Fibre art & textiles exhibitions in Kyoto May 2023

kyoto exhibitionA table full of textiles, fashion and craft exhibition leaflets at the Kawashima textile school

While Tokyo’s art museums and galleries regularly hosts major contemporary art and design exhibitions, Kyoto is THE place to visit if you are interested in traditional Japanese crafts and textiles. When I was staying at the Kawashima textile school, my weaving classmates and I would take the opportunity to see the various textiles exhibitions in the city on the weekends.

One of the most mesmorising exhibitions that we saw was ‘Fiber art by Fifteen’, showcasing extraordinary fibre art works by 15 Japanese fibre artists. Although fibre art became an international movement in the 1960s-70s, its ambiguity also became a hindrance and most people don’t know how to define or classify it. Is it textile art? Craft? Sculptural textile? Conceptual art? For decades, the term ‘fibre art’ seems a bit dated, and fibre artists were not considered as real ‘artists’ except for Sheila Hicks. However, in recent years, the perception on fibre art has changed and it is being taken more seriously. At last. This fibre art exhibition introduced us to 15 contemporary Japanese fibre artists, who use textiles and washi to creat unique and beautiful sculptural or 2-dimensional pieces.

fiber art exhibition  chieko maedashigeo kubotaTop right: Chieko Maeda; Bottom: Shigeo Kubota

tetsuo kusamatatsumi ushioai itohiroko ote  hiroko oteTop: Tetsuo Kusama; 2nd row: Tatsumi Ushio; 3rd row: Ai Ito; bottom row: Hiroko Ote

I was particularly impressed by Kazuyo Onoyama (born in 1951 in Tokushima)’s fibre feather as each one looks so delicate and light… her works look stunning both from afar and up close!

Kazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo Onoyama

On the top of Daimaru department store, there was a rare chance to see ‘The 57th Japan Traditional arts exhibition 2023’ exhibiting splendid traditional kimono that showcase different techniques like kasuri, katazomi and yuzen etc.

kimono  kimonoThe Daimaru award was awarded to the artisan who made this Kurume Kasuri kimono, which is traditional technique that dates back over 200 years, and recognised as an important intangible cultural property of Japan.

kimono  kimono

kimono  kimono

We also visited Musee de Some Seiryu, the world’s first museum dedicated to contemporary dye art works. The exhibition we saw featured abstract dyed textile pieces by textile artist, Motono Toichi (1916- 1996). Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside, but it was interesting to see the modern textile art pieces by a Japanese textile artists who is not less well-known in the West.

motono toichiMotono Toichi exhibition

Another interesting museum nearby is Hosotsuji Ihee Museum, a museum dedicated to tenugui/ a traditional hand (or multipurpose) cloth. The museum is named after the fabric merchant Hosotsuji Ihee, who established one of Japan’s oldest continuously running businesses, Eirakuya, in 1615. Initially dealing in silk fabrics, Eirakuya eventually shifted to selling cotton as it became more and more popular in Japan and still has 9 shops in Kyoto.

In 2018, the Eirakuya company opened the Museum to showcase the diverse art and craftsmanship of tenugui as well as to archive the history of the shop. It exhibits Eirakuya’s past designs and offers a glimpse into its history, as well as into the future of the art. The exhibition we saw was called ‘Modern girls’ and it featured some wonderful art deco style illustrations on the tenugui. There is also a shop on the ground floor that sells many interesting tenugui with contemporary illustrations.

Hosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee Museum  Hosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee Museum

 

Kyoto’s textile heritage: Kawashima textile museum & kasuri in Nishijin

Kawashima textile museumkawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museum

One reason I love Kyoto is that it is full of hidden gems, and there are always pleasant surprises whenever I visit. One of the least touristy museums in Kyoto has to be the Kawashima textile museum partly due to its distance from the centre, but also down to the fact that prebooking necessary for the visit. After our 2 week course, we were granted a guided tour of the Kawashima textile factory followed by a museum tour near the school. It was a real privilege to visit the factory to see how the large-scale tapestries were designed and produced. I was particularly impressed by a room full of vintage and Jacquard looms, even though they are now dormant.

The Kawashima Selkon Textiles company was founded in 1843, and The Kawashima Textile Museum opened in 1889 is the oldest company museum in Japan. One of the missions that Kawashima Selkon Textile company aimed to achieve was to continue to contribute to development of textile culture by preserving and educating the public on the history of textile crafts and techniques. In order to achieve this goal, the company constructed the Ichihara plant in 1964 handled by 4th Jimbei Kawashima, which includes the factory, office, museum and school with dormitory.

kawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museumKawashima textile museum

Opened under the name Museum of Art Specimens, the museum exhibits masterfully-woven textiles produced by the company over the last 170 years, as well as historic textile artifacts and exhibits. There are over 150,000 items in the museum, ranging from dyed and woven textiles, 7th Century textile artworks (jodai-gire), historically notable works (meibutsu-gire), Chinese fabrics, Coptic fabrics, traditional costumes, books and drawings. In recent years, the company has also collaborated with renowned international designers to produce new home furnishings and furniture. During our visit, there was an exhibition on the new collaboration, which were exhibited at the Milan design week.

