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.

Weaving from a “brick grid” talim

•26/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

brick grid example
Looking, or imagining you’re looking, at a design drafted on a brick grid instead of the more common square grid, raises the question, what do you do with the half “bricks” found at the ends of every second row? It’s a more important issue than just the half-bricks themselves, because they determine the position of the rest of the bricks in the row and their design information, in relation to the rows above and below.

twill treadling sequenceBut this “problem”, or quirk of visualization, would not have arisen historically in the talim system of designing for Kashmiri twill-tapestry shawls, if it didn’t correspond to a feature of the traditional weave structure, 2/2 twill. In this structure, each weave unit consists of four warp threads and four weft threads. Four weft threads tells you that each cycle of the weaving requires four treadlings. In each treadling two adjacent warp threads are raised, becoming a visible pair or “nal”, and the other two lowered and basically disregarded. In the next treadling, the two warp threads that are raised shifts by one thread to the right, and so on through the cycle of four treadlings, so in the fifth treadling the same two warp threads are raised, as in the first treadling. It will be observed that in one, and only one, of the four treadlings, a single warp thread is raised at the left-hand edge of the cloth. Voilà, the “half” brick.
In the old talim system, each line of instructions is followed for two picks of weaving, two complete rows of weft threads, two treadlings. The count of nals in each line is the same, so for the lines which include half-nals, the count is completed by adding 1/2 at the beginning and end to the number of whole nals between. My practice is to make the treadling where the single warp thread appears on the left, the first pick worked according to the talim line of instructions that begins with a half-nal. In this pick, all wefts are moving from left to right, and at the right-hand side the other single warp thread will be found, completing the count as expected. At the next treadling, because the pairs of raised warp threads are advancing to the right, the single raised warp thread at the right-hand side disappears. Begin inserting the weft threads from right to left, subtracting the missing half-nal. When you reach the left-hand side you will find the missing warp thread has reappeared to form a pair with the single warp on the left, providing a count one whole nal more than expected – that is, instead of 3 1/2 when you started that line of instructions, for example, it now looks like four. This is correct.
Talim lines beginning with whole nals proceed exactly as written, in both directions. It is only in the second treadling of the half-nal talim lines, that there is potential for confusion about a mistake in counting.

Stitch Painter text summaryThe Generate Text Summary function of my Stitch Painter program is not sophisticated enough to put in half-unit counts at the ends of the appropriate lines, so I select the grid area to make sure that the odd-numbered lines of the text summary will have counts totaling one nal less than the even-numbered lines, and I remember to add the half-nals mentally to the odd-numbered lines when weaving.


•22/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

17th c boteh publishableWith some small modifications and discrepancies, I would like to unveil my re-creation of a beautiful 17th-century Kashmir shawl motif, a sprig of columbine flowers (aquilegia).

