more inconvenience

•03/03/2015 • 3 Comments

Calicut to Delhi, 28 Feb – 3 Mar15
This train journey has turned into an epic of the expected and the unexpected.  Thank heaven for my upper berth, from which I can consider the ebb and flow of other passengers in an overlooked luxury of space and headroom.  When I boarded yesterday evening in Calicut, an excess of school group passengers were engrossed in an animated card game in my compartment, but they recognized I was the aisle seat holder.  That should have made me an automatic ring-side player, and by the time they asked me I almost had the game figured out.  All cards are dealt out and players take tricks following suits.  If the lead suit goes around, the cards are discarded, but if a player throws off another suit, the winner of the trick adds the cards to his hand.  The object of the game is to get rid of your cards, and the hand goes on until the last player is left holding.  They were all debarking at Goa for four days of “enjoyment” chaperoned by three teachers, identifiable by their wearing shoes and permanent bemused expressions, so in the middle of the night it was “all change” around me, including a couple with a good-natured infant boy, replaced by another with a persistently crying baby girl.  Two days later, nobody around me here would have to ask why I don’t regret ever having children…
Next day, after surfacing in the early morning stir for samosas and tea, I took advantage of my upper-berth space to sleep the day away.  I was far from the window, but the route in spite of its attractive glimpses is too interrupted by many long transits through tunnels.  I expected we would fall behind, sidelined waiting for priority trains passing in the other direction, but it seemed the whole afternoon passed waiting and not advancing long enough for me to complete a pee before we again drifted to a halt.  Late in the afternoon at another interminable pause, more than the usual proportion of passengers seemed to be taking the air outside, milling around and consulting their mobiles. I made up my mind to venture out and have a cigarette, to find hundreds of passengers lounging in the rail yard, waiting for the delay to resolve.  A big part of the problems, the relatively new west coast rail line with all its engineering difficulties is probably mostly single-track.  The latter part of the route, on an older, more developed, electrtified part of the network between Mumbai and Delhi, is less subject to bottlenecks and the loss of priority a train suffers when it falls behind – it just has to find an opening in the traffic going the same direction.
Whatever the cause, there has been an influx of extra passengers and their train of baggage in our carriage.  Whenever the train is stopped, food service plying the aisles seems to disappear, in favour of servers addressing windowside passengers from the roomier platform outside.  And, a confirmation of the upset in routine, though we seem to be under way again, not much other than chai is on offer this suppertime.  The conclusion of this trial is yet to be told, but I have just scored a packet of samosas, my reliable snack-food choice, providing they are really “garam”…
Next day (and we are supposed to be arriving at lunchtime), the pace has finally picked up, but last evening we languished at a station until I drifted off to sleep, then awoke in the night to the reassuring sensation of being under way.  In keeping with my preference for any kind of news over not knowing, there seems nothing more pointless and frustrating than sitting expectantly in a train that’s not moving.
I have come round to less excuse of exception and more civilized routines – toothbrushing, facewash, and thankfully I have enough rum to maintain the very civilized and forgiving sundowner.  It seems to have become a matter of resignation and endurance for everyone.  Early this morning there was a general reveille and a lot of chatter as people took stock of how far behind-schedule we are.  Some passengers filed off at the next station of any size, and the rest have tidied up for the long haul.  The regular food service seems to have disappeared – maybe the pantry car was part of the train left behind – leaving passengers lean and withdrawn, and the aisles less adrift with litter than usual.  At 10:30 this morning, less than 3 hours from our scheduled arrival, we were at a station we should have reached at 5:30 last evening, suggesting that our revised arrival will be early tomorrow morning.  Since then, someone has come round to pre-arrange vegetarian thali for lunch, so we will see how the day proceeds…
An atmosphere of austerity and forbearance – lunch was modest and plain but wholesome, and the afternoon passed in subdued distraction.  Still a dearth of snack options in the aisles – it’s as if our train, no longer conforming to anything like its expected schedule, is sneaking through under the snack-vendors’ radar.  Nothing but unseasoned popcorn available as a bar snack at happy hour.  At Itarsi, 8:30 in the evening, and later at Jhansi, large portions of the crowd of passengers began to debark, it’s to be hoped approximating to their original travel plans.  Someone speculated for me that we might reach Delhi around 1 a.m.  Night, and the few – I mean less-than-capacity – passengers subsided into sleep shrouded against the cold, lights out, the tangle of mobile-rechargers dismantled, and there seemed something eerily wrong, like a death ship gliding toward oblivion, the MH370 with passengers asphyxiated by lack of oxygen, about to disappear into the depths.  A brief rain shower beat against the roof, and I hoped we weren’t just about to arrive and be forced into it.  I alternated awake and asleep, as I had for days with little idea of the time of day, in my nest in the canopy.  Now I sat up in one of the empty side lower seats, watching the moon, the wash of standing rainwater, the late-night truck traffic travelling in tandem on a parallel highway, all glide by.  Now I returned to my berth and a well-timed dream, like an in-flight movie, that ended just as we ground into Nizamuddin station, at about 4:30.  I headed out shakily into the night and the stream of dazed passengers on the platform.

