discovering gujarat textiles

I left work this afternoon with a spring in my step, because marked in my diary was an Oxford Asian Textiles Group event – a talk from Eiluned Edwards on Gujarat textiles and dress. I freely admit to knowing nothing about Gujarat textiles or dress, but I hope my enthusiasm makes up for it. I had seen Eiluned’s book on the subject in various bookshops on several occasions, and gazed at the colourful pictures and put it back again in a fit of sensibility, so it was fascinating to actually hear the author talk about these textiles in person, and this was made even better still by the fact that she brought along a large quantity of examples for us to stroke and admire.

Ajrak textiles formed the subject matter for most of the talk. These are made from two lengths of cotton, woven separately, then printed and joined with hand embroidery at the centre (see the photo above). This embroidery (often made to resemble fish bones) is incredibly dense to the touch, and must take a considerable amount of time to complete. The highly detailed, intricate patterns are printed using around 25 different carved wooden blocks, and a resist paste made of lime and gum arabic. Ajrak textiles are printed like this on both sides with an identical pattern, and apparently one can determine the skill of a printer when one holds such a cloth up to the light: if no shadows can be seen, i.e. if the patterns on both sides line up perfectly, then it is the work of a highly skilled craftsman. Personally, I am amazed that this could even be anywhere near possible when printing textiles by hand, using wooden blocks.
Although embroidered textiles didn’t feature in the talk, Eiluned brought many pieces of embroidered Gujarat textiles for us to see, including a couple of beautiful little children’s head coverings, both entirely covered in tiny stitches with not a single square millimeter left untouched. These were shaped like hats at the top, but with long, broad tails that would reach a long way down a child’s back and protect it from the sun whilst also radiating brilliant colours.
We also saw an embroidered bag, designed to keep a Qu’ran in, that was made in the style of a square envelope, with the four corners meeting at the centre on the reverse. It shimmered with little mirrors all over. All in all, it was a great event, and really wonderful to see all these things close up and examine how they were made. It might amount to a sufficient excuse to actually buy the book now…