Spinning an Indian world of color

Imbued with a great person’s spirit, a simple object can take on a force of its own. One step inside Mahatma Gandhi’s whitewashed office and I know I’m seeing the world’s most famous spinning wheel, silent yet powerful 70 years after his death.

I’ve left the blaring, fuming world of Ahmedabad, India, outside the gates, and a soft cloak of peace settles on Gandhi’s entire ashram. The skilled lawyer, spiritual leader and nonviolent protester built his hermitage along the Sabarmati River. It became a launch pad to lead his nation to independence from the British in 1947.

Gandhi’s people were expert dyers, spinners and weavers back to the birth of the Indus Valley civilization 4,500 years ago. The surrounding state of Gujarat, in the far west of India, has been a textile center for centuries. The region entered world trade in the 17th century when its cotton, of a lighter weight and superior dye to the West’s, wove in British, French, and Dutch designs. Soon ships were carrying bolts of brocade, taffeta, calico and chintz, Hindi for “spotted cloths,” around the world.

A master of imagery, Gandhi knew that his simple, hand-woven dhoti loincloth and shawl would resonate with Indians. He wore it for every occasion, no matter the leader or celebrity he met, and encouraged every Indian to spin and weave toward self-sufficiency. He led a nonviolent protest to support underpaid mill workers in Ahmedabad’s cotton industry.

It’s no surprise, then, that this little wooden spinning wheel, which weaves together so many layers of Indian history, should have such a strong aura. Gandhi wanted the spinning wheel for India’s national flag, but was overruled; and today, it’s the 24-spoked Buddhist chakra that flies from every government building.

The threads Gandhi wove from India’s earliest days to her independence still run tautly through the nation. Pratima Vora sits outside Gandhi’s office to demonstrate, drop-spinning her thread as women have done here for millennia. Her work and Gandhi’s simple spinning wheel jumpstart my dusty quest to discover India’s finest textiles.

500 years of brilliant stitching
I start at the beginning, studying the ancient temple wall hangings preserved in Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum: the tiny stitches, the unfaded kaleidoscopes of color. These pieces are vast yet intimate, and I finally stop guessing how many hours of stitching each represents. As I do before Gandhi’s spinning wheel, I just stand in awe.

“There were no fans, no lights, no facilities 200 years ago, working outside a temple,” said guide Kamlini Contractor in front of a dramatic pichwais, a devotional cloth hanging. “This is your service to god, done without any expectation.”

The exhibits, sprawling throughout a restored estate, span the centuries into the thriving textile industries of the 17th and 18th centuries. We spot the famous paisley prints and the handwoven pashminas we associate with India, as well as exotic beadwork and sequins.

In an aside, Contractor says, “Kutch is a paradise for the lover of textiles.” She points me to the next stop on my textile treasure map.

Questing to Kutch
Our little band of textile travelers heads to Kutch, a remote, arid loop of Western India tucked next to Pakistan. Its men and women are renowned for their weaving, block printing and embroidery. We want to take in, and maybe take home, as much as we can.

On our way west, we make a major stop in Patan, home of Patan Patola Heritage Museum. The Salvi family has been making these holy silk-cloths called patolas since the 11th century, and they still create some of the most precious double-ikat silk weaving in the world.

We’ve all seen knock-off ikat in the stores—those geometric patterns with staggered striping. But this is the real deal squared: Double ikat means that both the warp (lengthways) and weft (transverse) threads are tie-dyed before weaving to create the pattern. Just planning for a new design can take months.

In rich families today, a new Patan Patola double-ikat saree is ordered as a good-omen sign for a daughter or daughter-in-law. It will become part of her trousseau, to be carefully rolled and passed down to her daughter and her daughter after her. The five to nine yards of fabric can take six months of work, with four to five people weaving daily at a harness loom. A saree might start at $3,000.

The Salvis can trace their patola work back more than 35 generations. By the 1100s, they became one of 700 families in Patan working ceaselessly to supply King Kumarpal with his demand: “A new patola every day to receive the god,” said Rahul Salvi. Now, his family firm is one of the few remaining, with a years-long wait list to send its silk weavings around the world.

Salvi balances his work as an architect with the patola trade. “My brothers are the doctors, so I was bound to work with this craft.”

His pride is clear when he starts opening the archival drawers to show fragments of Salvi artistry. “A Gujarati poet once said that a patola may tear, but it will never fade,” Salvi quoted. Vivid reds, greens and blues woven 250 years ago still gleam out.

The Salvis begin with silk from China, spinning eight threads into one patola strand. Women dye the silk, men work the hand-operated loom. Depending on the complexity of the pattern, two weavers working together can create about eight to nine inches a day.

Of course, such precision comes at a price. At the Patan Patola shop, a small double-ikat handkerchief is about $285; a single-ikat shawl is $65. It’s like touching a silky moment of history.

NEXT MONTH: We bump along dusty roads deeper into the villages of Kutch to discover traditional Rogan painted stoles, hand-blocked bedspreads, and mirror-starred embroidery.

When you go
India Tourism: incredibleindia.org
Travel planning: jnrglobetrotters.com
American travelers to India need an e-visa:
Gandhi Ashram Sarbarmati: gandhiashramsabarmati.org/en
Calico Museum of Textiles: calicomuseum.org
Patan Patola: patanpatola.com
Gujurat Tourism: gujarattourism.com

Travel journalist Betsa Marsh has reported
from more than 100 countries on seven continents.
She is past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.


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