Log / Fashion

Designer Swati Kalsi gives Sujani needlework a fresh identity

Fashion designer Swati Kalsi deconstructs her abstract textiles, featuring Sujani needlework that is traditionally narrative, and takes cues from nature and its complexities.

By Ritupriya Basu on 10 July

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Swati's latest collection features intermittent running stitches that create tactile surfaces, with contour lines moving in pulsating volumes

They say what’s meant for you won’t pass you by. Looking back at her creative journey, designer Swati Kalsi can’t help but agree. A graduate of National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Swati found her calling almost serendipitously while working on a project for the Jiyo! World Bank. Centred around the idea of nurturing rural artisans in India, the project led her to a craft cluster tucked away in remote villages of Bihar. Here, she discovered the art of Sujani, an embroidery technique that employs the humble running stitch to create layered, textured surfaces. Forgotten and left behind in this corner of the country, this technique is still practised by groups of exceptional women across Bihar. What makes them truly unique is that none of them create work quite like the other; each piece is a new story.

Traditionally, Sujani was used to embroider narrative stories, almost like illustrated panels, onto swathes of fabric. The intermittent running stitches create tactile surfaces, with contour lines moving in pulsating volumes. When the Jiyo! World Bank project was put on hold, Swati decided to launch her eponymous label in her drive to make this needlework technique relevant again. With a new collection out soon, we talk to Swati about her process of translating inspiration into garments.

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Traditionally, Sujani needlework was used to embroider narrative stories onto swathes of fabric

Design Fabric (DF): Where does your interest in fashion stem from? Did you organically gravitate towards the subject?

Swati Kalsi (SK): My fascination with the arts started early at home in Delhi, and my mother was a strong creative influence for me. We would often make garments, interior products and work on other DIY projects together. I was inclined to everything cultural – from fine arts to performance art – and by ninth grade, I became enamoured with fashion. I gave my entrance exam for NIFT (Delhi) but didn’t qualify for the Fashion Design stream. It was heartbreaking. I was trying to resign myself to the idea that I would not be able to study what I loved until I read about a course called Fashion Design and Information Technology and decided to pursue that. I was profoundly affected by my failure to get through the course I loved. In retrospect, I realise how it put me on the path of transformation and self discovery.

I had my first textile-centric experience working with The Shop in Delhi in 2003 for about five years. By 2008, I wanted to pause for a while to explore to see if there were avenues where design married social purpose. It was then that I met designer Rajeev Sethi, whom I had first come across him in 2003 while looking for a design studio to work for. Fortunately, they were looking for a textile designer for a project with the Jiyo! World Bank. Rajeev was a tough mentor and uncompromisingly challenged the team’s capacities. He stressed on the importance of understanding a craft well to be able to do justice to its inherent strengths while creating designs that haven’t been seen before.

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Ob\ique, Swati's latest collection is her reaction to the shift in time and our perspectives

DF: The Sujani embroidery technique stands at the crux of your creative practice. How did you discover the craft cluster?

SK: I was assigned to study the Sujani and Banjara embroidery craft cluster as part of the Jiyo! World Bank project. At that point, I wasn’t keen on working with embroidery. When I started researching about Sujani, I came across some documents and samples of the craft that could broadly fall under two categories: a detailed narrative approach to the technique, and the other was basic geometric embroidery made for run-of-the-mill retailers. Both these addressed different purposes but I had to explore and discover a way to use the craft without compromising on its innate beauty.

I started my research by understanding the fundamentals of Sujani. I observed that the surface created out of simple running stitches moves in transient intensities. The sizes, continuity and patterns created by these stitches also move in a way reflect the spirit of the creator. Employing one of the simplest stitching methods to create such a detailed, nuanced texture got me hooked to idea of contemporising this craft.

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Working with the humble running stitch, the women artisans create unique textured patterns for each garment in Ob\ique, none of which is like another

DF: Ob\ique, your latest collection, champions Sujani needlework and couples it with a dark, autumnal colour palette that moves through moody burgundies, whites, mustards and charcoal greys. What inspired the collection?

SK: While conceptualizing Ob\ique, I was thinking about how the world around us is changing at an unprecedented rate. Change is a constant, but lately, the shift in our times and perceptions has been ever so palpable. I wanted to capture the idea of change through the surface textures of this collection. The intermittent diagonal patches of thread create a sense of movement through the garment. The pieces are handcrafted in Tussar and Gicha silk, fine cotton and silk organza.

DF: What sets your clothes apart are the detailed textured surfaces you create. The patterns remind me of topographic maps. How are they developed?

SK: The quirks and anomalies of nature and natural processes were and still are a big inspiration for me. Emerging layers, diluting depths, gradations, and rhythms in nature have always caught my eye and gradually became my vocabulary for surface ornamentation. I collaborate and engage with artisans through interactive creative workshops and processes to encourage the artist in them. We create pieces of work that seem to tread on the cusp of design, craft and art. I believe that a hand has a brain of its own. It can think and create surfaces that neither machines nor the human mind can recreate. It is interesting to see how each artisan, each hand, each mind can bring something completely unique to the piece of work.

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Ob\ique juxtaposes Gicha and Tussar silks with soft fine cotton

DF: When you begin conceptualising a collection, where does the inspiration come from?

SK: New ways of seeing, old unfinished ideas and a lot of unexpected cues shape up initial ideas. I focus on creating one-of-a-kind pieces. High costs and challenges of development and innovation make sustainability a big challenge. So we try to create a diversified range of designs, and place them at different price points to penetrate different segments of the market.

DF: You work extensively with anti-fit silhouettes that move away from the body and wrap it in swathes of fabric. What about this idea of shrouding of the body appeals to you?

SK: I want our surface developments to be the focal point of the garment, so they often call for simple and flowy silhouettes. In terms of the fabric moving away from the body, my silhouettes often reference androgyny. This is also how I prefer to dress personally, and that aesthetic definitely seeps into the garments, making them easy and relaxed.

DF: How important is abstraction in your creative process?

SK: Each element in nature has patterns that can be read differently by each of us. I look at diverse elements, take visual cues and then try to transform them into patterns. So abstraction is an integral part of our design process. What I enjoy the most about the process is that the design then holds a different meaning to every viewer. The garment is no longer about what I thought while making it but about what you feel when wearing it.

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Forgotten in a corner of the country, Sujani is still practised by groups of exceptional women across Bihar

DF: Sustainability is the new idée fixe in the fashion industry. What is your take on the issue?

SK: To me, sustainability is about the well-being of everyone involved in the design process, be it the consumers, creators, designers or investors of time, money and effort. The Sujani craft cluster is now seen in a new light. More and more people approach the artisans for work. They now have a lot more exposure and are better equipped to think of future possibilities, both in terms of application of skills and maneuvering financial growth. Over the years, their perspective has broadened and livelihoods have improved.

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