design drafting from an antique fabric

•18/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

Rizvi 5-1 sample right - draft comparison jpgThe illustration above shows one of two copies of the 17th-century boteh motif in my source, Plate 5-1 from “Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl and Beyond” by Janet Rizvi with Monisha Ahmed (Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2009, p. 76, photo by Dilip Kumar), compared with the diagram I drafted of it using Stitch Painter software.  Of the two copies of the motif in the photograph, it is slightly lighter and easier to read, second from the lefthand edge of the fabric in a row of at least 3 copies (seen in another published source).  I made overall adjustments to the scale and aspect ratio of my diagram to match the photograph, just as in weaving these proportions would be subject to the size of the yarns used and the balance of warp and weft densities.  In the diagram, where every two weft stitches is represented by a solid oblong “brick” of colour, the appearance of the horizontal dimension is exaggerated.
In this long, technical article I want to describe both the basic process of drafting a fabric motif using Stitch Painter, along with difficulties encountered in this particular example that might well crop up elsewhere.
Comparing the two copies of the motif in Plate 5-1 shows a high degree of similarity based on repeated design information, not just visual resemblance.  Woven side by side, probably by the same hand, each weft pick from edge to edge of the fabric would contain the same sequence of colour changes for each copy.  Whether this was based on a diagram, a series of instructions in text, or some other method of memorization, is hard to say – I have seen just one citation about the invention of the “talim” or text-based method, dating it to the 18th century.  On the other hand, there are many irregularities between and within the woven copies, and between and within yarn colours, that may be due to uneven thicknesses of the very fine handspun pashmina yarn.  No information was given about the dimensions or threadcount of the original fabric.  The angle, closeness, and linearity of the twill-weave texture – the delicate, diagonal ridges formed by the progression of treadlings – is very wavey and irregular.  All these variations make it hard to estimate the number of rows and columns used to represent design details, all the more necessary to see the individual stitches.  I found the balance of the weave is short, more weft picks per inch than warp ends, tending to compress and flatten the imagery.
What inspired me to attempt a reconstruction of this shawl design, the particular image I had seen before and representative of a favourite era of faithful botanical portraits, was the large scale and sharp lighting of the printed photograph.  It’s large and detailed enough to see the fabric texture, and it shows well on the page, though in close analysis the angled lighting may have caused problems interpreting highlight and shadow in the light and dark yarn colours, that flat lighting would have made easier.  However good this reconstruction may be, being given an opportunity to take original photographs for the purpose, would prompt a comprehensive revision.
The strategy I’ve used before, for beginning to draft a design made up of many components and less important interconnections, is to draft each component by itself and then assemble the parts.  The first step is to define the height and width of a component area by cropping it from the source photograph, because that will correspond to the number of rows and columns of the Stitch Painter grid it will be pasted to.  Though I could assume that the vertical or warp-wise dimension of the fabric was plumb, in my first attempts I struggled to draft details that I felt sure followed the horizontal line of the weft pick, but were slanted in the photo.  This could easily happen when the fabric was laid out to be photographed, but would show up mis-aligned on the rigid Stitch Painter grid.  It reminded me of my experience with early Optical Character Recognition software, where if the text was not perfectly horizontal when scanned, the OCR function made many more errors interpreting the letters.  Therefore, I manipulated the cropped photo to try to restore it plumb and square using the “skew” feature of my photo-editing program.
Then to estimate the size of the grid area required, I made several traverses of the photo both vertically and horizontally, quickly counting the number of diagonal twill ridges crossed from edge to edge.  Not as easy as it sounds, but rather than try to get one count absolutely right, I made several and averaged them.  The number of ridges crossed horizontally is the number of grid units of width, while each ridge crossed vertically calls for two rows of grid height.  The twill ridge is produced by the weave unit made up of 4 warp threads and 4 weft threads, but each oblong “brick” unit of the Stitch Painter grid represents 4 warp threads (2 raised and 2 lowered) and only 2 weft threads.  Readers of my previous articles will recognize this is because the design instructions to the weaver, corresponding to a row of grid units, change for every 2 weft picks, not just every 4 weft picks.
