Two exhibitions are currently being held at Khamir in Kukma village near Bhuj, Kutch. Read about Rohi: stories of the shoemakers of Kutch here. The second exhibition is Tang Ke Sang which showcases the unique and characterful ply-split braiding technique traditional to North West India, in the form of both traditional items and innovative interpretations by renowned maker Erroll Pires.
History and technique
The ply-split braiding technique, locally called ‘guthna’ as the English name suggests, involves splitting the ply of wool or cotton chords and interlacing them to create a very strong fabric. This fabric is therefore perfect for camel girths, harnesses and decorations which are made using this technique chiefly in North West India – the deserts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sindh (now Pakistan), by nomadic camel herders. The technique is thought to be unique to these regions.
For many years, these regions were part of great trade routes which camels and carts played a significant role in, carrying items like opium, silk, indigo, iron, ivory, dates, coconuts, perfumed wood and dry fruits. To hold these items, a tang or girth was tied around the saddle on the back of the camel where the rider would sit. The tangs have probably been in existence for as long as people have used camels for trade and transport.
Since the wooden saddle is long, two tangs are used to secure the saddle on to the back of the camel. The belt in front is normally patterned and the one towards the back is plain and simple, usually without any patterning.
“It is a complete hand done process and can be easily done while on the move. In earlier times, there were not enough means of engagement so spinning yarn and making girths used to be an activity to keep us busy even while grazing the herds and otherwise. We could see people sitting and even walking with loads of yarn on their shoulders and braiding these tangs. It was wonderful” – Shri Tejshi Dhana Marwada, tang maker from Kutch
The basic structure of ply-split braiding is similar to that of plaiting where the warp elements travel diagonally down the fabric from selvedge to selvedge. Ply- splitting, from the spinning of the yarns to the final item is entirely a male activity.
Ply-split braiding can be subdivided into three main categories based on the path of the threads.
- Right angled ply- split braiding
- Diagonal ply-split braiding
- Inter-linked ply-split braiding
A tang can take 3 months to a year to complete, based on working 8 hours a day, depending on the design and material used.
Ishwar Singh Bhatti, Master craftsman and Erroll’s Guru
Ishwar Singh Bhatti came from a family that reared camels. He was born in Gotadu, a village near the border of India (Rajasthan) and Pakistan in 1940.
His father was an excellent camel girth maker, and passed the skill onto three of his six sons who also became highly skilled at the craft. Ishwar Singh was 15 when his father taught him the technique, and by 1986 he had won the National Award, a government initiative for recognizing excellence in handicraft.
Destiny brought Ishwar Singh and Erroll together in 1985 and there was an instantaneous connection between Guru and disciple. Ishwar singh passed away in 2008.
Erroll Pires’ contemporary innovations with ply-split braiding
I have had the pleasure of meeting Erroll on a couple of occasions, and both times he had projects he was working on with him. Erroll trained as a textile designer at the renowned National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and went on to teach there from 1984 to 2011. He is now free-lance teaching at various design institutes across India.
For the past few decades, Erroll has been practicing and researching the ply-split braiding craft, and there are three key pieces of advice that his Guru Ishwar Singh gave him that he continues to follow:
‘To practice daily’ – clearly something he has kept up – he practices every day for at least ten minutes.
‘To teach it to others those are interested’ – Erroll conducts workshops all over the world – India, USA, UK, Switzerland, France and Belgium.
‘To not learn this for name, fame and money. If it is in your destiny, it shall all happen and if for some unknown reason it doesn’t, enjoy the journey!’ – while the products Erroll makes are, in my opinion, very marketable, he has never tried to sell them (except once to the Whitworth gallery in Manchester, at their request), he just aims to spread the knowledge of the technique and craft, explore the broad range of possibilities within it, make others aware of these possibilities, and practice for himself ‘as a sort of therapy’.
One of the most ambitious projects Erroll took on using the ply-split braiding technique was a seamless dress which took him six months to make. Because of this, it couldn’t be commercialised (which was not Erroll’s intention), but it was a way of pushing the craft in a new and ambitious direction. The resulting dress was innovative, stylish, unique and comfortable.
Most camel herders now use plastic camel girths, and there is only a handful of ply-split braiders in the North West region. There is one Rabari man in Kutch who knows ply-split braiding but now rarely practices it. This man visited the exhibition and was inspired to take up the craft again. Khamir are hoping to help spread the technique to others in Kutch by way of developing contemporary products inspired by the traditional patterns and designs. Hopefully Erroll’s many students around the world will take ply-split braiding to even newer levels, as there is indeed huge potential in this beautiful craft.
The exhibition is on at Khamir until 15th March
Watch a film to hear about Erroll’s journey and see a demonstration of the technique.