The following day, we headed to Nishijin, Kyoto’s famed historic textile district to visit Kasai kasuri atelier specialising in kasuri (). Kasuri is a form of double ikat dyeing, which creates splashed patterns characterised by their blurred edges ( ‘kasuri’ means blurring) on the textiles. Originated in ancient India, the history of kasuri dates back to 5th century Kyoto in the Nishijin district where local weavers worked.

Currently, double ikat is practised in only three countries in the world: India, Indonesia and Japan. Unlike single ikat, the warp and weft are both resist-tied according to a specific design and, when woven, intermesh seamlessly to reveal the pattern. Hence, the process of preparing the warp and weft yarns for dyeing demands the same degree of mathematical precision as the process of weaving the textile on the loom. In 2019, I visited Patan in Gujarat, which is famous for Patola, a double ikat woven sari, usually made from silk. At the Patan Patola museum, aside from demonstrations and exhibits on the locally made textiles, there were also double ikat textiles from Indonesia and kasuri textiles on display. This shows that the curators at the museums view kasuri and Indonesian ikat textiles on par with their intricate Patola textiles.

nishijin  nishijinkasai kasuri nishijinThe kasai kasuri atelier is located in the historic Nishijin textile district

Sadly, like many traditional crafts around the globe, the craftsmandship of kasuri is under threatened due to less demands for kimono and obi, aging artisans and fewer young people wanting to learn a craft that is time-consuming and requires meticulous care as well as precision. Now one of the ‘youngest’ (middle-aged) artisan working in Nishijin is Ikuko Kasai, who is determined to preserve and pass on the invaluable craftsmanship that has been passed on for centuries.

We felt very grateful to have spent the afternoon at the atelier learning about the process of kasuri. In Nishijin, each artisan specialises in only one task, hence they all have to collaborate together to create the kimono or obi piece. Usually a custom-made kimono would take around 6 months and 20 artisans to complete, which explains the high price tag. At her atelier, Kasai san is responsible for the marking and wrapping of the yarn to be resist-dyed at a differenet dye studio. After the initial dyeing process, the dyed yarn returns to her studio again for a second wrapping, and this process can be repeated multiple times depending on the colours on the design. After the dyeing process, the dyed threads are spunned around a drum-like machine called Taiko (see below). The next stage is called ‘hamekomi’ when the threads are counted and arranged according to the design. The last stage involves the threads are hung on a machine called ‘hashigo’ (meaning ladder – see below), and passing through metal rods at various height, so that the horizontal lines are shifted vertially to create the unique kasuri patterns. The finished yarn is then ready to be shipped to the weavers to be woven.

kasai kasuri kasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasuri

One thing really struck me during and after the visit, and it was Kasai san’s immense passion for her craft and her determination to pass on the craftsmanship. She was always smiling while explaing her work and techniques, but I am sure her road has not been easy so far. With dwindling orders for custom-made kimono and obi, the presevation of the heritage and craftsmanship is crucial for the Nishijin craftsmen/ artisans. Undoubtedly, they have a tough road ahead of them, but I think with the resurgence of traditional crafts like shibori, natural dyeing and weaving etc in recent years, there is hope for things to change.

 

Beginners weaving course at Kawashima Textile school 2023

kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile school

It is early June 2024, exactly a year after I completed the 2-week beginners weaving course at Kawashima Textile school in Kyoto, and I decided to share my experience one year on. One reason why I stopped updating the blog was because it is a very time-consuming task, and due to the pandemic, my life (like everyone else’s) changed drastically. Once I lost the incentive/ momentum/ habit, it is rather difficult to pick it up again. However, lately I have been thinking that it would be a shame not to share my experriences, especially my craft journey in Japan over last spring/summer.

The 3-month trip to Japan was originally planned for spring/summer 2020, but sadly it got postponed due to the pandemic. The Kawashima Textile school is a well-known vocational school in Kyoto that specialises in weaving. Every spring and autumn, it accepts only 5 international students onto their weaving courses out of hundreds of applicants. I was thrilled when I was got accepted, so it was particularly disaappointing when the school decided to stop the all the courses due to the pandemic. I refused to get a refund and opted to wait three years, which seemed to impress the teachers/admin of the school! Before the course, I knew very little about weaving and have only done some Saori/ free style weaving, which is quite different from traditional weaving. Shockingly, despite being the oldest person out of the 5 students, I was also the one with the least experience, which was a hindrance for me.

kawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile school

Founded in 1973 by Kawashima Textile Manufacturers Ltd to commemorate the 130th anniversary of the company, the school is one of the oldest textile academies in Asia. The internationally-renowned Kawashima Selkon Textiles (the company changed its name in 2006) is a fabric manufacturer founded in Kyoto in 1843, and it is particularly known for its tsuzure-weaving techniques used for large-scale stage curtains. Secludedly located in the suburbs North of Kyoto, the factory, school and museum (appointment only) are largely tourist-free, with only one small supermarket and one konbini near the railway station.

