This was the question I asked myself as I embarked on my latest experimental upcycling project. Could I make something renewed out of something tired, something old? A few weeks into research and rather laborious efforts, I quickly realised I had no idea how to go about patching and mending. I have an interest for sure, but I am awfully slow and eventually gave up, scarily fast! It is what it is, unfortunately, and millions around the world like me- multiple generations of folks - don't know how to fix things once they are frayed, damaged or old.
We All Come From A Long Line of Patchers
This is a fact. Every society around the world has always had some tradition of patchwork. And most gloriously, there are still skilled communities of artisans, primarily women, who continue this tradition. In India, the art of patching, appliqué, and quilting is still alive and exquisite, from Bengal to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka. And the Kantha tradition of stitching and quilting runs across the fabric of India. So I sought out different suppliers to help source used fabrics and develop patched-up and lightly quilted jackets, finding a new voice through hand embroideries and decorative material applications, specifically the Kantha stitch and quilting method.
Kantha, Stitches of Restitution Across Time
In the context of Indian embroideries and textiles, the Kantha represents both sophistication and antiquity, symbolism and innovation, technical expertise and cultural rootedness - all of which only a long history of established social norms and conventions can engender.
Art historian Stella Kramrisch describes the Kantha as " a patched cloth, made in eastern Bengal [Bangladesh] but also Bihar, of worn-out saris and dhotis. After becoming threadbare, their thin, white cotton cloth with its coloured borders was cut, patched, quilted and embroidered. The materials of the Kantha are rags and their threads. Joined afresh, these tatters are given a new wholeness. This rite of restitution is a domestic one, performed by women."
Layers of trade, ceremony and ritual
If there ever was a living tradition, the Kantha of India is undoubtedly one. The process of recycling worn-out cloth is significant in the Indian and South-East Asian milieu. This stems from deeply rooted socio-religious customs and ritualistic tribal dynamics that transform cloth.
Used cloth without the sophistication of the Kantha stitches appears worn and spent. But together, they have quilted form and function, power and purpose. No wonder the Kantha finds prominence in historic trade entries, arts and scrolls, symbolism and rituals.
By 1620, coveted coverlets from India were a very profitable part of Portuguese trade. Scrolls from early 19th-century Bengal depict patchwork quilts and robes given by senior Sufis to their disciples as a mark of continuity. Historians believe that the Buddha taught the first monks to wear robes of "pure cloth", or cloth not wanted by anyone, literally patched from discarded fabric. This rich history of repurposing old materials has always fascinated me, and I decided to try it.
My Patchy Experiment in Circular Fashion Today
So last year, I sourced some patchwork Kantha jackets developed from old fabric through a reseller in Jaipur. And so I took a baby step into the ecosystem of circular fashion in India. Thus began my understanding of the challenges and opportunities afoot.
Sources are generally very tight-lipped about the communities doing the patchwork, which made me uncomfortable. In future, I have to find local communities and organisations that would be more open about their working practices.
Secondly, the materials require a fair bit of dry cleaning. Dozens of tiny areas of spot mending are very labour-intensive. And finally, even after a mended, patched-up item is ready for wearing, it needs to be lifted with some additional embroidery and surface finishing to look refreshed, unique and viable for commercialisation. Luckily for me, I partnered with the talented ladies at the NGO, Ladli in Jaipur, who developed beautiful handmade tassels, pom-poms, and embroideries to adorn the patchwork jackets. The result is gorgeous, but all this has taken a year to achieve.
On reflection, I realised that I may have saved a lot of yardage from reaching a waste dump, but the cleaning, processing, and logistics involved in this circular initiative increased both the cost of production and the carbon footprint. So I must confess, I wondered whether such an initiative was worth it?
As luck would have it, I had the opportunity to share my experiment and dilemma with Federica Marchionni, Chief of Staff and Founder of Global Fashion Agenda, during the Singapore Fashion Council X Vogue Innovation Bootcamp I attended earlier in November. Her advice was to keep trying different things and not to get disheartened. Prioritising intelligent material choices, changing the fashion value cycle and committing to robust environmental standards are essential, and the road ahead is indeed long.
So I will not be too harsh on myself at this stage. At least I know what to look out for next time. The best outcome for me, however, was engaging with Ladli Jaipur. Knowing that, in my own way, I am participating and continuing this tradition of mending and patching that provides employment to women at home just makes it feel quite special.