Karthika Audinet on “Two Great Textile Traditions of Southern India,” Part 1, The Lecture

On Saturday, April 18, 2015, textile designer, educator, and entrepreneur, Karthika Audinet

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gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program highlighting the fine craftsmanship of hand-loomed fabrics and hand-painted textiles from southern India.

Karthika began with an illustrated lecture.  She has given me both the illustrations and the text and what follows is a virtual version of her lecture.

(In many cases, you can click on an image to see a larger version.  I will mark some that I think it would especially be to your advantage click on.)

Two Great Textile Traditions of South India

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This is Karthika speaking:

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Namaste everybody!(ed. Namaste means “I bow to the divine in you.”)

I decided to focus on just 2 major aspects that made Indian textiles stand out amongst world textiles and continues to do so:

• Fineness

• Color

It just so happens that South India, and especially the state of Andhra Pradesh still has artisans with the skills that combine these 2 elements: they practice unbroken traditions that are thousands of years old, weaving and painting fabrics.

Hand Loomed Fabrics

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Hand Painted Fabrics

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Pattern is inextricably linked to textiles, so I will touch upon it briefly, but it would require a separate presentation with much more time.
As we all know, ancient India was the earliest center of cotton cultivation, manufacture and trade. It was from here that delicately woven cotton and brilliantly colored fabrics were introduced to the Middle east, Africa, Asia and thereafter to Europe.
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(Focus on the South Indian State of Andhra Pradesh.)

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Although we find hand woven fabrics all over the world, no other country can boast of such fine hand loomed cotton woven as early as 3000 BC.  One of the earliest fragments of cotton cloth found wrapped around two silver jars in Mohenjodaro was made of 34s warp and weft having 60 ends and 20 picks per inch.
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I would like to first demonstrate what fine means.
The term cotton count, is an international norm for defining a yarn’s thickness. The higher the number, the finer the yarn. A 100s yarn is finer than a 20s yarn.
Normally, a yarn is spun and twisted to give it strength. It is then plied with one or more yarns to achieve even more strength. This is when we call a yarn a 2/20s or a 20/2s depending on which side of the Atlantic you are!
I would like to invite you to take a look at some of the samples of single ply and double ply yarns to get an idea of fineness.
(Taken in the session)
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So this gives us an idea of how fine cotton was in the Indus Valley Civilization back in 3000 BC.
Now, for most of us weavers, weaving unplied yarn is unimaginable, leave alone single ply 100s!
If you put an unplied yarn in the warp, the chaffing caused by the repeated lifting of the yarns and motion of the beater on the loom would eventually break the thread.
But guess what?
By the 1st century AD Indian weavers were weaving diaphanous textiles described in the greco-roman report Periplus of the Erithreyan Sea. We know that more than 30 types of cotton cloth were imported by Romans from Pliny’s accounts. And most of the fine cloth was woven along the humid banks of rivers or coastal areas. In fact the word muslin gets its name from the port of Masulipatnam on the Coromandel coast of Andhra Pradesh.
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 But nowhere did it reach the perfection of muslins of Dhaka. By the time the Mughals were ruling India, we wove muslins with 200s to 400s counts. Miniature paintings dating from the Mughal times show us women dressed in a range of fabrics including translucent muslin.
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Detail from a miniature painting, c. 1680
Christies

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Details from a Mughal Miniature, c. 1720

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There are stories of how the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb scolded his daughter for walking around nude, to which she replied that she had 7 layers of Dacca Muslin!  These muslins had poetic names like Malmal (the finest sort), Abirawan (running water), Shabnam (morning dew). They were expensive and made mainly for the elite and royalty.

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So how did they manage to spin and weave such fine yarn?

• There existed a superior quality of cotton fiber
• The coastal areas of India had ideal levels of moisture and temperature
• Dexterity in hand spinning and weaving developed from one generation to another, improving all the time
• And my new theory is that we Indians have an endless concept of time! And that allows us to undertake tedious work

Karthika aside: “Even if we are unfortunate and die with underachieved work; we can always be reincarnated.”

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All of us have been told that the quality of a fiber depends on it’s length. This is not entirely true!

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The indigenous species of Gossypium Arboreum (left below) and Gossypium Herbaceum had much shorter fiber lengths than the cotton species from the Americas Gossypium Hirsutum (middle below) and Gossypium Barbadense (right below).

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As cotton fiber clings to it’s seeds, the process of prying them away, called ginning, is tedious and long. Although Indians used small wooden tools to speed up the process, it still remained a small scale production.

Cotton ginning 1866.

Gins using this simple process served as the basis for new mechanized inventions.

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By the 17th century the textile trade was largely in the hands of The British East India Company, basically a group of greedy traders. As their appetites grew, they introduced cotton cultivation in North America with the hirsutum and barbadense species and cheap slave labor was used for the ginning.

 

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In 1793, an American, Eli Whitney invented the Whitney Gin which drastically reduced the hours needed to gin cotton.