Surrounded by by mountains and beautiful nature, the school and dormitory were designed by renowned Japanese architect Shozo Uchii, and was warded with the Building Contractors Society Prize in 1975. The weaving room up in the main school looks absoultely splendid with row after row of vintage looms and equipment. Most of the tools that we used are original/vintage items and rare to find these days. Hence it was a real privileged to be able to stay and study in this environment and get acquianted with some local textile students.

kawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school

Over two weeks, we learned to dye woollen yarn using acid dye (not my usual preference, but I guess it is ok for this occasion), set up the large loom (which takes over a day), read the charts and weave some basic patterns. It all sounds pretty simple, but I found out that it is really not as simple as it sounds!

A lot of my friends were curious to know my reason for doing this course. I have never thought of learning to weave until I saw a few natural dyers who could weave too. It made me think that perhaps I could dye and weave by myself in the future (very idealistic). Also I enjoyed some saori weaving previously, so I thought I would make sense to learn the basics.

It turned out that I am completely hopeless at weaving and tying knots! I am a right-brained person, and I reckon that weaving is more suitable for people who are logical and diligent (which I am not). I never knew that setting up the loom would be so time-consuming – it requires a lot of concentration and meticulous care. After making a few mistakes while threading, I had to redo it all over again, which was very frustrating. Even while weaving, my threads constantly got tangled, and the more I tried to untangle, the worse it became, so I ended up spending hours after dinner in the weaving room trying to fix my mistakes.

kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  woven scarf

After struggling for 2 weeks, I finally completely the 2 pieces thanks to Emma sensei’s patience and teachings, and I even received a certificate for it. Thankfully, I did not enroll onto the kasuri (double weaving) course right after, because I was told by my classmates that it was very complicated and even they struggled with it.

Despite it all, I am glad that I took the course and learned the basics of weaving, meanwhile I realised that weaving is not for me as I much prefer freestyle weaving, natural/indigo dyeing, shibori or block printing. However, it was interesting to spend three weeks staying in the suburbs of Kyoto exploring places that I normally would not visit if I was staying in the city centre.

IchiharaichiharaIchiharaichiharaimg_3559-minIchihara  eizan railway img_3559-mineizan railway  eizan railwayeizan railwayeizan railway

Ichihara is a quiet suburban town reachable via bus or the Eizan railway from the centre of Kyoto. The railway line ends in Kurama, a popular day trip destination for visiting the sacred Mount Kurama and its famous temples. The train journey is very scenic, with some special scenic trains and a maple tree tunnel, which I believe would like spectacular in autumn. Interestingly, the seating inside some trains were woven by Kawashima textile company, and I even spotted some small ‘photo-like’ woven tapestries at the Ichihara train station. It is easy to miss them as they look like ordinary sightseeing photos (see above)!

ichihara shrineichihara temple  ichihara templeichihara shrineichihara shrineThe Daijingu-sha Shrine behind the railway station

Ichiharaichiharamaple leavesmaple leavesichiharaichiharaichihara  ichihara

Over the three weeks, my classmates and I would spend the weekends exploring either the city or its surrounding area. On weekdays, I would sometimes go for walks around the town after dinner. Since the town is located in the mountainous region, with Kurama river running through it, it is very tranquil as few Kyotojin would visit this area, let alone tourists.

I think the school has certainly picked the right location for its students as there isn’t much to do in the surrounding area, but nature is plentiful, thus very inspiring for the students. Sadly I learned that local students (especially male) who apply for the weaving courses have been dwindling in recent years as less youngsters are interested in becoming full-time weavers in this day and age. There are exchange programmes with schools overseas, and students can also get apprenticeship/jobs at the factory, but I am not sure if these are ‘appealing’ enough for them. I know that the school also runs short courses on weaving and natural dyeing for the locals, so I hope that these would help promote the school and the craft of weaving. It would be a real shame to lose the school as it is part of Kyoto’s craft heritage, and it needs to be preserved for future generations.

img_2029-min  img_2708-min img_2821-minimg_2712-min  img_1995-minimg_2710-min  img_2722-min

 

Spice walk & tour of the Windermere Estate, Munnar

munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

Tea planations in Munnar

 

If you love nature, you would definitely love Munnar. Aside from tea plantations, I recommend doing a spice walk to learn about local spices and plants. After an inspiring guided walk at a spice garden before the conference, I was keen to do another one. At the Blackberry nature resort, the manager organised a guided spice walk for me in the morning to explore the surrounding area.

