It is Textile Tuesday and today, I am sharing this interview that I did with Les Indiennes founder Mary Bergtold Mulcahy back in August. Les Indiennes had just introduced their Kalamkari collection and it was beautiful! It took me to straight back to the summers of my childhood- strong, hand-carved wooden furniture in teak and rosewood, airy, block-printed and kalamkari cotton sheets and quilts in vivid colors, a lazily rotating fan. What was wonderful was how these colors and prints had stood the test of time and in their reimagined, contemporary avatar, would look equally beautiful when paired with white slipcovered sofas, cotton dhurries and hydrangea blooms in large vases. I have put the entire article below so that you can read it and enjoy your visit with Les Indiennes.
I first came across Les Indiennes a few years ago when I was compiling a list of block print fabric resources for a blog post. I have always been obsessed with block printing, from the design conception, the painstaking carving of the wooden blocks to the methodical dyeing and printing of the fabrics. The designs that held the most appeal were the ones involving one vibrant motif against a stark background, say a large, blue paisley pattern on white. And that’s where Les Indiennes came in. In each creation, owner and designer Mary Mulcahy distilled the essence of the design, keeping all the beauty and stripping away any extraneous, and distracting, colors and patterns. It brought the traditional into contemporary times and allowed every artist in the multi-step block printing process to shine. Over the years, I’ve kept track of Les Indiennes and was curious when they decided to offer traditional Kalamkari products. Kalamkari work is either hand-painted with a pen (kalam) or block printed using vegetable dyes and it is popular on both apparel and fabrics for the home. The colors are more earthy with lots of reds and greens against a cream- tan backdrop and the patterns are derived from nature with twirling vines and blossoms. Today, we talk to Mary Mulcahy about Les Indiennes, why she started it and her journey into the world of block printing.
Could you tell us a little about yourself, what inspired you to start Les Indiennes and the story about how it has grown to its current position?
MM: I launched Les Indiennes in 2002, a result of my own yearning for beautiful hand-blocked textiles. I had a vivid picture in mind of naturally dyed cotton, with airy patterns of big, single colored motifs. Unable to locate anything anywhere, and utterly possessed by the idea of these fresh, simple designs, I decided to go to the source and create my own. I placed an ad online for block-printed cottons on IndiaMart ( I think), and received so many bad samples. Then, a craftsman named Srinivas from a tiny village in southern India responded, and I knew at once that his work was what I wanted. Srinivas is one of very few craftsmen who still strictly adhere to the ancient art of kalamkari, an extremely complex printing method. In fact, he is the only artisan in his village that still uses block prints and natural dyes. The rest are screen printing with chemical dyes, which reeks havoc on the environment. If you’ve ever been to India, you know how bad the pollution is. The canals in our village are completely polluted and not useable.
What drew you to kalamkari work and what is the new collection about? What are your sources of inspiration for motifs and patterns? Are they traditional block prints or are they fresh takes on traditional designs?
MM: Kalamkari is one of the earliest and most complex techniques of fabric printing. Achieving the Les Indiennes’ finished product involves many steps. I create a design, wooden printing blocks are hand carved by a master BLOCKMAKER, the organic cotton fabric is naturally bleached in the sun, beaten against rocks to both soften it and create an antique patina. It is then boiled and dried before printing. The dyes used are all natural, made from plants and rocks. After each application of a color has dried in the sun, the fabric is washed in the clean waters of the Krishna River. The resulting feel of the fabric and vibrant coloration cannot be duplicated by large-scale automation. I had seen some cotton bedcovers at the local UNICEF store and fell in love. I have always been drawn towards prints, and block printing is my favorite technique as it is done entirely by hand and, therefore, has the handmade quality which is inherently unique. My designs are a mix of new & old. Some of my patterns are variations of designs that Srinivas’ father had made. Others are combinations of different ideas. I tend to edit to make the patterns more minimal, enlarge them and make sure there is plenty of airy, creamy white to surround them. My inspiration for fabrics is largely the 18th century, my favorite period for design. I use both European and Indian design motifs.
Our readers are from all parts of the world with a significant number from the US and India. With collaborative ventures, there is always concern about local artisans being compensated fairly and proportionate to the price. Could you share your views on this?
MM: I am particularly proud of the fact that Les Indiennes never set out to industrialize or to change the way things are done in India. The production of our fabric does not cause pollution nor does it disrupt the traditional lifestyle of the village where it is made. Les Indiennes provides fair trade employment for over 50 families, raising the standard of living for the entire community, all the while leaving no environmental or social footprint. I pay my workers very well and make sure to visit at least once or twice a year. Also, we use only the finest organic cotton and quality natural dyestuffs. Large corporations can exploit the artisans and nickel & dime them to death, cutting corners on so many things. I do not do this. I want a high-quality product. My partner decides on a fair price and this is what I pay. I believe our fabrics are made with dedication and love of the tradition.
Visit Les Indiennes at their online store to browse the complete Traditional Kalamkari collection as well as their other block printed creations.
Image credits/ copyright: Les Indiennes
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