Holy embroidery heaven.
I have never been anywhere that comes close to rivalling the sheer variety and skill of the needlework produced in Kutch. Aari style. Aahir. Jat. Rabari. Suf. Chain stitches, cross stitches, mirrors and animals and flowers, oh my.
The fame of tribal embroideries produced around Kutch is widespread, and it only takes a few steps into the bazaars of Bhuj before baskets and boxes appear outside small shops, full of vintage embroidery patches that cry out to your inner bohemian. Of course, these days there's also an abundance of machine-made copycat designs: hurriedly assembled purses and bags that sell for just a couple of pounds, salwar kameez sets with jazzy tribal designs ready to be tailored to your measurements. As you pick your way through the market - stopping for tea and sweets, of course - you start to recognise more and more of those same skirts. Those same bags with the gaudy backing fabric. Those same rolls of saree border bling that are just a little... off.
In search of the real thing, we gazed in amazement at the workshops, galleries and stores of a number of organisations dedicated to honouring regional hand embroidery skills. Ultimately it was to Kala Raksha, a grassroots social enterprise based in a collection of traditional-style bhunga mud huts on the road out towards the mighty White Rann, that I returned several months later.
Dedicated to preserving traditional arts, Kala Raksha established a beautiful museum of heirloom textiles while the trust also works to ensure craftspeople thrive in the modern day, by empowering them to access markets on their own terms. Design innovation is squarely in the hands of artisan communities, while local pricing committees evaluate each embroidered piece to ensure fair wages. Tick, tick.
In the months between my visits I had agonisingly narrowed down my choice of favourite embroidery style to that of the Garasia Jat tribe: the geometric shapes have a modern edge to them, and I love how the stitches flood and fill a surface from edge to edge, like a decoratively tiled floor. Driving back to the sun-bleached Kala Raksha compound through a herd of water buffalo and past a casual camel lolling by the roadside, I was able to meet with Salma and Halima from the Jat community to finalise the design. Thread colours picked, the ladies immediately began sampling and without any kind of pattern or guide, counted out immaculate rows of tiny freehand cross stitches. Mind. Blown.
Salma was fast, despite suffering from a cold. Adjusting her hot pink bandhani headscarf, she helped her aunt confirm the ideal number of rows to perfect the triangular design. Halima donned a pair of spectacles complete with a string to keep them in place - time-honoured international granny chic. The embroidered yoke on her own traditional long red churi was stunning. Through a friendly Kala Raksha intern with awesome language skills we were able to share a little about our lives. In all, it was one of the coolest days of my startup journey so far.
I hope you love the embroidery on the Salma Clutch as much as I do, and can imagine each and every stitch being made by the expert hands of these talented women.