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“The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.”

•08/02/2015 • 1 Comment

I’ve just arrived in Mumbai from Varanasi, awaiting my later train for Calicut.  My feeling is it would be inappropriate to call it a connecting train, though of the several major Mumbai railway stations, it leaves from the one I arrived at.  The train I arrived on, in Sleeper class, was one of those not very well supervised, that organized itself socially in an accommodating, organic fashion.  It, along with my reservation, originated up the line at Muzaffarpur, but by the time it arrived at Varanasi, more than an hour late, amid a welter of train-delay announcements, there was someone sleeping on my lower berth, and a couple more passengers accumulated than the spaces officially available.  I managed to claim most of my space – the encroacher maybe more considerate than usual because his claim was more tenuous – and the mother and 2-or-3-year-old son slept on the floor while the grandmother of the trio had a berth.  The ticket examiners, when they came along, seemed more concerned to sell tickets to the extras than rationalize the existing spaces.  There were no lights in the washrooms – a hazard when you think of it, they are predictable places but the users are less so.  And there seemed to be a water leak spreading puddles in the corridor.  The next day, no one appeared to avail of formal meal service, but there was a stream of chai and snack sellers plying the aisles.
It was interesting to speculate on the difference in socializing of toddlers that I’ve sat with on all of my last three train journeys – the first two were girls, being coddled by their young fathers captive for the duration of the train trip, while their young mothers just seemed to be there, less connected, receiving less acknowledgement – or maybe enjoying time off-duty.  The bemused enjoyment of the fathers was probably more of an exception from their work-a-day or peer-group reality.  The boy, a little older, was more self-possessed and demanding, though in a situation less typical – Christians, with the mother earnestly studying her Bible, and leading prayers.  She was stern with her child as mothers might well grow to be, and in the theatre of those moments it seemed that God was staying her hand from slapping him.  I hope He’s ever-vigilant.  For the most part, these children were happy, boundlessly energetic, leery of strangers, and some of them often piercingly loud.
With mother and son camped on the floor, my suitcase was guarded but inaccessible until the last flurry of our arrival at LTT Mumbai.  I slept long in the second night, starting early with nothing else to do, and the assurance that we would be late-arriving in the morning, but not by much more than before – all that time standing on sidings waiting for traffic going the other way, must already be factored in, between the rattling, full-throttle transits.  I surfaced during the night to find us stopped at Igatpuri, one of the stations in Nasik area that I wondered if I could change trains at.
But I don’t think the Netravati Express retraces that route out of Mumbai.  Somehow, having time to depressurize and organize to embark on this train gave me a bit more serenity and confidence.  I was first aboard when the carriage doors were unlatched, helped to shoe-horn the following mountain of baggage around my innocent suitcase, refrained from trying to corner the window seat from another FT traveler when my entitlement was only for the elastic space of middle seat and the middle berth of official bedtime.  By the time we were nearing Calicut less than 24 hours later, the train was running a couple of hours late, leading me to wonder if it’s that mere fact of running late, unplugged from the schedule, that contributes the most frustration even if it has no consequence for my plans.

A shawl design and a carpet design are not the same

•29/10/2014 • Leave a Comment

fig 1 A290 size as inset cw 2x

Recently I was asked to scale up the design of an antique Kashmir shawl motif, to make it more visible and effective in modern shawl production.  The original motif, represented by 100 talim lines (each woven in 2 picks) by 33 nals, at a threadcount of 80 threads per inch, would result in a woven image about 1.7 by 2.5 inches.  Doubling the size of the design at the same threadcount would produce an image 3.3 by 5 inches.  My undertaking throughout this exercise was to make the design no more detailed, requiring no more bobbins (“kani”) than before to do the weaving.