From 600 slave hours, it came down to just a dozen or so per bale.

The Whitney gin had been developed using the long fibers of the Hirsutum and Barbadense species. These fibers were so long that even when the ginning machine broke them, they would still be long enough to be spun.  So Indian cotton with it’s short staple was wrongly labelled ‘inferior’.

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However, studies have shown that:

• Indegenous Indian fibers are shorter yet finer than the Hirsutum- barbadense fibers.
• The fibers cling much more to the seeds, making deseeding even more difficult, but this also gives them a natural crimp and springyness.
• The greater elasticity of Indian cotton comes because of a cavity inside the fiber that allows for easy passage of air.
• This allows for better dye absorbtion and luster, softness and breathability
• All these attributes are enhanced by gentle manual processing, spinning and weaving.

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By 1880, the British had succeeded in forcing Indian farmers to cultivate foreign varieties of cotton to supply raw cotton to mills in Britain. They levied multiple tariffs and taxes and brutally restricted Indian cloth production so that Indian markets were increasingly forced to purchase cloth manufactured in Manchester mills. Indian indigenous cotton stopped being cultivated for it’s fiber and the exact technique of creating Dacca Muslin disappeared.

The textile manufactures
and the costumes
of the people of India
by John Forbes Watson, 1866

(click on image to get a larger version)

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Luckily, handloom weaving, especially of Saris remains a living tradition in many villages in India. Weaving with fine hand spun yarn using locally grown cotton survives precariously in a little village called Ponduru in Andhra Pradesh. I’m hoping that I will still be able to find a few weavers when I go there this year.


Cotton from the indigenous varieties are handpicked.

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The fibers are then combed using the tiny teeth of the Valuga fish jaw bone that gently pry the fibers away from the seed and impart a certain luster to them while keeping the seed intact for planting again.

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Closer image of a Valuga fish jaw bone showing the tiny teeth.

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They then use a bamboo bow to twang and separate the fibers further, and arrange them in roves.

70 roves, 7 “ long yield 120s count
yarn for 1 Sari of 5.5 yards

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Women spin yarn as fine as 120s count from dawn to about 10 am until the sun dries up the morning dew, and the light did not have too much glare, much the same way women spun yarn for Dacca Muslin.

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Most of the looms used by the handloom weavers are still pit looms. A large pit is dug in the ground and the soil is tamped down all around. A little built in seat is hollowed out on one side, and a very rudimentary structure made of wood or bamboo makes up the rest of the loom. During the hot summer months, it’s actually very comfortable and cool to sit there and weave. But during the Monsoon rains, water seeps into the pits. Although they bail the water out, weaving becomes near impossible. Worse still, the pre-loom process of sizing with rice starch outside is hampered. Nothing dries.

(click on each of the image below to get a larger version)

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So why do they continue to weave in pit looms?  Cotton gets stronger when wet.  The humidity levels are higher closer to ground!  So when Dacca Muslim got as fine as 400s count, we must remember that it evolved in humid, flood-prone Bangladesh.

Here is a sample of mill spun 100s yarn warp with 80s weft cotton from Kerala. And some Mangalagiri from Andhra.

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Let us look at color and pattern now. We know that archeologist, Mortimer Wheeler found dye vats and a small piece of cotton mordant dyed red with the madder root. Ancient Indians excelled in extracting and using natural dyes with mordants. Who knows if the King priest from Mohenjodaro wore embroidery or block print!

Dye vats and a small piece of cotton,
mordant-dyed in red were
found by Mortimer Wheeler.
These date back to as early as 2000 BC
The “King – Priest” excavated from
Mohenjodaro

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Ajanta mural paintings dating from 400 AD show us splendid colored garments as well as abstract and figurative patterns in the courts of the Gupta kings. Texts from this period as well as the earlier Vedas refer to the tinctorial properties of various dyestuffs.

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Hamsa, or sacred goose
pattern, Ajanta caves 6th C

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Block printed duck pattern fragment

from Fustat 14th C.

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In the 13th century, the painted textiles of the Coromandel coast were being used to depict religious mythology. These painted panels were either a form of mobile art, often displayed to an audience by wandering minstrels and artists or commissioned by temples.

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The Islamic Deccan Sultanate which occupied parts of South India in 1490 was closely connected to Persia. They began to commission large richly patterned painted cotton panels called Palampores with which they decorated tents and palaces in India and Persia.

Palampores, Calico Museum,
Ahmedabad, India.

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Indian artisans who had been trading textiles all over the world were used to adapting their skills and techniques to the market. Be it temples in the country or royalty in Indonesia and Thailand. They were open to new ideas for new clients, quickly grasping Islamic florals, the tree of life and the Persian style central medallion with four corners.

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Karun collection
Kalamkaris 17th century Coromandel coast

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They had no problems adding Chinese rock motifs and fantastic Jacobean florals to their repertoire of ducks and squirrels and monkeys. And this was what made Kalamkari patterns eclectic and inimitable!

