Hundreds of wooden blocks pile high in the printing room of the master printer, lit by streams of sunlight poring in through the staggered brick wall. A young woman in a bright emerald sari dips a block carved with intricate designs into a tray of saffron dye, which she stamps onto tightly stretched cotton. A peacock appears, and she continues to make a series of imprints throughout the fabric. She is creating a pattern for a dress for Symbology, a new ethical fashion label based in North Carolina.
Asha, as she is known in her small desert town of Bagru, Rajasthan, is taking part in a creative tradition that has sustained her community for centuries. Yet as demand for handprinted fabrics wanes in recent years, artisans and their handcrafted works struggle to survive. UNC alumna Marissa Heyl hopes to preserve this traditional artform by launching a fashionable yet ethical line of clothing made with these beautiful fabrics.
Symbology founder Marissa Heyl, who first visited Indian artisan communities in 2006, was inspired to create a brand in which traditional textiles are celebrated as fashion. She combines the beauty of handmade fabrics with trend-forward design to create wearable works of art.
Heyl is in India producing her first collection, Peacocks & Paisleys, for Fall/Winter 2012. She is currently in Jaipur, a city founded centuries ago by a group of art patrons who invited skilled artisans to live and work for them. It is an area filled with artistic traditions, from metalwork to miniature paintings and intricate embroidery. The city is famous for block printing, a stamping technique dating back to the 10th century in India.
In the nearby village of Bagru, Heyl visits master craftsman Vijendra Chhipa, whose family has been block printing for generations. Together with a team of skilled artisans, Marissa and Vijendra have developed handcarved blocks and prints for Symbology’s collection.
With Peacocks & Paisleys, Heyl plays with pop art and vintage silhouettes to highlight two of the most common and markedly Indian symbols used in block printing. The peacock—representing elegance and grace—is the national bird of India, while the paisley motif—which originated in Kashmir—represents the ubiquitous mango.
Heyl spent June traversing through India, visiting artisans and sourcing block prints from Rajasthan, handwoven wool from the Himalayas and silk brocade from the holy city of Varanasi—one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Symbologyʼs journey from a loom in India to a boutique in downtown Raleigh is one that represents the potential for globalization to revive threatened art forms by adapting them for the boutique fashion market. The stories Heyl has collected along the way are communicated with each piece via a QR code that customers can scan while shopping.
Over the next five years, Symbology plans to expand its buying relationships to artisan groups around the world, including Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
The block printing process
The blocks artisans use are carved by hand using simple tools. With this print, each color requires a different block to be made, so they fit together like a puzzle. Each block is then dipped in dye and stamped onto stretched fabric. The fabric is then dyed and washed.
Dabu is a form of resist dyeing in which a mud paste is stamped onto fabric and sealed with a sprinkling of sawdust. The fabric is then dipped in dye, and then washed in a large tank in which the paste is beaten off of the fabric.
To learn more about Symbology, please visit their website.