You walk into any Marchmont flat, in fact, any student flat in any city across the UK and chances are, hanging on the wall is one of those tapestry-style wall-hangings fresh from the shelves of Urban Outfitters. You know the ones I mean: paisley-print cloth featuring elephants, likely found in any did-you-know-I-went-to-Thailand-on-my-gap-year student’s bedroom.
Of course, this wall art is a colourful edition to cover up any Blu Tack marks. But there’s a long history behind Indian tapestries that is often overlooked and replaced by this generic home decor trend.
Indian textiles have a rich cultural history. From as early as the 3rd century, local artists used tapestries to tell stories and portray religious teachings; people would travel far and wide to different communities to learn from the stories told through paintings and embroidery on fabric. Different parts of India had their own unique textile craft. Embroidery styles differed across different communities, each holding local cultural significance.
Textile craft changed dramatically in the years of British colonial rule over India when the East India Company imported cheap yarn from other countries into India to produce low-cost fabric to be exported so the British textile economy could flourish. This replaced India’s domestic textile industry, causing mass-unemployment amongst hand-loom workers and cotton-spinners. Bengal silk handkerchiefs became a sought-after accessory amongst the British aristocracy. Artisans were forced to change their designs according to Western demand, causing local design and craft – which gave Indian states individuality – to severely decline.
As well as mass-unemployment, India’s textile craft – a symbol of national identity – was under threat. Gandhi led the Swadeshi (meaning “own country”) movement of the 1890s, encouraging Indians to boycott foreign textiles and wear their own hand-woven and hand-spun fabric, as part of his focus on self-reliance.
Since India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, there has been a movement back to nurturing local craft and using the textile industry to help local economies grow and to empower workers in rural areas. On my recent trip to India, myself and a group of fellow students met with local artisans in Bhuj, Gujarat – one of whom has partnerships with various British universities and the V&A, who help his work to gain global recognition.
I’m not advocating that everyone starts spinning their own thread or brewing their own natural dyes (as sustainable as that might be) or that we replace newspapers with hand-embroidered tapestries depicting the political turmoil of Brexit. However, seeing a snapshot of India’s rich cultural heritage preserved in the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad and talking to local artisans in Bhuj gave me a heightened appreciation of clothing.
Seeing a local community take pride in their unique textile craft highlighted to me the overwhelming contrast with how we treat clothes in the UK. Even when made using machinery, the process of clothing production from cotton plantation to finished product is extremely complex. The textile industry is the second biggest industry in India, whereas in the UK, we may buy a lot of clothes, but we don’t give a lot of thought to how or where they were made – it’s not something we’re exposed to or forced to think about.
Students hang tapestries inspired by Indian designs on their walls because they look nice, not usually because of their cultural significance in Indian textile history. An appreciation for India’s historical relationship with textiles, in the same way textile craft is nurtured in India, could help to change our relationship with fashion. As we face climate catastrophe, a love and care for textiles and a thought for how they were made are necessary starting points to tackle the problem of over-consumption.