From this point on, I am primarily working in the Stitch Painter program, accessorized with both the “Beading” module which provides the “brick” grid (“Comanche”) that I’ve found uniquely useful for this process as well as a “half-drop” (“Peyote”) grid, and the “Full Colour Import” module.  It was described as a “grid-based paint program” by Ingrid Boesel, the weaver who pointed it out to me, and is available from the developers at
From the estimate of the grid area I need for the component I will work on, I “Set Document Size” a few rows and columns larger.  I copy-and-paste the photo image onto selected grid areas in several trials: as counted, slightly larger and smaller, even and odd numbers of rows and columns, beginning on whole or half-unit rows – looking for the clearest rendering of the design in the photo, and checking for a corresponding number of units in linear details of the photo and the grid.  In theory, an error of one row or column, the difference of odd or even, will disrupt even the center of the design area.  I use greater rather than fewer number of colours in the paste process, waiting to make corrections by eye instead of forcing the software to make sharp decisions about subtle details.
19 screen viewTo begin the process of hand-corrections, I set up a working screen view of Stitch Painter grid and original photo side-by-side, such as this one from an earlier project.  I draw in corrections in a contrasting colour, beginning with the most clearly visible details and ranging out and around from there.  I keep criss-crossing the design area connecting, adjusting, counting twill ridges and units in straight-line details, trying to accommodate all the evidence of how the design was woven.  The design may mesh easily, or any correction to one area may distort another.  I try not to erase background details of the paste process before they are incorporated in the corrected version, and don’t fill areas or simplify clutter until the outlines are finalized.
Once I have prepared the individual components, I’m ready to begin combining separate design files on one larger grid.  Now is the time to get rid the stray colours left over from the paste process, and standardize the colours I’m using in the same palette positions in all component designs, to copy-and-paste them together.  I piece together component designs carefully for correct placement and proportions.  Accurate as they may have seemed individually, they may suddenly appear out of proportion to their neighbours or space available.  Sometimes this coordination goes surprisingly well: to fill in a missing area of complicated stems and foliage, I decided to copy-and-paste the relevant portion of the photograph, estimating the grid space by eye instead of painstaking counting, and it fell neatly into place.
In view of uncertainties of transcription encountered so far, I made some general decisions verging on artistic license: I determined that lines (stems) and outlines, variable as they appeared due to yarn size, should be no more than two rows or 1 1/2 columns in thickness.  Because it was hard to distinguish the outline from the fill tones in both leaves and flowers in the photo, details may be inconsistent.  Some small unusual bits of foliage in the upper portion were hard to identify and therefore to represent: leaves? buds?  I added center-vein details to small leaves.  Perhaps most controversially, I removed the heavy foot device leaving the motif floating, though this is rarely seen in shawl motifs.
With the benefit of some experience weaving these designs, I should examine the design for unimportant, difficult-to-weave details (necessitating an extra weft bobbin for 1 or 2 grid units, for example).   Where awkward or inefficient weaving details were encountered, it was usually my “improvements” that were responsible.
Once all the transcribing and editing work has been done, it is important to remember it is all based on the front view.  Flip the entire design horizontally, using the “Brush” tool, to obtain the weaving-side view.  Name each colour used with a short, distinctive combination of letters.  In the talim system, the numbers of grid units (“nals”) and the relevant colour are combined in single, shorthand symbols.  “Set Origin” to count the rows and grid units from the bottom left corner.  “Generate Text Summary”.  Copy the text summary file to a word-processing program and give it a clear, roomy page layout.  Number the pages.