I realized that this proposal provides an opportunity to compare the different strategies, old and new, for getting the most pleasing woven image of a design visualised on a square grid.  In recent years, a carpet design program based on the square grid has been widely adopted for preparing shawl designs and the row-by-row weaving instructions (“talim”).  In a hand-knotted carpet, each unit of the grid represents one knot or tuft, and the knots line up not only in horizontal rows but also in vertical columns, one directly above another, so the square grid provides a detailed and properly aligned representation of the design.

The twill fabric structure of shawlweaving consists of weave-units of 4 warp threads and 4 weft threads.  At each treadling 2 adjacent warp threads (called a “nal”) are raised, two lowered, and 1 weft thread (or pick) is passed between.  The raised warp threads may be named in this sequence as: 1 and 4, 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and then the sequence is repeated.  While it is true that the whole weave-units, each consisting of 4 by 4 threads, align in straight rows and columns, so they can be represented by the square grid, they are different in two important respects from the single carpet knot.  Each weave-unit shows 4 stitches (or “seeds”, a tapestryweaving term) of the weft thread, in the colours of the design, and these 4 stitches line up in a diagonal row.  So each weave-unit is more detailed, and has a peculiar diagonal orientation, that the square grid does not show.

fig 2 A290 as 2x size square gridImportant note: In my illustrations, each row of “brick-grid” units represents two picks of weaving, so two rows of “brick-grid” units represent one row of 4-by-4-thread weave units, and give a partial impression of the diagonal shift of weft stitches.  The straight-twill diagonal rises to the right on the back of the fabric as it is woven, but to the left on the front of the fabric, as shown.

As I said, the antique shawl fabric motif I am using for this article, like many others, shows 2 picks of weaving for each different line of instructions.  To double it in size, I would now be weaving 4 picks for each line of instructions (and across 2 nals for every 1 nal previously), just as if I were following instructions from a square-grid design like shawlweavers today.

 

fig 3 cleanup straight twill

 

 

 

Because the 4 weft stitches in each weave-unit follow the diagonal orientation, my woven motif will have a slanted, jagged appearance.

 

 

 

 

fig 4 cleanup 2 and 2 picks

 

 

To improve on this, many shawlweavers today weave the first two picks of each line of instructions (left-to-right, then right-to-left), then subtract 1 nal from the beginning of the line before repeating the same instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks.  This is an automated approach to counter the diagonal orientation and place the 3rd and 4th stitches more directly above the first 2 stitches in each weave unit.  And already, the line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks of a weave-unit is different from the line for the 1st and 2nd picks, but only slightly.

 

 

 

This previously published illustration (link) shows every thread of a motif detail: first as if woven following square-grid instructions, on the left, each 4 picks by the same instructions; at center, one nal subtracted after the first 2 picks; then on the right, following the edited version of brick-grid units, as it appeared in the original 17th c. shawl.

This previously published illustration (June 2012) shows every thread of a motif detail: first as if woven following square-grid instructions, on the left, each 4 picks by the same instructions; at center, one nal subtracted after the first 2 picks; then on the right, following the edited version of brick-grid units, as it appeared in the original 17th c. shawl.

 

fig 5 A290 2x 3 same weights

A major improvement in the appearance of the woven motif will result if the line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks of the weave-unit is carefully edited for the best placement of those stitches, even without introducing new colours or bobbins.  This process takes place at the design stage, and is based on representing each row of a square-grid design by two rows of brick-grid units that show the diagonal progression of the twill fabric stitches.  Each brick-grid unit, representing two stitches, can be assigned the same colour as an adjoining unit in the same row, either right or left, to produce a clearer design or smoother outline, without requiring more bobbins.  It is true that the talim line of instructions for the 3rd and 4th picks is different from the line for the 1st and 2nd picks.

 

 

fig 6 fine linesWhile this basic process of editing a design will produce improved, clearer lines and edges, it can lead to further refinements.  In my example I tried to retain the same weights of lines and shapes as in the original design.  Lines can be made finer and more delicate, without becoming broken-up and spotty.  Treating each talim line of instructions for two picks of weaving as an opportunity to make the design more clear and precise, is not a new idea.  Until recent years, it was the normal practice.  Shawl talim showed “half” units at the ends of every second line, to relate the talim line for picks 1 and 2, to the talim line for picks 3 and 4.  How to write shawl talim with these half-units, whether by hand or by computer, and relate these instructions to the warp threads as they appear treadled on the loom, is an article for another time.  Productive and convenient as it is to use CAD software for shawl designs, a program that provides only the square grid is not adequate.

