This month, we’ll explore a different kind of embroidery frontier as we talk with Shila Desai, the owner and founder of Eat Your Heart Out Tours, as well as Textile Tour Leader.
The focus of the Funk Files column is “exploring embroidery frontiers.” I’m still working out what that is, exactly, so have a go at defining it for me. What would you say “embroidery frontiers” are? And/or how do we go about exploring them?
Embroidery, more than any other fibre work, crosses boundaries between functional (it helps define a tribal community, refers to socio-economic status, or whether married or single, etc.) to art carried out for purely aesthetic reasons. Frontiers within embroidery are fluid and individual. Where does function end and where does art take over? Only the individual can decide.
What is your background with textiles and embroidery, and how are you involved with them today?
My connection (though indirect—I do not profess to create masterpieces!) is through the showcasing of handmade textiles due to a deep appreciation of, and concern for, the communities that continue to produce them in time-honoured ways.
Before I began devising textile tours, my husband and I ran a garment manufacturing business in Ontario, initially for private label cut-make-trim garments and eventually highly specialised performance garments for athletics, armed forces, and paramilitary units. We worked with Kevlar, Nomex and silver-infused fibres in cutting edge design and manufacture. In 2013, we sold the business.
In 2009, in a complete antithesis of technical fibres and highly automated factory production, I fell down the rabbit hole of handmade textiles and began organising textile tours (see below, how I got started). While witnessing the skills of rural artisans in India’s textile crucible of Gujarat-Kutch, also the land of my ancestry, I realised artisans were dying out and their communities were fragile. Reminiscent of western industrialised societies, artisans’ children were moving to cities and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. The need to help these communities stayed with me. One way was to bring travellers to Gujarat-Kutch-Rajasthan’s textile-rich communities in order to showcase and support artisans’ work.
I have written papers on the culture of embroidery in Gujarat-Kutch for the South Asian permanent exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. Annually, in order to raise the profile of rural artisans, I hold a sale of textiles bought from them during my travels. I also speak at various travel and women’s organisations.
Career and Business
Tell us about Eat Your Heart Out Tours, particularly the textile-focused tours.
I like to think of my tours as travel for thinkers. Good travel is not only a break from normal routine, but also an exploration of another culture through a “universal” lens.
Textiles are universal to all humans, akin to food or music. Since the dawn of civilisation, textiles have become embedded in human DNA and few on this planet live without textiles to protect and adorn themselves. Increasingly, industrialised societies are losing all connection with handmade textiles. Cultures that haven’t lost this connection offer a fascinating lens; how traditions and history inform handmade textiles, and vice-versa.
Each E.Y.H.O. tour is experiential. It enables travellers to meet and work alongside textile artisans, which in turn helps them understand how the region’s particular history, culture, traditions, and lifestyle gave rise to these textiles, and what makes them unique to that part of the world.
Some E.Y.H.O. tours also focus on other human staples: culinary and architecture. Yet other tours take travellers back to where it all started – Africa – on wildlife safaris that explore our primal connection with fauna and flora.
Each tour is led by experts in their fields. Group size typically ranges from 8 to 14 to ensure optimum access to artisans and demos/workshops. Within a group, individual agendas are honoured. Want to deviate to explore a 13th C stepwell? Possible. More time in markets? Sure. Visit a synagogue or mosque? Absolutely. Due to the low traveller-to-leader/guide ratio, we can say “yes”.
Describe a memorable event or two from a tour.
The Tale of the Lost Toran
On a Gujarat-Kutch-Rajasthan tour, after a traditional meal, our group viewed the bold, colorful, and unabashed embroidery of Ahir women. One of the most stunning pieces of work was a toran, a cloth hanging traditionally strung over doorways to welcome the goddess of prosperity. A group member, Su, fell in love with its intricate mirrorwork. She had to own it. In the end, that toran brought us a whole heap of trouble.