Unlike the previous walk, which took place within a spice garden, this walk focused on wild plants and spices. On this walk, I saw coffee plants and raw coffee beans for the first time, and tasted tree tomato (Tamarillo) picked from a tree. Often we forget that tomatoes are actually fruits, partly because they don’t taste as sweet as other fruits. Yet the tamarillo I tasted was quite sweet and juicy, hence I tasted more like fruit than vegetable.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

tea   coffee bean

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk

 

Besides wild spices and plants, Munnar is also popular for bird-watching. There are many bird-watching and photography tours that attract bird lovers from around the world. There are about 142 species of birds are reported from Shola-Grassland and 162 species from Chinnar-Marayur plateau. I don’t know much about birds, but I do love hearing them chirp and sing every morning from my room at the resort.

 

bird watching munnar

munnar birdwatchers  spice walk munnar

flowers munnar  flower munnar

flowers munnar  flowers munnar

flowers munnar

 

After learning that the nearby Windemere Estate is set up in a 60-acre of tea, coffee and cardonmon plantation, I went and asked them if I could join their daily two-hour tour of the plantation. Even though the tour is for guests only, they kindly let me to join without charge.

Inspired by the Scottish Highlands and old plantation houses, the Windemere retreat is a boutique retreat with only 18 rooms. I particularly liked the cottage-style accommodations and garden full of colourful flowers.

 

windermere estate munnar

tea

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar
In the middle of the estate, there is a semi-open Chai Kada (tea shop) where guests can relax and enjoy chai or coffee. I was kindly offered some coffee brewed from the beans grown at the estate before the tour – the first Keralan coffee of my trip.

 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

 

Sadly the coffee harvest season had ended and there were barely any coffee fruits to see. However, the guided tour around the estate was really interesting and I felt like I have gain a lot of new knowledge in just two days.

My extended stay in Munnar finally came to an end, and it was time for me to move on and head down to the sea. Munnar is truly a paradise for nature lovers, so I would love to return here again one day.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

 

 

 

Blackberry Hills – a tranquil eco resort in Munnar

blackberry hills resort

 

I was due to leave India for Hong Kong after the Aranya conference at the end of February, but at the time, COVID-19 was starting to spread in Hong Kong, hence I decided to prolong my trip at the last minute. Luckily, the airline did not charge me for the change due to the circumstances. Looking back, I guess I was extremely fortunate because there were very few cases in India then, and I managed to enjoy another 2 weeks traveling around Kerala.

Since I was feeling quite exhausted after the conference, I wanted to relax and recuperate in Munnar for an extra few days. There are a numerous resorts in Munnar and it was not easy to pick one. After a bit of research, I booked the eco-friendly Blackberry Hills nature resort and spa, which is about 20 mins’ drive from the town centre.

Built on the slope of a hill, the resort offers a magnificent views of the Western Ghats. I knew I had picked the right place when I saw the surroundings and view.

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

There are 16 cottages over 15 acres of land, and the hotel kindly upgraded me to a larger room with sitting area and a balcony facing a mini forest. This balcony was where I spent most of my time, and it was probably the most tranquil spot during my journey.

Every morning I would hear birds chirping and chatting to each other, which was a joy. In the afternoon, I also saw two Malabar Giant Squirrels (Ratufa indica) jumping from one tree to another. I haven’t stayed at other resorts in Munnar, but I think this resort is perfect for nature-lover and the eco-conscious travellers.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

Malabar Giant Squirrel

 

There is one restaurant at the resort, which serves Indian and international dishes. The view from the restaurant is splendid, and you can easily enjoy a long lunch here. There is also afternoon tea tasting session where guests can taste different types of tea like green tea, cardonmon tea and masala chai etc.

 

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort

 

Besides the stunning environment, I also enjoying chatting to the friendly and hospitable staff. When I asked the manager about an odd-looking fruit growing within the resort’s grounds, he said he wasn’t sure but would find out for me. A day later, after enquiring his botanist friend, he told me that the fruit is called tropical soda apple (solanum viarum). Interestingly, it is is a perennial shrub native to Brazil and Argentina, and an invasive species. The colours of the golf-ball-sized fruit resembles a watermelon, but it is toxic. Yet no one has any idea how this South American plant end up growing in India…

 

blackberry hills resort  blackberry hills resort

blackberry hills resort  tropical soda apple (solanum viarum)

 

The resort occupies an entire mountain side, and there is a trekking trail that leads all the way down to the nearby village cum tea plantation called Attukad. However, due to hot weather, I abandoned trekking downhill and opted for a late afternoon walk westwards recommended by the restaurant manager. He told me that there is a great sunset spot about 45 mins’ walk west of the resort, and he was right. The sun setting behind the tea plantations and mountain was truly beautiful.

After extending an extra night, I ended up spending 4 nighs at the resort, which enabled me to recuperate fully. I believe that nature has healing powers, hence being surrounded by trees and mountains worked wonders for me, and I was very energised after my stay.

