I start at around 12:00 minutes.
I applied to the New Challenge with Toloom and I am honored to be one of the semi-finalists. View the full list of semi-finalists here. This is very exciting news for Toloom as it brings me this much closer to making this a reality through support and funding. Writing the next steps for the finalist application will also help me clarify my system a lot better.
Traditional weavers in various weaving communities in India have been losing time honored craft traditions due to the arrival of factories and machine looms in their local communities. While some weavers choose to work in the mechanized factories, their peers who stick to handlooms struggle to compete with cheaply priced, factory produced products and designed products in the global marketplace. The current system does not allow for valuing products based on the skill and time that goes into their making and subsequently, the weavers are barely able to maintain a very low standard of living. A weaver from Bhagalpur, Bihar spends two weeks producing silk from cocoons and weaving a raw silk scarf which retails for 500Rs. or $10. By contrast, products created using a similar process commissioned by a designer could retail for as much as $100. Collaboration between Creative Internetters and craftspeople from traditional weaving communities can help weavers compete with designed products in global markets, while giving Creative Internetters an opportunity to learn age-old weaving practices using a contemporary interface vernacular.
The Toloom project creates a system for tapping into the creativity and global aesthetic awareness of Creative Internetters - a group of web-savvy, socially connected and networked, consumers and creators. Toloom’s web-based interface simulates the key components of a physical loom and affords users the ability to create patterns that can realistically be woven on a handloom. With the help of Creative Internetters and Toloom, traditional weavers will be able to access patterns with globally-influenced aesthetics and expand their markets, yet their products will maintain the priceless value created through unique, ancient processes executed with human intelligence and care. Creative Internetters will be able to relate to the craft, connect to weavers and buy products designed by them from the marketplace.
The final Thesis Presentation went really well and I received some very encouraging feedback. It gave me just enough to think about during Winter Break while also feel comfortable with the direction I am heading in. Over the break, I will be visiting family in India and while there I will visit weavers, talk to them and document some of the processes on video. Maybe there will be some coding involved but we’ll see.
Feedback after the cut:
IMPETUS – PERSONAL
Every winter when I go back home I ask my mom to find this one reddish orange shawl from within her treasures of beautiful textiles. This particular shawl has intricate florals hand-embroidered in a lighter orange thread, throughout its surface. The shawl is 100% wool, the size of a full shawl–not one of those half shawl width stolls. It was gifted to my mom when my parents got married which makes it older than me. Over the last 11 years or so that I have lived away from home I have accumulated, thanks to my mom’s consistent gifts, a sizeable collection of shawls in various colors, some hand-embroidered, some intricately woven, all warm and handcrafted by some weaver or craftsperson from the state of Kashmir. I cherish these fabrics for the good quality wool and the care and skill that went into crafting these.
For years I have fantasized a textile journey that would take me through the many parts of India where many different types of Textile arts are practiced in small communities and the skills and designs have been passed on over generations. It is important to me to acknowledge where these fabrics are made and to celebrate the unique and beautiful skills of the communities making them. As a designer, I have often seeked out a way to bridge these gaps between consumption, creation and craft.
This journey I talk about is not a Taschen or Phaidon coffeetable book. This journey is personal. In reality this journey will probably not turn out as romantic or thoughtful. But I feel if I close my eyes, listen to the loom of a weaver in, let’s say, Ladakh, soak in the smells of the foods being cooked in the neighbouring homes and listen carefully to the sounds of the village outside I will experience bits of what is actually being woven into the fabric on this loom. The sound of the loom is rhythmic, the hands of the weaver show wear from years of weaving, there is the passing of tradition over generations, the need to weave because there is no other choice for survival, and possibly the ambivalence to where this product will end up. These stories get locked into the pattern that is woven.
The want to take such a journey first inspired me to take a short weaving workshop at the Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn just over a year ago. Since then I have gone back to the space for more classes as well as events that cater to the audience that I am interested in reaching out to through my Thesis. The loom itself is a beautiful romantic tool, with solitary affordances unlike knitting or quilting. It takes me back in time to places where I have never been but know that they exist. These places are where hardworking craftspeople, over decades and centuries, have been using similar looms to weave beautiful fabrics. It essentially takes us back to our roots whether we are aware of them or not.
Last Fall, I took a Sourcemap class with Leo Bonnani from MIT Media Lab and the class opened my eyes to the grand number of steps that go in the production of any little product and the far and away locations of the globe where these processes are spread out. Knowing where things come from increases our level of awareness of our products and the sense of attachment we have to them. In a roundabout way this becomes a discussion more about sustainability where if we bought better quality products and knew where each and every bit of them was made, we might buy less. For me this also translated to the idea of cherishing valuable crafts that not only create quality products but the level of skill and craftsmanship increases the value of the product. If the user was involved in the making of this product and had some connection to the maker, it would make them more sensitive to that particular product over any other that they own that was bought in a place brimming with mass-produced similar-ness.