 

It has been impressed on me that traditional shawl weavers are poorly paid for their long hours of work, and reluctant to consider any changes in their practice that could slow their production even more.  I have argued that the amount of weaving is the same, only the number of talim lines of instructions is more.  Admittedly, that leaves a gap where the weaver may have to refer more often to the talim for the instructions he is following, and where he gets less benefit from the unconscious memorization that comes from repeating the same instructions over and over.  Still, if the motif or pattern is repeated a dozen times across the width of the cloth, the memorization is still there.
Some shawlweavers and dealers acknowledge and seem resigned to the poorer rendition of their designs that comes from the current practice of 4 picks per talim line.  To me it seems a tragic absurdity, doomed to be abandoned, to devote so much effort to working at the limits of the fineness of threads and eyesight, and yet follow a method that produces coarse results.  It is up to dealers to recognize and pay more for superior workmanship.  Weavers must be able to take pride in their own work, to uphold the pride they have in the tradition of the Kashmir shawl.

keyword search

•20/10/2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve just finished reading what amounts to an op ed piece  concerned with the mistaken assumptions and exposures we risk in our personal communications, in this new age of electronic media.  It reinforces the uneasiness I’ve repeatedly felt when poised to use even single words, appropriate and meaningful in context, that might signal alarm in the ear of Big Brother.  I may be less worried than the average person about protecting my privacy because I think that my ideas are innocent and well-intentioned, and that I’m brave enough to back them up or accommodate criticism if openly challenged.  But am I so naive or foolhardy as to bring down suspicion not only on me but also on my reader – suspicion or blacklisting that I may never be given the chance to defend against – in a time of increasing paranoia and surveillance?
Anyone familiar with my website will recognize that when I mention “Kashmir”, nine times out of ten it is followed by the word “shawl” and has no political connotation.  This is not to say a case can’t be made for the Kashmir shawl as an article of cultural pride.
I wish to speak for my impulse to use the expression “Insha’Allah”.  It translates as “God willing”, and is proper in Islam to be remembered and invoked whenever one is talking about one’s future plans, as a reminder these are always conditional.  I am not a Muslim, nor really a Christian although I was raised in a Christian culture where the expression isn’t often heard, so for me to add “God willing” to any talk of my future plans sounds a bit too sanctimonious.  But I do want to remind myself and others that my plans for the future are made in all humility, and might not work out in spite of my best efforts and intentions.
It gets complicated: my initial worry is that Western society feels threatened particularly by Muslim religiosity; some Muslims at least feel it’s not proper for an outsider to invoke their name of God; others might refrain from invoking it even among themselves for fear of prompting suspicion, rightly or wrongly.  So, am I left to make bald statements about, “tomorrow, I’m going to do this…” or “such-and-such will happen,” and risk appearing the presumptuous, inflexible egotist?
Or do I have to dance my way around simple grammatical constructions by forever saying “I hope…” or “it might…”, much as I have learned to avoid using “he” or “she” when the gender of the reference is unspecified, out of respect for feminist sensibilities?  It’s challenging enough to use language to say what I mean, to those who are really listening, without having to worry about stray words overheard out of context by a computer somewhere.

my three minutes

•14/10/2014 • Leave a Comment

Remarks given at the opening reception 8 October 2014 of the exhibition “The Art is the Cloth” at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Manchester NH:
Science Experiment by Peter HarrisI will welcome your comments and questions about my piece “Science Experiment”, but I’m not going to talk about it right now.  My remarks are for all of us who believe in the work we do.
I’m just now returning from a four-day visit to Delhi, India, where I went to attend another opening reception for a long-time friend.  During earlier travels in India in 1986, my late partner, Ellen Adams and I gave slide-lectures about our work to art students at Santiniketan, the university founded by Tagore, outside Kolkata.  I was interested to learn that one of the textiles students came from a town in north India that was home to a community of rafugars, the embroiderers of Kashmir shawls who would repair the wear and tear discovered each year when people’s shawls were brought out from storage for the winter season.  At the time I didn’t know it but just before that, my interest had been conceived in the twill-tapestry techniques of Kashmir shawl weaving.
Then in 1993, I was in contact with the tapestryweaver Joan Baxter, who said, “that’s funny, I just had a student who came from a town in north India that was home to a community of rafugars, etc.” and gave a different name.  It turned out, of course, that meanwhile this student had married, but she had gone on to study tapestry, inspired by seeing the slides of my work.  There was a wonderful moment when I telephoned this student, while she was still in the U.K., and said, “I think we have met before”.
Since then, she went on to start a family, and also an independent study of the skills and practices of the rafugars, now mostly engaged in reassembling fragments of antique shawls into smaller formats for modern wearers.  At the same time, from my tapestryweaver’s understanding I was able to learn the design and weaving techniques of the traditional Kashmir shawl, from the photographs of antique shawls found in the many lavish coffee-table books on the subject, and I discovered there was a great popular interest in the story of the Kashmir/”paisley” shawl.
For many years now, my friend has been engaged in a struggle with breast cancer which refuses to go away. But she has been fighting it the best way she can, raising her family and presenting her work with the rafugars, just recently at Santiniketan and soon at the 9th International Shibori Symposium in Shanghai, China.  My partner Ellen was able to organize and attend exhibitions of her quilt work in Japan, until a couple of months before her passing from cancer.  These people are my heroes, and they are blessed to have the opportunity and the determination to pursue their work and the meaning of their lives, in the face of their mortality.  Travelling half-way round the world to offer my congratulations, was the least I could do.