 

munnar  munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

munnar

 

Two-day natural dyeing workshops at Aranya Natural, Munnar

aranya natural

 

The first two days of “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference took place at Eastend hotel in Munnar, followed by two days of natural dyeing workshops (at an extra cost) at Aranya Natural’s HQ. Due to limited numbers, all the spaces for the workshops filled up quickly, but many conference attendees requested to stand by and watch, which subsequently overfilled the workshops on the first day.

It was hard to blame those who wanted to watch the workshops as it was a rare opportunity to learn from three leading natural dyeing experts and a group of Japanese indigo farmers and dyers. Since the process of natural dyeing involves the understanding of chemistry, many of the experts would focus more on the chemistry rather than the aesthetics. To me, this is quite valuable, as I believe it is crucial to understand the science behind it all in order to achieve the desired results.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

The first workshop that I attended was conducted by Michel Garcia, a world-renowned botanist, chemist, dyer, and naturalist. He is the founder of Couleur Garance (1998) in Lauris, France, and established Le Jardin Conservatoire de Plantes Tinctoriales (Botanical Garden of Dye Plants) in 2000. I have long wanted to attend a workshop by Michel, but he doesn’t seem to conduct many regular workshops, and I can only watch his videos online. In person, he is very funny, passionate and creative, you can really feel his passion for plants and natural dyeing.

In natural dyeing, a mordant is often needed to fix the dyes onto the textiles, and the most common mordant used is alum/potassium aluminium sulfate. At the workshop, Michel demonstrated how to use old tea leaves as a natural mordant, which was very interesting. However, the workshop was extremely packed, which made it difficult for us to hear and follow him properly. It was a shame that this issue was only addressed on the next day.

 

aranya natural  michel garcia

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Screen printing workshop using natural dyes with Michel Garcia

 

The afternoon workshop was conducted by Jagada Rajappa, who is an independent textile entrepreneur/consultant on natural dyes. She demonstrated dyeing silk yarn with kapila (mellotus Phllipinces) and lac (coccous Lacca), which resulted in vibrant red and yellow. The results revealed that naturally dyed colours are not dull and muted as many would expect.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

Jagada Rajappas workshop and ceremony

 

The next day, the workshops were restricted to those who had originally enrolled, which made more sense. The first workshop was conducted by Linda LaBelle, who is a weaver and natural dyer specialising in indigo. She also runs the website The Yarn Tree that sells fair-trade indigo and other natural dyed items. After yesterday’s observational workshops, I was longing to get my hands dirty. Finally, we got to do some doodling with natural indigo on some cotton fabric that has been pre-dyed in myrobalan. It was a fun session and we got to taste some indigo tea grown by Linda.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

Indigo Doodles workshop with Linda LaBelle

 

The last session was the one I had been looking forward to since I signed up months ago. Buaisou was established in Tokushima by a collective of indigo farmers in 2015, and it is partly responsible for the revival of natural indigo worldwide in recent years. Not only it has over 44K followers on Instagram, it also collaborates frequently with other fashion and textiles companies to promote Japanese indigo and the colour ‘Japan Blue’. Buaisou is renowned for its indigo leaf farming – from cultivating the raw indigo, fermenting the indigo leaves (Sukumo), dyeing, and designing, all the way to production. Since the fermentation process takes around 10 days, Kyoko (the manager) had to arrive 2 weeks earlier to set up the vat.

 

buaisou

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

Since I have previously tried katagami (making paper stencils for dyeing textiles) and katazome (the Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste applied through a stencil) with Bryan Whitehead in Japan (see my earlier post), I was quite familiar with the process. This time, I didn’t need to design and cut my own stencils as there were many beautiful and complex precut designs to choose from. We were all given a cotton bandana to work on, and after applying the paste through the stencils, we all took turns to dip the fabric into the indigo vat with some guidance.

I would say this was a taster workshop, and would love to learn more from them when I next visit Tokushima (which was supposed to happen this year but it got cancelled because of COVID-19).

 

buaisou workshop  buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

buaisou workshop

 

After the workshop, it was time to say goodbye to everyone. Over the four days, I made many new friends from around the world who share the same passion as me, and got the opportunity to chat to many experts in the field, hence the conference has exceeded all my expectations. The fact that it managed to take place just before COVID-19 became a pandemic was extremely lucky.

After exchanging contacts with many attendees, a few of us decided to walk back to town and have dinner together. It was a pleasant walk downhill and we had a fun girls’ night out – something that I haven’t done for a long time.