There are things about the loom itself that interested me and stayed with me from the very first time I tried it. The interface has a certain choreography and rhythm to it and once a weaver gets to that point of flow in the weaving process, it becomes increasingly meditative and calming. There is math involved in the initial threading process for the loom. This makes the preparation process all the more valuable and interesting. The range of patterns that can be created by changing the treadle combinations and the yarn color is so immensely satisfying and the patterns themselves greatly appeal to my graphic design sensibilities. And after all this is the real magic of making cloth. It makes me feel like I am participating in some grand old practice and creates an opportunity for historical context in my practice as a designer and maker.
IMPETUS – BIG PICTURE
Through the many visits to the Textile Arts Center, I was particularly impressed by how they are able to attract a certain audience in Brooklyn who are hip, buy on Etsy and create for Etsy, are able to and want to spend money on locally crafted products, and are keen on creating a strong support system for craft and making in Brooklyn. Textile Arts Center organizes its own version for Fashion’s Night Out for one night in September. This happens at the same time the shopping streets in Manhattan are partying on account of the real Fashion’s Night Out. TAC’s version is about slowness, sustainability and reducing consumption. The panelists talk about sustainable practices in designing clothes, the role of craft and educating the consumers about the various aspects of making clothes and Textiles. This event attracts a certain audience that is fashionable but conscious and deliberate in their choice to buy and wear clothes and shoes that come from artisans and craftspeople who they feel they know to some extent. They spend a little extra on these items as its harder for the craftspeople to make a living while making these products in such small quantities.
While interviewing Visnja Popovic, founder of the Textile Arts Center, several of my observations regarding the audience at TAC were validated. She also gave me additional insight on why students chose to take weaving classes and what attracts them to TAC. She mentioned a certain movement towards feeling fashionable while being old-fashioned. Weaving appeals to them for its long history and the many traditions associated with it. They find the loom to be exotic and beautiful in its old-fashioned-ness. Men are more attracted to weaving over other crafts due to its math nature.
Visnja grew up in Serbia but has lived in the US for many years. On one of her visits back home, she talked to a local weaver who used a loom similar to the ones at TAC. The weaver was using the same book that Visnja refers to while teaching in Brooklyn. The woman called the book her Bible. This brought up an interesting point that the language of the loom can be universal as long as the tools are somewhat similar. The choices in yarn or patterns might change from region to region but a craftsperson at the Textile Arts Center could potentially communicate with a weaver in a traditional weaving community somewhere across the world, through their common language of the loom.
This same audience will be interested in a web interface that introduces them to the loom and also creates opportunities for them to communicate with weavers from traditional weaving communities through the web interface. The audience of creative internetters already spend a great deal of time on the web, socializing, consuming and creating. While the interface is by no means intended to create an alternative for the loom, it is meant to replicate certain beautiful bits of the weaving process and introduce the audience to the possibilities of creation through the actual physical tool, by first warming them up with a interface that they may operate within their comfort zone.
The web is viral, massive and has potential for collaboration. Craft-based communities around the world often struggle to compete with higher priced products in the markets that offer more global aesthetics due to that additional step of designing and consigning that went into their creation before the product was woven by a traditional weaver. Creative Internetters are very attuned to global aesthetics due to the time they spend online reading design blogs, purchasing designed products and sometimes creating and designing products. Their input in the creation process could benefit a traditional weaver and help them compete with designed products in the markets. For the creative internetters themselves this is an opportunity to contribute to the long history of weaving traditions and techniques while educating themselves in the process. The products that stem from this process have an added value due to the unique process that went into their creation.
I am inspired by initiatives that not only create a system of production and support amongst craft-based communities but also take a step further from what is already being done. What I am wary of is creating another system for consumption but rather a system that involves education for my audience locally (through the web interface), support for the craftspeople and empathy towards them and an all around awareness of the craft on the web. The realm of social entrepreneurship is massive and relatively outside of my expertise, hence this Thesis is more about the interface and how design can make a difference in this field.
“microRevolt projects investigate the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labor.”
- Cat Mazza, creator of KnitPro, an online tool that lets users create embroidery, crochet or needlepoint patterns from any image
“The more we make weaving available, the more we guarantee its survival to the general public…introducing children to weaving is the most important to me. They grow up knowing what the loom is and as adults it rekindles craft as a comfort activity.” (paraphrased from Interview transcript)
- Visnja Popovic, Founder, Textile Arts Center