We make all of our organic baby clothing in Los Angeles, and we're happy and proud about that. We manufacture in LA so that we can be close to our makers and form optimal relationships with them, so we can make an impact in our community, and so we can minimize our small business's carbon footprint. However, we are not opposed to manufacturing overseas someday; indeed, it would allow us to expand our practice of mindful manufacturing while celebrating and utilizing the expertise and talent of the global textile industry.
Most clothing is made overseas, primarily in China and India. Unfortunately, both now have reputations for being the source of cheaply-made goods, but actually have incredibly rich histories of fabric and clothing innovation and quality, especially India. In fact, Indian communities and artisans could and should be considered the creators of modern-day fabric art and industry.
Thousands of years ago, people in various regions of India began inventing ways to make and decorate cloth. Historically, fabric is made from natural fibers found in natural places in the world, like the chest of a goat (pashmina), the inside of a seed (cotton), or the unraveling of a cocoon (silk). Indians began cultivating these fibers, especially cotton, for fabric consumption at home and for global trade almost 10,000 years ago. Today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh "grow enough cotton annually to provide every person on the planet with almost two pounds each" (Victoria and Albert Museum, Fabric of India Exhibit).
Video: Growing Cotton
After growing their crops or raising their animals, fabric makers need to turn the collected fibers into yarn. They do this by spinning the fibers into yarn, or in the case of silk, unwinding the cocoons into long, shimmering strands. Once they have their yarn, they weave it on looms, lacing threads of yarn together in a durable pattern that creates cloth. Gujarat, India was the main center of weaving technology for more than 500 years, and Gujarati weavers traveled and spread their techniques throughout India, and then, through global empire and trade, the world.
Once they've made the cloth, Indian textile artisans decorate it sublimely. Decoration techniques evolved based on region and include tie-dying, block-printing, jacquard weaving, and embroidery. Indians pioneered the discovery and use of natural plant-based dyes in brilliant blues, yellows, and reds. The Greeks were so taken with the blue color of the cloth they traded for from India that they named the color "indigo" - from India. Fabrics can be dipped entirely in dyes, but more commonly complex and beautiful patterns are created using natural dyes "drawn" onto the fabric. To dye an indigo pattern onto a cloth, lines are drawn in resist paste and the fabric is then dipped in dye, with the indigo taking to the fabric where there isn't any resist paste. Conversely, red dyes only stick to fabric if it has been treated with mordant, a binding agent. When the fabric is dipped in dye, the red will only stick to the fabric where the mordant is. By utilizing thes techniques, along with draping and twisting the fabric before dying it, gorgeous patterns are created.
Video: Indian Indigo Dyeing
Another key decorative technique still popular today is block printing. A hand-held block is made by hand sanding wood, tracing a grid onto it, transferring a pattern or image into the grid and then chiseling out the pattern or image. This block is then repeatedly dipped in dye and pressed all over the fabric in the desired pattern. Hope and Lily Stockman are two sisters who co-founded an accessories company celebrating and promoting this tradition in India. Please visit Block Shop Textiles to view the work of the Indian artisans they collaborate with and learn more about the process.
We are most inspired by dyeing and block printing in our work at Olen (although our amazing artist paints patterns by hand and then digitally edits them), but jacquard weaving and embroidery are two other Incredibly luxurious and beautiful decorative techniques. They utilize creating pattern out of either the weaving of the cloth itself (jacquard) or applying additional yarn or thread to the cloth (embroidery). We have both worked with Indian jacquard and embroidery artisans in our past and will perhaps do so again in Olen's future.
For additional information and images about the history and traditions of the Indian textile industry, please visit the Victoria and Albert Museum online (or in London!). They are the foremost authorities on textile and fashion history and continually inspire us. We look forward to sharing more in future blog posts.
The Olen Fam