In the past few years, the pursue of natural dyeing has opened doors for me and enabled me to make new friends from around the world. This was completely unexpected, and it made me realise that I am on the right path.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

munnar

munnar

aranya natural

munnar

munnar

 

 

Aranya Natural & Athulya at Srishti Welfare Centre in Munnar

aranya natural

 

Before visiting Munnar, I was not aware of the health issues related to tea plantation workers in India. Often foreign media would focus on the working conditions of garment factory workers, yet the problems related to tea plantation workers (primarily female) are largely ignored. Although they are not stuck inside cramped factories, tea plantation workers have to deal with other serious safety and health issues. Locals told me that workers not only have to work long hours at low wages, they also have to live together in communial dormitories with poor sanitation at the tea estates. Health awareness among the tea plantation workers is poor, and often they give births to children with various health conditions and disabilities, yet they receive hardly any government support.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

 

In 1991, the Srishti Trust was formed, backed by Tata Tea Limited, to support differently-abled children of the estate workers. Founded by Ratna Krishna Kumar, the Trust launched two major projects: Aranya Natural and Athulya, aiming to rehabilitate local youngsters in a safe and fair environment. Later, Nisarga (the strawberry unit) and The Deli (a bakery and confectionery) were added to make preserves, breads and cookies using locally-grown ingredients.

Most visitors to Munnar would head to the main tourist attractions, but few would seek out the Srishti Welfare Centre. Well, they are really missing out. In 1996, the Srishti Welfare Centre moved to an abandoned shed in Tata Tea’s Nettimudi estate outside of the town centre. Their beautiful site is open to the public and visitors can meet many happy workers who are trained at natural dyeing and paper-making. What started out as an experiment has paid off for Ratna and her all-female team’, now even big corporations have employed the Trust to make paper and textiles-related products.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

Aryana Natural is the natural dyeing department at Srishti. All the textiles here are created in a non-toxic environment and all the dyes are azo-free. Many dyes are locally sourced, like eucalyptus, Nilgiri kozha (eupatorium), tea waste, pine cones and other leaves, petals, roots and bark are harvested from the forest nearby. Some specific dyes are sourced elsewhere, like indigo from South India, lac from Jangir Champa, and myrobalan, from traditional medicine shops in Coimbatore. Only natural fabrics such as cotton and silk are used as they work best with natural dyes.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

Every newcomer would receive training by volunteered trainers for about six months on skills particular to their aptitude and interests. Each artisan would specialise in at least one technique i.e. shibori or traditional block printing. World-renowned Japanese textile artist and researcher, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, regularly visits and acts as mentor to the young learners. She introduced many traditional Japanese shibori techniques to the trainees, which enable them to develop the skills further. Most of the artisans I spoke to told me that they really enjoy their work, and it was amazing to watch them work – they are fast and very skilled.

 

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

 

Athulya is the handmade paper unit that creates handmade paper from recycle waste paper, cut boards and other stationery waste. It is committed to use only natural additives in their paper, most of them are found around Munnar like tea, eucalyptus leaves, lemon grass, pineapple leaves, onion peel, flower petals, elephant droppings and water hyacinth (which is a weed affecting our back waters).

Now around thirty people work in this unit and they produce over 52 eco-friendly, azo-free, biodegradable recycled paper products by hand. It is also encouraging to see Starbucks hiring the unit to produce their shopping bags.

 

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya

Athulya  Athulya

 

At the back of the sheds, there are a line of greenhouses growing organic vegetables and plants. Seasonal vegetables are picked and used in the Srishti canteen where nearly two hundred employees have lunch every day. There is also a playground for the staff’s children to play, and an award-winning flower garden that features a wide variety of flowers.

 

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

srishti welfare centre

 

One cannot come here without stopping at the shop. The Aranya Natural shop has to be the most beautiful shop in Munnar. It sells one-of-a-kind handdyed scarves, clothing and home accessories made by the artisans next door. The prices are extremely reasonable and you would not be able to find them elsewhere. If you purchase here, you are directly helping the centre and the artisans, thus making a bold statement supporting sustainable textiles and fashion.

 

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural  aranya natural

aranya natural

aranya natural

 

The Srishti Welfare Centre is not only a beautiful site, it is also an inspiring organisation. Before my trip, I knew little about this place, and I am flabbergasted that few people outside of the textiles world have heard of it. If you have only one day in Munnar, make sure that you spare time to visit this centre because it is well worth it.

 

 

 

 

Aranya Natural’s “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference in Munnar

aranya natural conference

 

The purpose of my trip to India in February was to attend a natural dyeing conference. And it took place before COVID-19 changed our lives. Aranya Natural is a natural dyeing organisation under Srishti Trust in Munnar, supported by TATA Global Beverages Limited, which runs programs for the education training and rehabilitation of the differently abled children of Munnar’s tea plantation workers. Last year, it was the organisation’s 25th anniversary, and “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference was organised as part of the celebration. However, the conference was postponed by a year after a major flood in Kerala devasted many parts of the state. It was fortunate that the conference managed to take place before COVID-19 started to spread in India, otherwise it would have been cancelled for the second time.

Honestly, I am not a big fan of conference and would rarely volunteerily attend one. Yet this conference was like no other, and I felt that it would be beneficial if I want to continue my natural dyeing practice. To me, natural dyeing is not merely a hobby, it has become my passion and aspiration in recent years. Currently, we are seeing a revival of natural and indigo dyeing as many people realise the harmful effects of synthetic dyes on our bodies and environment.

