Stitching it together

Textile and fashion academics form UTS collaborate with master embroiderers in India to bring new life to India’s rich heritage of thread-work

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As mass produced garments took the fancy of consumers in the latter half of the last century, and machine-embroidered clothes began to be preferred over the intricate handmade garments of yesteryears, the thread-work art forms of India gradually started to die away. Today however, some of these Indian embroidery art forms are seeing revival and rediscovery, thanks to cross-country collaborations.

The Sydney exhibition Embroidered Relations: From India to UTS achieves this and many other outcomes. This exhibition, currently on display in the UTS library foyer at Ultimo, Sydney until 21 October, shows the works of three practice-based academics and textile artists, Cecilia Heffer, Armando Chant and Donna Sgro, from the UTS Fashion and Design Studio.

It celebrates the fusion of Indian craftsmanship with Western design sensibilities. The body of work of each designer is unique. Cecilia’s work explores the integration of handmade crafts with emerging technologies. Her exhibit, Lace Geometries, a mixed work of silk, natural dyes, machine stitching, hand embroidery and lace, was developed out of a collaboration with a master embroiderer from Vrindavan, Ashok Ladiwal.

Cecilia Heffer and Donna Sgro

Donna Sgro’s works aim to reframe the value of fashion garments beyond issues of identity. Her research experiments with biomimicry, creating an innovative pattern cutting method which mimics insect processes such as the butterfly metamorphosis.

Armando’s practice uses drawing and mark making, which is the foundation of art and design practice, to generate abstract and interpretive images on fabrics.

In conversation with Cecilia

Though this exhibition only displays the works of these academics, the Global Studio program of the UTS Textile and Design School has produced many works in collaboration with Indian artisans from places such as Kullu, Pushkar, Vrindavan, Delhi and Bengaluru. It all started in 2011 when Julie Lantry, now the Director of an organisation called Artisan Culture, approached the University to ask if they could start such a program. Herself a former student of UTS, she says she was oblivious about the varied forms of Indian embroideries as a student. It was only later when running her business that she was introduced to these traditional master craftsmen, and questioned why this wasn’t taught at school.

Now each year, students of the UTS Fashion and Design Studio get an opportunity to visit India and work closely with local textile artists to create unique garments using traditional methods such as block-printing using natural dyes, chikan work, kantha embroidery and the like.

“It is a life-changing experience for most students, while contributing to the local economy and keeping these beautiful art forms alive,” says Julie.

“It is exciting for students who are novices to see their designs transformed with the skills of these artisans and for the artisans to see their skills being used in unique designs – a win-win for both,” adds Donna.

Kullu Karishma, a handicraft house, now sponsors the design weave of one of the students at UTS. Alicia Minter-Hunt went to their workshop in Kullu where she learnt hand weaving, spinning, natural dyeing and felting. She was awarded the Kullu Karishma weave sponsorship for her final year collection which involved a weave of her design in 60 meters of hand-dyed colour.

Such collaborations bring Indian artisans to world-wide attention and have been instrumental in the revival of some beautiful art forms of embroidery. Where once these artisans were reduced to make a living only by creating embroidered garments to adorn the statues of deities in temples, they now work with designers around the world to create haute couture.

Photos: Karina Glasby and Paul Pavlou

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Jyoti Shankar is a freelance writer and sustainability professional, who is passionate about nature