Focus on Design
Martha Daligan is a professional landscaper, fiber artist, and master weaver who lives in Maine. She visits India as often as she can.
In 1996, I was asked to spend 6 months teaching weaving to a group of young women at Shanthimalai. Weaving was a lost tradition in this part of India, so I took a 4-harness, 24" loom with me on the plane. We made a few more of these and then built several 2-harness Indian looms. It was a joy to see how quickly the women learned! Weaving is in their blood, and their hands are amazingly dexterous. In no time, they began producing beautiful hand-woven napkins, placemats, dishtowels, and tablecloths that were highly valued in Europe and here in the States.
Unfortunately Shanthimalai's weavers went out of business in 2010, along with many other handloom businesses in India, when catastrophic floods in Pakistan ruined the cotton crops. The cost of cotton rose 80% that year.
This past winter I was very happy to have the chance to re-open the weaving section while working with a group of young widows. In rural India, widows have such a hard life. They're outcasts with no support, and very little chance to earn an income. Weaving allows them to regain their dignity in a supportive environment, and to earn an income for themselves and their children.
The designs are intuitive, they come in quietude and while I'm working with the women. We worked on a number of plaids, balancing light areas with color, trying to get a sense of spaciousness through number and color progressions. It's very musical to me, like rhythms and beats. The weavings are meant to sing.
Mani, the head of the weaving sector, supports the women in so many ways. He's always engaged, helping with every aspect of the work, even winding and sorting threads, setting a beautiful example for the women. The women themselves are very, very precise and proud of their work. If a thread breaks, they stop and repair the thread, even if it means taking out several rows. This meticulous attention to detail produces fabric of the highest quality.
Already 12 widows are working on the project, with 7 big looms and 2 smaller ones. They want to add another 6 looms to create a weaving center. The art of weaving is worth preserving. There's such a difference in the feel of fabric that has been woven by hand. Each piece is the result of a creative act.
With hand weaving, the women are not just cogs in a machine. From winding bobbins to setting up looms, the artisans are invested in their work, in the whole, integrated process from beginning to end. Producing a piece of cloth requires attentive focus and care. One piece of 65 inch width cloth requires the threading of 2600 heddles. It's a four-day process just to set up a loom in preparation for weaving. Depending on the complexity of the pattern, 3 to 5 yards can be woven each day.
Working together, the women have formed a strong support group that gives them a lot of self-confidence. This is very healing. There comes such a sense of community through the work, a warmth and sharing, a sense of connectedness, a real JOY in what they're creating. The weaving center embraces all aspects of their lives and becomes an extended family for women who've lost not only their husbands but their sense of belonging.
This is what touches me most about the work. You're a small part of something much greater that has value way beyond anything you can understand. It's big and it's deep. We don't even speak the same language, but there's something that binds us all together. There's true humanity...there's love.
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