a path strewn with flowers

•10/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

a path strewn with flowers

The latest photo shows the progress of my weaving up to about line 240 of the talim text, and now that I have assembled the whole draft diagram, I know it comes in at under 400 lines altogether.  At line 280 now, the lines are getting shorter, not as many steps, and faster to weave.  Also I’m getting more practised and less conscious of each individual line and step.  As new details of the design open up, I alternate between aha! moments and peering at the diagram to see what’s going on.
As the cloth doubles back around the front beam, the window is closing on opportunities to view and photograph the front side, shifting the balance from confidence in my weaving so far, to the longed-for revelation of first seeing the whole piece unobstructed, off the loom.

a journey of 1000 miles…

•03/03/2014 • 1 Comment
first 156 talim lines of weaving

first 156 talim lines of weaving

beginning lines

beginning lines

The photos show the current stage of weaving a sample of my 17th-century-shawl-motif project, along with an earlier view of the front side, face down on the loom, that will become more and more obstructed as the cloth advances round the front beam.  Increasingly, I’ll only be able to catch sidelong glances of the front, with the help of a small mirror, to check for obvious errors.  It makes for that much more of an “unveiling” when I can take it off the loom.

weaving reverse side up

weaving reverse side up

I’m using a four-shaft countermarche loom at Tasara, with handspun 2-ply linen-mix warp set at 30 ends per inch, in a 15-dent reed.  The background weft is handspun raw silk singles, while the assorted colours are Ellen’s leftovers of merino wool 2-ply I brought with me.  The weaving is progressing steadily – following row-by-row, step-by-step instructions means there’s never any doubt about what to do next.  Because of the slow pace and delicate handling, accidents and breakages are minimal.
The biggest problem has been keeping ahead of the weaving itself with my computer-generated drafting and instructions.  I had worked individually on the eleven component blossoms of the motif, but even now haven’t compiled them all in one complete diagram.  As I go about it, I keep discovering inconsistencies, missing bits of in-fill, things I want to change, reasons to go back and revise the very next page of instructions from the one I’m presently weaving.  I’ll write a more thorough piece about this design-drafting experience, from what I thought was a perfectly readable photograph of the antique fabric.
The photos show my position at line 156, but I’m currently sitting at line 188 of a text projected to be about 400 lines in all, literally in the thick of things, looking forward to the design tapering off at the top, just as it expanded getting established at the bottom.  I have about three weeks in hand to finish, regular afternoon sessions until the mosquitoes invade at dusk – at this point I’m not planning any days off.  Stay tuned.