Hanging
made in western India
for the British market,
late 17th or early 18th C.

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Palampore
made in Madras
Mid 19th C

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Coverlet
Masulipatnam,
Andhra Pradesh,
Early 19th c

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Karun collection

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Fragment
Coromandel Coast,
Andhra Pradesh,
17th to early 18th C

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Fragment
Burhanpur,
Madhya Pradesh
Late 18th C

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Both 33 a and 33b are Yardage
Made by women in Srikalahasthi
2009

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Kalam in Persian means Pen, and Kari means work.

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The Kalam is a simple pointed stick of bamboo with a wad of cotton or wool wrapped around it. The technique consists of painting color fast natural dyes onto cotton cloth in a complex process of a minimum of 17 steps.

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Unbleached fabric is soaked in a mixture of Myrobalan nut powder and milk. The milk prevents the dyes from spreading and smudging and gives a certain stiffness so the kalam can glide smoothly on the fabric.

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Unbleached fabric is soaked in
Myrobalan powder and milk.


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Slide 35b shows unbleached fabric.

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35 c shows unbleached fabric soaked in Myrobalan powder and milk

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The pattern is sketched on the fabric with charcoal made of tamarind twigs.

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It is then made permanent with an outline of black dye made of Iron filings fermented with palm jaggery and water for about 20 days. The iron acetate liquor gives a dull brown stain, but when it is applied to myrobalan-treated cloth, it reacts to form an indelible black. The black is so strong that it does not fade even when the paintings are subjected to prolonged soaking and bleaching subsequently.

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The areas meant to be red are painted with an alum mordant.  As Alum is colorless, a fugitive red or yellow is added to it. The cloth is allowed to dry for 24 hours, washed in flowing water, so that any excess mordant is removed and will not cause smudging.

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The areas meant to be red

are painted with an alum solution

that is used as a mordant.

 

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Repeated washing and bleaching in the sun brings back the original beige of the cloth, while the red and the black get brighter.

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The cloth is then plunged into a boiling dye bath made with the madder root. Only the areas painted with the alum mordant retain the red, while the rest of the cloth gets a slight pink fugitive tone.

Various tones of red are achieved from pink to dark purple brown by repeating the process. and adding other herbs to the dye bath.

In all there are 11 different natural substances that are used to produce various shades from purple to red, orange and pink including Lac, Kermes and Cochineal and Red Ochre.

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Only the mordanted areas
absorb the dye

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34. For blue indigo, the mordants and myrobalan are bleached off for several days using a method that I know of, but I prefer not to divulge! Some artisans use wax as a resist and dye the fabric in indigo vats. Others paint on the indigo. Both methods are tricky as indigo oxidizes very quickly.

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Yellow, green and dark brown are considered to be easy enough for apprentices to apply! Various vegetable dyes yield yellow- turmeric, mango bark, pomegranate peel… and green is a mix of yellow on the blue, brown comes from a bark…

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The craftsmen guarded their knowledge of mordants and dyestuffs closely. From the mid 17th century till most of the 18th century, India was the greatest exporter of textiles the world had ever known, with the Kalamkaris being the most important of all the exports.

Over the years, traders had named these hand painted fabrics Pintados (Portuguese), Chintz (English), Indiennes (French), Their trade, popularity and use spread from Europe as far as Japan.

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Kalamkaris, Pintados, Chintz, Indiennes

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What began as bed spreads and wall hangings went on to to become clothing.

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Tree of Life,
Calico Museum,
Ahmedabad, India.

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We must remember that in the 17th century, most of the fabrics available to Europeans were made of heavy wool and linen and although there were rich silks from France and Italy, they were expensive.

English Blouse, Linen Embroidered with Black Silk, V&A Museum, 1620s

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Not only were these comfortable cotton, they were also patterned fabrics adapted to current taste, with brilliant color that resisted several washes!

European ladies cut up their Kalamkari furnishings and wore them.

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Soon lighter all over motifs evolved, sometimes dresses were lined with silk for that extra rustle!
(Slides  43a and 43b are from theV&A museum,1780s)
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Finally when everybody had had their fill of Kalamkari or Chintz, and when one could no longer distinguish a lady of importance from a commoner, as everybody wore Chintz, the craze died down, only to be replaced with the neoclassical style.

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Gown made of fine muslin
embroidered with floral pattern.
V&A Museum

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Fine cotton muslins worn with Cachemire shawls became all the rage next!

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Empress Josephine
in muslin and paisley
1790s

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This sensitivity towards fiber and ability to achieve fineness, the sophisticated application of color and the uninhibited use of pattern lies behind the success of
a plethora of exquisite Indian textiles embellished in distinctive ways.

This was the end of Karthika’s lecture.  She moved, now, to treat the material she had brought in.  To enjoy this Part 2 of her program, click on the link below.

https://rjohnhowe.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/karthika-audinet-on-two-great-textile-traditions-of-southern-india-part-2-the-material-she-brought-in/

R. John Howe

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