At the end of the visit, with Su’s wallet a little lighter, we headed back to the city with the prized toran. Or so we thought. The purchase had been left behind. Good-natured teasing of Su’s memory followed, and we backtracked to the village to reclaim the toran.
And then, of course, the bus broke down.
The group trooped to a roadside cafe. Soon we were sipping sweet spicy chai under Coca-Cola umbrellas. It looked like we were in for a long wait until our guide, Niravbhai, persuaded Su to relinquish her toran so he could “interpret” the embroidery for us. You can read Niravbhai’s interpretation on the EYHO blog here.
Connections Across Cultures
I took a group to a remote Muslim Mutwa village in the far north of Kutch. The Mutwa women are famed for their very fine embroidery with tiny mirror-work. Women are sheltered from foreigners, particularly men, and the village frowns upon the casual visitor. We were an exception, being sanctioned by an NGO that helps the women with income supplementation through their embroidery. In a bunga, a traditional roundel dwelling with mirror-work decorated walls, my group of women from across the world gathered around Safiya, co-ordinator of the income-supplementation initiative. Safiya and her husband and their four children lived in the bunga. Outside on a swing, her teenaged daughter swayed, ears plugged to ensure her isolation. We were a diverse group; lawyer, textile collectors, museum curators, retired educators and social workers. At first, the conversation meandered around the embroidery. Quickly, due to Safiya’s sense of spot-on humour, the group felt comfortable to delve into more personal matters. One group-member wondered aloud how Safiya’s husband viewed the village women’s empowerment. Another asked how Safiya maintained intimate relations with her husband. Did they practice birth control? A third group-member asked about Safiya’s teenaged daughter’s prospects. As I translated, my group and I were struck at the universality of our concerns as women. I was also struck at how a passion for embroidery had helped to connect geographically and socio-economically disparate women.
What do you think surprises visitors most?
On textile tours, without question, the level of textile artisanship compared to what we see in industrialised societies. Travellers are astounded to witness the intricacy, skill, and design methodology behind a textile as it is created before their eyes. Also the experience of venturing into Indian villages is very different to hitting heavily touristic sites. India throws up images of chaos and crowds, and my travellers are delighted to venture into peaceful villages where a traffic jam consists of a herd of cows.
How did you get started organizing and leading tours?
In 2009, a travel partner sparked my interest and I became interested in handwoven, handloom, hand-worked textiles, the flip side of technical fabrics with which our business dealt. Having travelled in the land of my ancestry, Gujarat, I was aware of its rich tradition of embroidery and weaving. But previously I had not explored it in depth. Travelling from village to remote village and staying with rural communities, I appreciated how truly special this region is for its unselfconscious integration of exuberant embroidery in daily clothing and traditions. The need to sustain these fragile textile communities stayed with me. I began devising tours to Gujarat-Kutch and Rajasthan to share my discoveries with like-minded travellers. Later tours took in other regions of India known for their textile workmanship, e.g., West Bengal, South India, Orissa etc. A worldwide exploration in textile traditions was a logical next move, which continues to this day. The tours’ main aim is to showcase handmade, hand-embroidered textiles and their creators. By taking travellers to the area of origin, they are better able to understand how history, culture, landscape, and traditions inform the nature of each textile.
Do you always lead the trips?
Being a native speaker, familiar with all regions of India, and knowledgeable about Indian textiles, I personally lead all textile tours to India. Tours to other regions of the world are led by experts who are similarly familiar with the territory.
How do you think these tours influence travelers who would like to explore embroidery frontiers?
If embroidery frontiers are found at the confluence of art and function, then travellers from cultures where embroidery is purely for aesthetic purposes will gain a different dimension of their own embroidery style when they travel to cultures where it’s primarily functional. Since “aesthetic embroidery” is evolved from functional embroidery, the analogy is of, say, appreciating classical music in order to create outstanding rock music, or ballet before learning hip-hop.
Do you have any stories about specific travelers who have taken something they’ve learned on a tour and continued with it?