Anarchism, not a dirty word

•24/02/2014 • Leave a Comment

…though “anarchy” is often used as a crude synonym for “chaos”, and together as a kind of one-two-punch description for the most-feared state of things that might result.  The word has clear linguistic roots in Greek, to describe various forms of government such as “monarchy”, “oligarchy”, and “patriarchy”, and the prefix “an-” means “without”.  Anarchism is a political philosophy that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, producing several diverse theorists and short-lived social experiments, the last of which was destroyed by its erstwhile allies the more power-hungry Communists in the Spanish Civil War.  Anarchism seeks to organize society with a bare minimum of governmental structures, relying on direct citizen participation to take decisions that the community collectively requires.  Frequent referenda and ad hoc committees are its most obvious tools, and it probably works best in small communities where there is a relationship of trust and goodwill among neighbours.  Delegating decision-making power in advance to representatives, no matter how they are chosen, and seeking enforcement from some distant institutional authority, are not available options.  Ironically, there is left-wing anarchism which assumes neighbours will freely cooperate for everyone’s benefit, and right-wing anarchism or libertarianism, which draws opportunists simply because of the lack of institutional control on an individual’s actions.  Disappointingly, anarchism is probably a utopian philosophy, attractive but unrealistic.  We have come to assume that it is human nature, validated in theory by Darwinism, and coached incessantly in practice by capitalism, to relate to our neighbours competitively, not cooperatively.  Equitable distribution and motivation by selfishness are seen to be at odds – why revolutionary Marxism could never out-grow its interim stage of totalitarian “dictatorship of the proletariat” to coexist side by side with its non-Marxian neighbours in the world economy, without close control and protective barriers.
National elections aren’t due in India until April – May, but already public discourse, in the media at least, has been gripped by election fever, due to the sudden emergence in state assembly elections last December of the Aam Aadmi (“common man”) Party in the capital, Delhi.  Begun as an anti-corruption protest movement, against a huge accumulation of scandalous political cronyism and public cynicism, the AAP found itself elected in 28 out of 70 constituencies, and formed a minority state government with the support of the decimated, incumbent Congress Party.  Unprepared as anyone for its own success, the AAP is scrambling to extend its momentum nationwide.
The broad-based, secular Congress Party, has coasted with gradually-diminishing success over the decades on its association with the independence movement in colonial times.  Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the original freedom fighters, carried India forward into independence with true statesmanship and vision.  His daughter Indira Gandhi was first to inherit the mantle of leadership and proved herself a strong politician.  Since her assassination, it seems that a sentiment of entitlement has repeatedly trumped a search for new talent, as the party leadership passed to her son, the ill-fated Rajiv Gandhi, then his widow Sonia, and now, thirty years on, it looks to be his son Rahul.  Governing a diverse, contentious polity like India, is obviously a huge challenge, and behind the reassuring dynastic face of the Congress Party in government lurk the many entrenched ministerial and bureaucratic administrators, who seem to represent power for its own sake, rather than a guiding political vision.  Any government too long in incumbency accumulates suspicions of favouritism and abuse of its connections, requiring if only on principle “a new broom to sweep clean”.  Implausibly, Rahul claims to be an outsider, a reluctant Prime-Ministerial candidate, but the next moment engages in “seat-sharing” alliances with regional political bosses.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, with its high-profile Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, was widely expected to definitively overtake the declining Congress-led coalition, until the advent of the AAP.  But the socially and fiscally conservative BJP is too-closely identified with the majority Hindu community to be supported whole-heartedly by secular and liberal moderates.  The entry of the AAP has suddenly offered a fresh alternative for voters to express their disapproval of the Congress Party’s baggage of controversies and insider-trading.
For this Canadian observer, the parallels with the trajectories of Canada’s political parties are remarkable and instructive.  The centerist Liberal Party, for long the “natural governing party” under its Nehru-like Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his more down-to-earth successor Jean Chretien, lost its momentum under businessman Paul Martin Jr., and failed repeatedly to re-establish an intellectual kind of leadership under environmentalist Stephane Dion and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff.  It currently sits third in number of MP’s.  The moderate-right Progressive Conservative Party, frustrated at being too long the Opposition, fragmented and re-made itself, ultimately dropped the “Progressive” qualifier, and took on a more socially and fiscally right-wing, western-Canadian, and pro-U.S. character.  In spite of the void left by the Liberals, the Conservatives under stolid, Modi-like Stephen Harper struggled to get elected in the more cosmopolitan urban areas, where his conservative values are not representative.
Twenty years earlier, in a provincial legislature election in Ontario, my province with the biggest population, urban centres, and industrial base, for the first time the moderate-left New Democratic Party was elected to govern.  Not a new party, and with its roots nationally and provincially in representing unionized labour, it had always placed third but under the earlier leadership of the charismatic Tommy Douglas is credited with establishing Canada’s publicly-funded healthcare system.  In Ontario, with voters in a mood to try something new in economically difficult times, the NDP were elected.  No one could have been more surprised or less prepared, and mistakes were made, often due to the inexperience of first-time members of the legislature.  To reduce a mounting public-sector deficit, Premier Bob Rae imposed notorious “social contract” legislation, cutting teachers’ salaries with unpaid holidays.  After one term, the NDP returned to third-party status, and Bob Rae went on to the national parliament… as a Liberal.
My conclusions are two-fold: first, that to call the AAP “anarchist” in an accusatory tone is misleading, and for them to accept that label is courageous, well-meant, and honest in the sense that they are trying to maintain the closest possible contact with their electors’ concerns in an era when new social media provide opportunities for open and immediate consultation.  How far that openness will carry in the business of effective government, is another matter, and can’t be quickly proven.  But by another measure, the few months before Lok Sabha elections are a long time: plenty of time in which the AAP can accumulate enough overly enthusiastic blunders and unfulfilled initiatives, to eclipse the bright light of their appearance two months ago.
P.S., 15 Feb14: The headline today is that the Delhi AAP government has resigned over its failure to introduce its Jan Lokpal Bill – to establish a kind of parliamentary ombudsman – into the state assembly (defeated by a vote of all non-AAP parties 42 to 28, including their short-lived Congress Party support), in a deadlock prompted by the Lieutenant-Governor over whether Delhi’s state government could introduce legislation without a go-ahead from the national government.  It remains to be seen if the AAP will be able to retain its anti-corruption support in national and/or new Delhi elections, or whether people will see the AAP as too much of a long shot and turn to the BJP.