There’s an old saying in India: every five miles the water tastes different, every 10 miles the food tastes different, and every 20 miles the language is different. That’s not so much the case these days, our host from a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to empowering the workforce in handloom fabrics, explained to us.
The introduction of machine-produced goods has put pressure on hand-made products everywhere, and as demand dies out people move to where the work is. It’s led to a more homogenised culture, but slowly, a younger generation is stepping forward and trying to revive the crafts of their regions.
We were in India to visit the makers of our pyjamas. We call them makers as the fabric is woven on handlooms by skilled craftspeople.
Handloom techniques have been passed through generations for centuries; there is nowhere to learn it except at the side of the loom, watching your parents weave. It is for this very reason that there has been a resurgence of efforts to revive the technique. If it is not taught now, and cannot provide a secure income, the craft will be lost.
At the conception of General Sleep, it was important for us to understand where our fabric came from. When we happened on handloom techniques we fell in love immediately.
We started working with a company in Tamil Nadu a prolific cotton area due to the humidity that strengthens the cotton fibre. It offers fair wages and strives to reduce its carbon footprint by operating in green buildings with solar power.
We decided to visit to film our summer fabrics on the looms and the hands that make them, as well as exploring exciting initiatives and soaking in some of the colour. Landing in Delhi we were instantly transfixed by the chaotic highways; lanes provide a rough guide of where you might like to drive, but the choice is yours.
The locals are strong communicators, using the horn almost constantly while swerving around bulls, pedestrians, tuk-tuks, wagons stacked with sugar cane, sweets or shoes, and motorcycles delicately balanced with oversized boxes. Children cling to their parents or the scooters with a seemingly natural-born instinct.
Our hotel, Scarlette, was a refuge from the horns, offering sweet masala chai and a strong espresso.
In a jet-lagged daze we headed to the Red Fort and the nearby spice market, Khari Baoli, the largest wholesale spice market in Asia. Chilli, ginger and fennel so fresh and aromatic we found our eyes watering and reached for our scarves. Swirls of ground spices filled the air around a square of some of the oldest homes in Delhi. Each balcony and window was stacked high with sacks of spice.
In search of a quieter meal, we headed to the trendy Haus Khaz in South Delhi wandering lanes of boutiques and vintage map stores. We ate coconut milk pancakes, and thali with dosa at Naivedyam, a South Indian restaurant that serves an excellent lassi.
The next day we spent trawling a fabric market specialising in handwoven cotton and silk then we were off to Agra to a factory with a focus on organic cotton, recycling and community initiatives.
We were excited to learn about some of India’s sophisticated recycling and upcycling techniques, explored ideas for our offcuts to be used for paper, eye masks and repurposed back into fabric, and learned about their ideas around supporting the community that supports you.
These included programmes to empower acid attack survivors from anywhere in India by teaching them stitching techniques for employment, and working closely with a nearby school with children with accessibility needs, by employing them in-house and sponsoring classes.
We had time for a quick sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal, and then we were off to Jaipur. Jaipur is best viewed at sunrise when the streets are cooler and you can watch people trickle out from their homes to parks and temples, as women sweep the streets.
Take a moment to look up and notice the architecture. Jaipur was one of the first planned cities in India, built in 1727, by Jai Singh. It’s both functional, with sections of gridded streets, and magical, with Jantar Mantar at the heart an observatory geared for taking celestial readings with the naked eye. This is home to the world’s largest sundial which can read to the half second.
A trip to City Palace is a must, and if you want to peek behind the scenes, book the private palace tour. You get access to rooms the royal family still use, including a guest room where Princess Diana stayed, and the beautiful Chhavi Niwas, a blue hall with intricate detailing, used in summer for the cool breeze that passes through.
Just outside the palace doors you’ll find Rajasthan Fabrics and Arts, an antique store filled with curios and the most incredible vintage textiles and Kantha embroidery.
In Jaipur we stayed at 28 Kothi and enjoyed rose lemonade and cauliflower salads with fresh pomegranate and a selection of local curries in the garden at night. Another favourite spot for dinner was 47 Jobner Bagh, a beautiful tucked-away oasis, run by Shiva and his family. You can tell Shiva’s hospitality comes from a joy of entertaining.
We were greeted, shown the grounds and served a beautiful home-cooked meal in the garden. There’s a well-curated store of local crafts on the grounds, all selected by his daughter.
We returned to Peacock rooftop restaurant two days in a row for the mango lassi (ask for no sugar). When in Jaipur, you must try Sahu Chai tea stand in Bapu Bazar, a family-run stand which has been around for decades and is a favourite with locals.
If you are interested in textiles and natural dye processes, a trip to Bagru is a must. It’s known for a long history of block printing, and rich black and red prints each town has a speciality depending on the water quality and temperature.
We booked a workshop with Wabisabi Project on the outskirts, and spent the day block printing, beating fabrics and whipping up an indigo dye bath. The project was set up by Kriti and Avinash, who came into block printing not by family tradition, but by falling in love with a blanket called Jajam, also known as the people’s blanket. Due to their intricate detailing the blankets are labour-intensive and therefore rare these days.
Traditionally a blanket was owned by the community and brought out for festivals and ceremonies each is large enough to accommodate many guests and each event embedded earth and memories into the blanket.
A highlight of the journey was visiting two villages near Sausar. Historically a cotton-weaving town, many of its weavers had left to find work in other towns, then returned. With employment options and wages low, this area became a focus point for Hemendra, founder of the Kala Swaraj Foundation.
His vision to revive handloom fabrics, restore pride and provide fair income is one of the most genuine pursuits I have witnessed. We spent the day hopping between homes, where looms crammed into living spaces with children happily napping next to their click-clacking.
Dozy-eyed babies and cups of chai were passed around and before you knew it, we had a small part of the community following us as we went from house to house to say hello and pick up fabric.
It was hard to wave goodbye; we promised to return.
Our last stop for the trip was Erode in Tamil Nadu. The villages had more palm trees and greenery than we had seen before. The air felt thick and we sipped coconuts to cool down.
We spent the morning mesmerised by the slow growth of our summer fabric on the loom. The weavers we work with here are primarily female and the landscape comes to life with their colourful saris swinging between the carefully designed buildings.
They speak Tamil and I lacked the basic language skills to communicate properly, yet the laughs were universal. They sipped tea and laughed at me trying to steady a camera while struggling with the heat.
I could pour tea and watch the fabric grow all day.
We strive to offer an alternative choice to the mass-produced or corporate, a choice to support small business and quality craftsmanship through fabric that is woven by hands and holds the experience and memories of its makers. Our community is stronger after this trip.