I finally went to the V&A’s exhibition The Fabric of India in its last week. (Images from their website, click pictures to go to more details.) It was almost overwhelming visually – so many pieces that cried out for me to stand and just absorb everything about them. I wish I could have visited a second time and seen everything again. Apart from finding it such a delight to the eye I learned masses about how the weavers, dyers, embroiderers and quilters work; videos showed today’s artisans creating textiles just as they have been for centuries. A powerful sense of continuity. I came away with memories of so many exquisite textiles and a better understanding of the processes that created them.
I have been thinking about the contribution of several makers to a single item. Each with a very specific skill and expertise and employing only that. Watching an embroiderer using an ari to work lines of perfectly even chain stitch I could only be amazed at the speed and accuracy. And that is all he does, that part of the process has been perfected in him. This dedication to a particular skill leads to a very high standard of workmanship. Contrast that approach with one evident, for example, in our City and Guilds textile courses, where students experience a huge range of techniques and the design side as well. I know for my part I can never hope to achieve even a moderate level of expertise in all of them. I simply do not spend the hours and hours and practical application necessary for any one of them. We work as individuals, trying to acquire enough competence to realise our own designs. My hope is that I will settle on a limited range of processes that allow me to express my ideas and then I can devote time and energy to perfecting these specific skills. A very different context for textile work than the examples from India that resulted in the inspiring array of skill in the exhibition.