 

aranya natural conference  indigo farmer aranya natural conference

Left: The conference schedule; Right: A local indigo farmer and conference attendee

 

The 2-day conference took place at Eastend Hotel in Munnar, bringing dyers, manufacturers, teachers, designers, farmers, and enthusiasts etc together from Indian and around the world. One huge draw for me was the list of speakers, which included experts like Yoshiko Wada, Jenny Balfour Paul, Michel Garcia, Charlotte Kwon (Maiwa), Dominique Cardon, Jagada Rajappa and Buaisou… these are all big names in the natural dyeing and textiles world, so it was a rare opportunity to meet them all in one room.

One factor differentiates Aranya Natural from other organisations – it is an all-women team led by a visionary founder, Ratna Krishnakumar. Since India is a patriarchal society, it is inspiring to see the empowerment of women here. The fact is women in India are likely to face more challenges than women in the West, so being able to run an all-female team here is highly commendable.

The conference also addressed the most important issue that we are facing in the textiles and fashion industry today – sustainability. The rise of fast fashion has done immense damage to our environment in the past decade or so, hence the conference aimed to increase the awareness of natural dyes, and discuss how the industry can shift from using synthetic dyes to more sustainable ones.

 

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

 

Until recently, sustainability has been fashion industry’s last concern. If you trace the path of your favourite item from Primark, then you might be in for a surprise. Your ‘bargain’ £10 shirt probably costs about £3-4 to make, meanwhile the garment factory worker in Bangladesh would receive less than £1 for a day’s work (14-16 hours). Aside from exploitation of these workers, the environmental damage caused by the chemicals used is unaccountable. Although India has had a long history with natural dyes, many garment manufacturers have now switched to synthetic dyes to cope with the high demand from the fast fashion sector. Natural dyes have been pushed aside due to higher costs. lower production rate and more labour intensive.

So, how can we re-introduce natural dyes back into the profit-driven industry? There are no easy answers, but I did meet some young Indian designers at the conference who are using natural dyes to create beautiful designs. I do hope that they will change the landscape of Indian fashion in the future.

 

aranya natural conference

Soham Dave and his sustainable collection

 

When I was still a student years ago, I bought my first shibori book, “Shibori: The Inventive Art Of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing” by artist, author, and curator, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. This is an important book to me and I never thought I would get the chance to meet Yoshiko in person, but I did – we even exchanged contacts, and later had dinner together, which all felt a bit surreal. Besides Yoshida, I also spoke to other speakers like Dominique Cardon, Michel Garcia, Axel Becker, Jagada Rajappa, William Ingram from Threads of Life, and Rashmi Bharti, the co-founder of Avani. The conference also enabled me to connect and make friends with attendees from around the world. Many of them are dyers, designers, textiles teachers, and shop owners etc, so I found the whole experience valuable and unforgettable.

 

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

 

The talks on both days covered a wide range of topics relating to sustainability and natural dyeing, but the word ‘indigo’ was a key term at the conference. Indigo is probably the most mysterious and complex natural dye of all. Indigofera is a flowering plant of over 750 species and belongs to the pea family, Fabaceae. It has been in cultivation in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide for many centuries, yet the characteristics of each specie varies and can yield different shades of blue. The world-renowned indigo expert writer, artist and curator, Jenny Balfour-Paul has published several indigo-related books, and she was the last speaker to give a talk on indigo. Not long ago, I read her novel “Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer, hence it was interesting to hear her examine the colour ‘blue’ from many angles.

 

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

Talks and slides on indigo

 

On both evenings after the conference, there were entertainments including dance and music performances, violin recital, and fashion show. The fashion show featured natural dyed designs created by Riddhi Jain (Studio Medium), Sreejith Jeevan (Studio Rouka) and Sunita Shankar. Unlike other fashion shows, their show was modelled by workers at Srishti, which was more authentic and fun.

Based in New Dehli, Riddhi Jain is a rising star in India’s fashion world who has won the Elle Decor India Design Awards, International Craft Awards and India Story design awards amongst others. She told me that she employs a small team of artisans and designers to create beautiful hand-dyed and hand-stitched shibori pieces that are one of a kind. I love her designs, and honestly, I would rather spend my money on an unique handmade piece that supports a local craft community than a designer piece that supports its marketing campaigns and executives.

 

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference

aranya natural conference  aranya natural conference

Riddhi Jain (Studio Medium)

 Sunita Shankar

Sreejith Jeevan (Studio Rouka)

3rd row: Riddhi Jain and her collection; 4th row: Sunita Shankar and her collection; bottom row: Sreejith Jeevan and his collection.

 

I never knew that conferences could be so exhausting! Besides two full-day talks from 9am to 5pm, I did not anticipate two hours of evening entertainments, followed by dinners at 9 pm on both nights. Despite the lack of rest, I was still looking forward to attending two more days of workshops led by different experts. And I got to visit the beautiful site of Aranya Natural, which is located outside of the polluted town centre.