In Memoriam

•13/04/2014 • 1 Comment
Zorra  1993 - 9 April 2014

Zorra 1993 – 9 April 2014

economic conditions of shawl weavers

•13/04/2014 • 1 Comment

Two aspects of the constraints I’ve heard mentioned regularly already that kani shawl weavers work and live under, their basic low rate of pay and the competition for the unknowing buyer of look-alike goods made by cheaper technologies, were given an impassioned reading for me tonight.
My perspective as a student of the antique, museum-quality artifacts featured in coffee-table books, has been to advocate the restoration of current design and weaving practices to their historical norms, one way or another connected to following a line of talim instructions for two picks of weaving instead of four.  The revival of these methods can be used both to reconstruct designs from antique fabrics and to create new designs.
Kani shawls have always been expensive, luxury goods, and quality needs to be evident to the discerning eye, to support not only the price of that piece but also the reputation of the craft.  Historians have conjectured that the decline in the fashionability of the “paisley” shawl in the late 19th century was partly due to the proliferation of cheaper versions.  The craft has been pronounced dead by authoritative commentators at intervals ever since.  A further macabre twist to this pessimism is that the recent decades of uprising and repression in Kashmir were good for the preservation of traditional crafts, because the workers were kept at home by disruption and shrinkage of the local economy, unemployment, and curfews.  To the extent that the economy has reopened, workers are shifting to other opportunities.
Now I’m told that the practice of two picks per talim line survived till as recently as the mid-1990’s, and two days before I saw dated samplers from that time in the Craft Museum of the School of Designs that showed some evidence of two picks per talim line.  Maybe the shift to four picks has more to do than I thought, with the introduction of CAD programs for carpet design based on the square grid.
Two years ago I was told that a shawl weaver might expect to receive as little as 4000 rupees a month, about $80.  To receive 6 or 8 thousand was a sign of the weaver’s superiority and the employer’s recognition.  In light of inflation and devaluation of the rupee, what are the numbers today?  Not only is the pay low, but there is a tough winter season to get through that’s only heard-about by the visitors in the temperate summer months, and a lack of social safety net.  A serious illness or family emergency can be a financial disaster, diverting children’s school fees to necessary but futile treatments and unreliable medicines.  Add to this the still uncertain security of the military occupation, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the not knowing when or whether someone gone out and overdue, will come back.  Many times in the past two weeks I’ve stood in front of casually levelled automatic weapons, reminded of the judge in the recent terrorist incident in Islamabad who, the story goes, was accidentally shot by his own startled bodyguard.
In these circumstances, even if I argue I’m not trying to make shawl designs more detailed or difficult, the full-time weaver, trying to maintain his economic foothold, will object to spending twice as much time reading talim instructions, and getting no benefit from having half-memorized the sequences of steps he’s worked in two picks already.  If the difference in the quality of rendering the design is recognizable it should be worth more, but that may only happen at several removes from when the weaver got paid.  To demonstrate the value of two picks instead of four, I should be editing acceptable contemporary designs, instead of trying to reimpose the old elaborate ones.
I don’t know the terms under which the weavers work.  They should be paid on a time basis instead of piecework.  It should be the dealers commissioning difficult designs who take the economic chances.  Buyers need to recognize the difference and intrinsic value of the goods they are considering – this is not likely to happen with passers-by lured into souvenir shops – at best they will be shopping for price.  The Indian market, knowledgeable and intimate with the living tradition, perhaps not so preoccupied with antiquarian value as the West, is probably more discerning and reliable.  Maybe the biggest part of my benefit to the shawlweaving craft has been thrust on me by the ready audience for my popularizing articles and talks in the West.