needed desperately, as I work the rest of the week. I planned on sleeping in, getting the laundry and grocery shopping done ashore, catching up on lots of neglected chores, cooking myself some real food to take to work the rest of the week, maybe reading a book (William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise)…possibly even (oh, frisson of joy bordering on lust!) doing some arts & crafts that weren’t travel journal related.

Meanwhile, an old acquaintance of Kris’s had just got back to Darwin after spending two years in Goa, India. This guy often brings a whole sailboat loaded with Indian textiles, antiques, and jewelry back with him, to sell to the local hippie and “ethnic style” shops in town. This time around, Australia’s customs wouldn’t allow him to bring the stuff ashore unless he got every piece labelled with its country of origin and materials. A rule he didn’t know about. You can see what’s coming in this little story of mine, can’t you?

When Mr. Loon pulled up in his dinghy with the problem, I felt compelled to help him out…felt a bit sorry for him, I guess, though I don’t really know him all that well. So Wednesday was spent at the big table on the back deck, stitching a hundred little “Made in India. 100% cotton” labels onto embroidered blankets, throws and bedspreads, shawls, floor mats, wall hangings…while the sweat ran down my cheeks and dropped off the tip of my nose (as we are locked deep into the sultry heart of a tropical summer at the moment).

The colors were fabulous, and little bits of shisha winked at me from a thousand spots, but the embroidery work was very slipshod, rough and crudely done. Very disappointing. But I guess that’s what the trade has become, for the tourist market…these weren’t artisans or master crafters; these were just poor women trying to produce as much as they could in a short time, to earn enough to help the family. I had to remind myself that, in India, the professional embroiderers are actually the men. I’ve seen some amazing stuff on wedding sarees…the fine gold work and beads mixed with shaded silk embroidery is sumptuous, and meticulous beyond belief. In contrast, the stuff I was stitching up with labels is produced for white buyers like Mr. Loon, who can’t see the workmanship even when he’s looking right at it, because he doesn’t know what to look for. He’s spent quite a lot of money on some of these textiles, he told me…a bit of a worry. You’ve all heard the saying “You get what you pay for”? I think Terry Pratchett improved on that one by adding “…if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you get what you deserve.”

But I got something for my troubles, in the end (you betcha!) When the merchant came back I put my hand on one hanging that I’d left unpacked. It was printed, patchworked silk on one side, printed cotton on the other, no embroidery or mirrors, and I liked the primary colors very much! “This one? This one I want.” The audacity.

He laughed and gave it to me. So I do have something pretty to show for the day my boat became a one-woman sweatshop! :)

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17 thoughts on “A hundred Indian textiles

  1. Natalie, my guess is these weren’t even done by women, these were probably machine stiched at a factory. Even so just seeing the colourful textiles makes me want to ho home to India soon!

  2. What a kind soul you are for taking on such a tedious task for a friend during an Australian heat wave. Once again one of your posts coincidentally parallels with a project in my small universe. I’ve been searching for shisha fabric for cushions I’m making for a corner seat in my kitchen. The city I live in has fabulous fabric stores but finding good quality, affordable Indian fabric has been hard to come by. The biggest problem was the quality – you hit the nail on the head. I have since found a great tutorial and plan on doing my own shisha embroidery. I’m not sure what I’m getting myself into but gosh darn it, if you can sew a hundred labels on multiple layers of fabric during the hottest time of the year, then surely I can handle sewing a hundred mirrors on during the coldest time of the year. This will be my most ambitious embroidery project to date and I have you to thank for inspiring me to do it by the way. ;-)

    • Kind soul is hardly the way to describe me, I’m afraid. If I was a kind soul, I wouldn’t have a whinge about it on my blog, afterwards. ;) I am not very good at saying no, is all. And I am conceited about my ability to do certain things…I like proving that I can do them.
      “I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
      Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
      My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
      And every tongue brings in a several tale,
      And every tale condemns me for a villain…”

    • I am stretched pretty taut…final prototype tonight and no food on the boat because there was no time to do groceries…just a hair’s breadth away from snapping. But I’ve posted my homework, and my design course is finally OVER.So my leash has benn given a teensy bit of slack, and it feels good!

  3. I was drawn in my “on a boat” and “textiles”. I have done both…a lot of sailing and a lot of sewing. But, I have a hard time just putting my own label into the items I make, let alone hundreds belonging to someone else! I have stacks and stacks of Hawaiian prints just waiting for me to tackle, but alas, I would rather sit and read interesting blogs. :)

  4. I have a hard time imagining a more tedious exercise, and I do hope the textile you selected was worth the effort. I wouldn’t have liked the tag work, but I would have loved wallowing in the fabrics.

    • The heat is what really made it tedious, the stitching bit was surprisingly easy. I didn’t even bother to start the generator for my sewing machine, just turned the wheel by hand…6 stitches along one side of each label. :) The textile I chose probably wasn’t worth the effort, but it was better than nothing. But there are better rewards for this job: Mr. L. owns a beautiful house, with servants and everything, at the mouth of a river, looking out to the Arabian Sea. And now I have someplace lovely to stay when I go to Goa. ;) Making plans for next year already.

  5. Marninay says:

    I feel like diving into that pile of stuff and just swimming in the colors. :) Any photos of the piece you got?

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