To be continued…

 

aranya natural conference

I loved my conference gift bag

 

 

Munnar: Greenland spice & Ayurvedic garden

greenland garden

 

Munnar is not only famous for tea, you can also find abundance of spices here, and prices are much cheaper than Kochi. I asked the driver to take me to a spice garden, and he said he knew just the place. Greenland spice and ayurvedic garden is located in Thekkady, and it is one of the few spice gardens that is approved by the government.

Out of all the places I visited on the day, this was my favourite. It was fascinating and educational – I highly recommend it. The entry price includes a guided tour (you will need someone to identify and explain all the spices and herbs here) of the garden, which resembles a mini jungle.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden salvia L

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Thunbergia mysorensis

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Musa velutina  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden torch ginger flower

3rd row: Salvia; 4th row: Thunbergia mysorensis/ Mysore trumpetvine; Bottom left: Pink banana (Musa velutina); Bottom right: torch ginger flower

 

Many of the spices and herbs in the garden are used in ayurveda, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and in sanskrit, it means ‘The Science of Life’. Plant-based treatments in ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds. Aside from ayurveda, many spices are commonly used in South Indian cooking e.g. cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint etc. Interestingly, many of the ayurvedic plants can also be used as natural dyes, so they are extremely versatile.

South India is world-renown for its ayurveda retreats and centres, and many Westerners would spend weeks or months getting detox and wellness treatments here. After I left Kochi, I spent a few days at a yoga and ayurveda retreat before heading to Munnar. Upon arrival, I had a doctor’s consultation, and was given some plant-based tonic twice a day along side with massage treatments daily to restore body balance. It was an interesting experience, and I particularly enjoyed the healthy and flavourful vegetarian/ayurvedic meals.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden jackfruit

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden peas

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden black pepper

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden murikooti

2nd row right: Jackfruits; 3rd row: peas; 4th right: black pepper/Piper nigrum; Bottom row: Murikooti – a wound healing plant with leaves that can be turned into a paste

 

The most exciting part of the tour was seeing cocoa trees and tasting cocoa pulp for the first time. I love eating dark chocolates but I have never seen a cocoa fruit (Theobroma cacao) before. Inside the fruit lies a cluster of cacao beans surrounded by a thin layer of white pulp. The guide opened the fruit and let me tast the white pulp, which was surprisingly juciy and sweet. While some cacao pulp is used in the fermentation process of cocoa beans, most is simply thrown out as waste. It was only recently that cacao pulp is being used as a substitute for refined white sugar. Not long ago, Nestle released a 70% dark chocolate bar in Japan under its KitKat brand that has been sweetened with cacao pulp instead of refined sugar. Yet historically, cacao pulp has always been drank as juice by cacao farmers, and their immediate communities around the world.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  cocoa

cocoa

nutmeg seed  cardamon seed

1st to 3rd rows: cocoa fruit, bean and pulp; Bottom left: nutmeg seed; Bottom right: cardamon

 

Like most tourist sites, there is a shop located by the exit to avoid you leaving empty-handed, Apart from different varieties of spices, there are also ayurvedic medicine and skincare range available. I went for the mixed spice packs as I think you can’t get much fresher spices than the ones being sold by the spice garden.

 

 

Munnar: KFDC Floriculture Centre & tea museum

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

In Munnar, there are many botanical gardens, and KFDC Floriculture Centre/Munnar rose garden is one of them. Run by Kerala Forest Developerment Centre, KFDC Floriculture Centre is built on a hill slope, and has a nice view of the nearby tea planation. I think the term ‘floriculture centre’ is appropriate because it is not really garden. There is, however, a lovely rose garden within the centre. It is rare to see rose gardens in Asia but here you can see a variety of species in shades of red and pink covering the hill. Besides roses, there are many beautiful dahlias and other native flowers, as well as herbs, medicinal plants, cacti and bonsai.

My advice is to come early as it can get quite crowded. Luckily, I arrived soon after it opened, so I was able to avoid the crowds.

 

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

Tea factory visits are on the itineraries of most day tours, and Kannan Devan Tea Factory is one of the most popular in Munnar. There are English guided tours throughout the day, but it does get very busy. Since I missed the tour and couldn’t be bothered to wait, I decided to visit the KDHP Tea Museum instead. Both tthe museum and factory are owned by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHP), a plantation estate that dates back to the 1880s. It is under the Tata group, which seems to own everything related to tea in Munnar.

KDHP/Tata Tea Museum is a small museum that traces the history of tea-making in Munnar. It exhibits many old photographs, curiosities and machinery; visitors can also watch a short documentary on the Munnar’s tea history. In a larger room, visitors can learn about the various stages of the tea processing – Crush, tear, curl – and the production of Kerala black tea variants.

A mandatory tea shop awaits you at the end of your visit, so you can shop til you drop. There are many varieties of tea, including black, white and green; meanshile prices are very resaonable too. It is a good place to buy your souvenir here.

 

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

 

To be continued…