Carolyn Schaperkotter Wollen, a delightful retired lawyer from Maine travelled with me on my 2017 Gujarat-Kutch textile tour. She was so inspired by the weavers she met that upon returning home, she purchased a loom and began weaving. She is now teaching her granddaughter to weave. Another traveller, Lizzie Craft, had blocks custom-made in Bagru and used them to block print her own fabrics. She expressed her appreciation to me for introducing her to the world of Indian textiles by way of a lovely block-printed toiletry bag. Colleen Karir bought an exquisite square of embroidery from Safiya in the Mutwa village, and used it as a focal point in a prizewinning quilt.
Are there places your tours have not yet visited that you would like to visit?
I’d love to explore the textile traditions of Japan, Peru, and Colombia. In November 2019, I’m excited to go to Uzbekistan for the first time as part of a Silk Route tour.
Where would you like to travel just for fun—not leading a tour?
Africa . . . anywhere, anytime! Also private sailing in the Pacific and Andaman Sea. Surprisingly, these are both non-textile destinations. I guess it’s because I take textiles so seriously that it’s good to take a break occasionally from what you’re crazy about!
What are some of the favorite textile and embroidery techniques past tours have explored?
Block printing workshops in Chomu, Rajasthan are always popular because they deliver gratifying results, yet open minds to fascinatingly complex techniques such as the sixteen-process Ajrakh “Universe in a Textile” block-printing. In West Bengal, learning kantha embroidery was hugely popular. Born out of frugality in villages where women repurposed old saris into quilts using a running-stitch embroidery, kantha is now an emblem of support for rescuees from red-light districts. E.Y.H.O. takes travellers to a self-help initiative in West Bengal for embroidery lessons from village women.
Are there other techniques or styles you are looking to explore?
I’d love to explore more natural dyeing in conjunction with embroidery and resist techniques. An example is Japanese shibori.
How do you find the artists you work with on tours?
From being on tour! When on tour, I am constantly putting the word out for artisans to be featured on the next tour. I showcase artisans on a rotating basis since support from group members in the form of purchases can be substantial. I believe this support should penetrate as many lives as possible. I also follow artisans on social media and at international shows such as Sante Fe International Folk Arts Alliance.
Where to Learn More
What tours are on the horizon, and where can we learn more?
– Morocco October 2018
– January 2019 sees our beloved and usually sold-out Gujarat-Kutch-Rajasthan textile tour
– February 2019 is Odisha (Orissa) for tribal Tapestry and Orissan ikat
– March 2019 is a yoga and spirituality tour of North India
– November 2019 is a textile/arts and crafts tour of the Silk Route stronghold: Uzbekistan
– In May 2020, is an inaugural Great Gardens tour that is a break from textiles into the heady sea-swept estates of Cornwall.
Details are on www.eyhotours.com.
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
Your favorite craft material to work with (surely, you’re a crafter, right?): Haha! Actually I can’t craft much but can draft patterns and sew. Growing up in Kenya, I used to make all my own clothes.
For the next year, you can only purchase and/or craft items of a single color. What color do you choose? Indigo blue
You’ve been selected to participate in a show that combines embroidery with performance art. Describe your piece for the show. Folk dancers from Gujarat wearing gorgeously embroidered skirts
Favorite food: A bowl of pho
What’s your favorite kind of art or craft to explore? Natural dyeing
You’re creating a garment or accessory for an animal. What is the animal, and what do you create? An African Grey parrot. A harness that he will actually wear and not chew up.
You must include something edible in your next piece of art. What do you use, and how do you incorporate it? Grains, millet etc. To show abundance. Lacking imagination, I’d probably just stick it on. 🙂
A celebrity wants to join one of your tours. Who is the celebrity; where will you take him/her; and what art or technique will you explore together? Possibly a writer. Make him good looking. 🙂 India of course, perhaps into the indigenous peoples area of Himachal Pradesh. Their handloom weaving is sure to keep him enthralled.
An interesting mode of transportation you’d like to incorporate into one of your tours: Travel by bullock cart