For 21 days starting on the 28th December I learned the basics of weaving under the masterful and patient guidance of four skilled and experienced weavers from Bhujodi village in Kutch. The course was organised by Somaiya Kala Vidya whose primary aim is to teach design education to craftspeople of Kutch (find more information on SKV here and here). The ‘Crafts Traditions’ courses are a side project that aim to extend the awareness and appreciation of Kutch’s crafts further afield, welcoming visitors from all over the world to come and learn a new skill and also gain a deeper understanding of the crafts’ context. In three weeks I learned the whole process: preparing the warp – measuring, sizing and starching, winding the bobbins for the weft, threading up the loom which involved joining the new warp threads to the existing ones, weaving- including the various techniques involved in traditional Kutchi weaving, and finally finishing.
Each process is not straightforward though and varies depending on factors such as the type of yarn being used and the product being woven. Dyeing is also done by many weavers but we didn’t have time to include it in the tight three week schedule. Of course in three weeks I was not going to become an expert weaver, indeed most weavers take at least two years to become adept. And most continue to learn new things after that. But I was able to get a basic understanding of each process, and having the opportunity to do all these activities really increased my appreciation for the cultural significance as well as the technique and processes involved in creating these beautiful designs.
I had different teachers each week – so as not to interrupt the weavers’ regular business orders too much. For the first week Purshottam Siju and Jayantilal Premji Bokani led the course with some input from Prakash Naranbhai Vankar and Ramjibhai Maheshwari. Shamji Vishrambhai Valji kindly let us use a loom in his workshop which meant I got to know the other weavers working there and we would each be checking out the others’ progress regularly throughout the three weeks.
We started off by examining some traditional and contemporary pieces that the teachers had brought along. Later on during the course, two days of ‘traditional aesthetics’ sessions were organised for me and Stella who was learning Ajrakh block printing at the same time, and were attended by the course coordinators Judy Frater and LOkesh Ghai, along with the teachers, both weavers and block printers, and we studied traditional block-printed and woven cloths. I will return to this later and talk through some of the traditional products, motifs and patterns.
After identifying different yarns and doing burn tests to check their content, I started to practice weaving on a toy loom. This is the way many children first start to learn weaving, alongside playing with loom parts and watching their parents at work. We hammered three pegs in the ground in a triangle shape and threaded a set of acrylic threads through a mini reed (phanni) which had been cut off an old full size bamboo phanni. A comb was used to create tension and keep all the yarns even, and a wooden stick used to separate the warp threads which was lifted up to pass the weft yarn one way. To pass it the opposite way however, I had to lower the wooden stick and pass the weft yarn alternatively up and over the yarns. While a slow process it was a good way of getting a basic understanding of the loom’s parts and the how a plain weave structure is created.
On the second day we visited a few different houses in Bhujodi to see some different looms. Hamirbhai is the only weaver in Bhujodi still using the old hand loom – a simplified version of what is in use today – a pit loom but without the fly shuttle and pankha (large upright frame that is swung to beat the weaving and which houses the phanni (reed) and shuttle. This loom would not have changed much in a few hundred years. Hamirbhai weaves dhablas using local sheep wool for a small local market. I was also shown much wider frame looms used to weave bed sheets, and we visited Prakashbhai’s home to see his and his father’s dhurrie looms – they are the only family weaving dhurries in Bhujodi.
During these visits we identified and noted down loom parts and I learned the names in the local Kutchi language.
Next we used the adan frame to measure out the warp. I started with acrylic as this would be easier to weave to start with – it’s less likely to break, and we measured out the length needed for a 19 inch width X 247 cm muffler (the weavers usually measure the width in inches according to determining the number of yarns (or ghar (spaces between the reeds) per inch), and the length in centimetres because of the change to metric and usually fabric being counted in metre lengths.
Then came the starching process. Two handfuls of wheat flour was mixed with water then added to a pot of simmering water. Once the water boiled, we let it cool and added it to a larger bowl of cold water. You could tell when the yarn had absorbed all the starch when the water became clear. Then the yarn was stretched out on a frame called the ‘paen’. Each part of the pean has a name too. During this stage the yarns are separated quickly before they dry. Usually this stage is done in the early morning before the sun is fully up so there is time to separate the yarns before they dry too quickly.
The yarn was now ready to thread onto the loom. We did this using by joining the warp to the existing warp on the loom. Kutch is the only region that joins two warps by twisting rather than knotting. It means that the yarn is kept smooth and will pass through the reed easily. I practiced the joining off the loom, by wrapping one piece of yarn round my toe, stretching it out tight and adding the new yarn. My teachers made this process look very easy, but when I tried I realised how un-dexterous my hands are compared to theirs!
By the time all the yarns were joined (with a lot of help!), and the loom settings adjusted, I was ready to start weaving. But before I could start, the loom had to be blessed. This was done on the first day of the new year, an auspicious day for starting my very first warp, so even more reason to conduct a puja ceremony. With the help of my teachers and the weavers in the workshop, and a few additional family members and intrigued neighbours, we prayed to Lord Ganesh for a successful weaving session, and offered him ladoo, rice and ghee. The sturdy post that holds the warp in place is given the name Ganesh, so this is where all the offerings were placed. Turmeric was applied to it, as well as to all our foreheads. So following the puja ceremony I felt ready to start weaving, but also a lot of pressure to do well!
Immediately as I started weaving, I began to realise how much goes into it. Its called ‘hand’loom weaving but it actually involves the whole body and mind. Getting the coordination between hands, feet, eyes and mind is key. I just about got into a rhythm before the end of my first day of weaving on the last day of the first week of the course, I finished my very first stole. I felt satisfied (even though it was very messy as you can see in the image below). I had lots more to learn and just two more weeks to go…
To follow: experimenting with different weaving techniques and yarns
I’m very grateful to Judy Frater of Somaiya Kala Vidya for designing the course in collaboration with the weavers and for both Judy’s and LOkesh Ghai’s hard work in coordinating it. LOkesh Ghai also helped with translation which was immensely helpful. I’m also grateful to the weavers this week Jyantibhai, Purshottambhai and Prakashbhai for their very good teaching, patience, help and enthusiasm.