Unless you see the artisans at work, and understand the process from start to finish, it can be very difficult to grasp the vast amount of work that goes into hand crafting a product, no matter how simple it may seem.
Our kantha begins with a sari. The sari is made, then bought and worn by a woman somewhere in India. One day a sari-trader knocks on the door of the woman and asks if she has any saris to sell or trade. The sari passes to the hands of the sari-trader, who then passes it to another and finally another, and sometime later, the sari finds itself in New Delhi.
It's worth noting that this tradition of bartering off old saris is an old one. While saris are most often kept for decades, or handed down to people close to the family (such as servants), used or old pieces (saris as well as other clothing) can also be sold to a 'bhandiwali'. 'Bhandi' means utensils in Hindi. A bhandiwali will make her rounds of one particular area on a regular basis. When a woman wants to trade her used sari, she calls out to the bhandiwali who will come to her home and scrutinize all the clothes; the ones she thinks can be recycled will be traded for steel utensils; cups, pots, pans or ladles depending on the condition of the clothing she takes.
We source the saris from a community of Gujarati sari traders in Delhi. These sari traders themselves source the saris from a network of bhandiwalis who travel across India, buying and bartering goods for old saris, village by village and house by house
This is where we come in. Every few months, I make a textile pilgrimage to our sari supplier, Mini, who lives above her warehouse filled with vintage saris and bits of fabric in North Delhi. Mini and her husband will first feed me a delicious Gujarati meal of mutton soup and chicken curry, followed by the sweetest, milkiest chai ever made.
We then get into the serious business of buying and selling saris. Bundles of saris are brought into the room and I, sipping my chai, look through them, piece by piece. Those that attract the eye with colour and pattern, or soothe the hand with their texture, go to one side. All others are returned to Mini. To give you an idea of numbers, when I was last there in August, I selected 1,200 vintage, silk saris in one such session.
The saris are brought back to our studio where they are cleaned and carefully checked for all defects. Working with pre-loved textiles takes an inordinate amount of time in terms of quality control. Sections of the sari which pass the quality check are cut to size and piled to one side. (Fabric which does not pass the quality control goes to another pile, for cutting into smaller sections and making into our Sari Silk Necklaces.
I then sort, piece by piece, through theses cut fabrics, pairing fabrics which look fabulous together and which will form the 2 layers of each of our scarves.
Next, Maria matches each pairing with cotton thread before tying up the fabric/thread bundle.
Once we have a large-enough pile of bundled fabric, they are posted to a remote village in West Bengal and the cooperative with which we work. The cooperative, consisting of some 1,400 women kantha artisans, processes the bundles and prepares the fabric for the artisans.
This preparation in itself is a big job: the bundles are counted and each piece of fabric is ironed.
One artisan then makes large, tacking stitch around the edges of each scarf to hold the layers of fabric in place. The cooperative manager, Mr. Reza, notes down in his ledger how many scarves will go to which artisan, before distributing the bundles to the workers.
This is where the hardest work begins - the laborious running kantha stitch which covers the entirety of each scarf. This is particularly challenging and time-consuming on our silk fabric; traditionally, kantha is done on cotton which is much less slippery and easier to manage. An artisan will finish off a scarf by embroidering her name in the corner, just as an artist will sign their masterpiece.
It takes 15 to 30 days to complete one of our Kantha Sari Scarves, and one to two months to complete a Kantha Sari Shawl or Shrug, depending on how many hours per day the artisan works; in general, the ladies work around 3 hours per day.
The kantha stitching is often done outside with a group of friends. It's not only a job, but an opportunity to sit with friends and socialise while doing the embroidery.
Once a week the artisans come to the cooperative center, where they drop off the scarves they've finished and receive their payment. The scarves are quality checked by Mr. Reza's team - this involves trimming thread ends and stitching the edges so the finishing is neat and tidy. After washing and ironing, the completed scarves are sent back to House of Wandering Silk in New Delhi.
Around 2 months after posting out the fabric bundles, we receive the completed scarves with great excitement. Each scarf will then go through at least three rounds of quality control before being photographed and put up online for sale. This is where you come in! Once we receive an order, the scarf is labeled, tagged and lovingly packed and posted out to you.
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