Manisha Chawda, a textile designer from NID and the founder of Neeli Titlee, a brand that specialises in creating scarves woven by Sambalpuri weavers in western Odisha, shares her journey with Brinda Gill.
A profile of Manisha Chawdaw, textile designer and Founder of Neeli Titlee
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO STEP INTO THE FASHION INDUSTRY?
I wanted to become a textile designer ever since I was in the eighth grade and I continued to work towards that direction throughout my academic years. I graduated in Textile Design from Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda and then worked hard to get into the Textile Design Programme at National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad for my post-graduation. NID was the best thing that happened to me. It opened doors to a vast pool of knowledge, ideologies and extremely talented faculty members and peers.
HOW DID YOU GET INTRODUCED TO SAMBALPURI IKAT?
I first got introduced to Sambalpuri ikats during my eight-month long project in a small town in western Odisha during my NID days. It was one of the Cluster Development Projects sponsored by United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in a small town in the Sambalpur region. The project brief included craft research, market survey and design development with the weaver groups whose livelihood came from weaving Sambalpuri ikat saris and fabrics.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO START NEELI TITLEE?
The seed for Neeli Titlee was sown during the project. Once I understood the craft, I was able to train the weavers to make products that were relevant for the present day market. Since there is a high value of Sambalpuri products locally, the
weavers never had to worry much about selling it outside Odisha. However, it was beneficial for them to capture the outside market for added revenue and exposure. My role was to fill in the gap between the indigenous craft and the demand of a contemporary customer.
The outcome was extremely successful and the jury members including Laila Tyabji appreciated the collection of stoles and dupattas made during the project. I was also asked to continue the work with the weavers if possible. Even though I was tempted, I thought it was apt to gain some industry exposure before I head back to the craft sector. After graduating, I started my career in an export house and then moved on to a block printing company in Jaipur since designing prints is my second passion, the first being ikat. After working there for a few years, I transitioned to a freelancer and eventually reconnected with the weavers back in Odisha and founded Neeli Titlee.
WHAT MAKES SAMBALPURI IKAT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER IKATS PRODUCED IN THE COUNTRY?
The motifs of Sambalpuri ikats are extremely elaborate, curvilinear and fluid as against ikats from other regions. Secondly, the extra thread figuring in the border, aanchal, and sometimes main field of Sambalpuri saris/fabrics makes them very unique.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON DESIGNING SCARVES OF SAMBALPURI IKAT?
Ikat is among the very few hand-woven textiles that are both-sided and I really make sure that our products make the most of this property. I also consider Sambalpuri ikat to be extremely precious and consciously try to avoid any wastage. Keeping these pointers in mind, scarves came to me as the most logical product solution for ikat. It also helped that Sambalpuri fabrics are mostly woven in very fine mercerised cotton yarn which renders them very soft and pliable, ideal for making scarves.
THE MOTIFS OF SAMBALPURI IKATS ARE EXTREMELY ELABORATE, CURVILINEAR AND FLUID AS AGAINST IKATS FROM OTHER REGIONS.
Another very important and honest reason is that it really made sense as a product because we could get multiple designs with a very tiny budget at hand. Scarves are the best way to explore a textile technique and that is how I started. Along the way, I realised that it is such a versatile product. You could make it into any size and it would still work as a beautiful accessory for traditional as well as western attire. You could make it big enough to be used as a dupatta, narrow to be used as a stole, tinier to be wrapped around your neck or square-like to be thrown on your shoulder for a stylish look.
We are already making stoles, dupattas, narrow as well as square scarves and would like to add on a lot many styles to our product line in the near future. Our standard stoles are 2 metres long and 22 inches wide, and we get 12 scarves of the same colour and design from one warp. Even though scarves will always be our first love, we are working on building up a bouquet of products that are aligned with our basic ideology. The latest in the queue are saris, ponchos and kaftans.
DESCRIBE YOUR DESIGN PROCESS.
The first sketches/ideas for my collections are worked out in my studio at California, US. I send them to the master weaver I work with on email or WhatsApp to get his opinion on it. My weavers are based in Bargarh district in western Odisha which was a part of Sambalpur two decades ago.
We discuss the designs on phone and sometimes a second draft is required after the weaver’s feedback. He can tell with his years of experience that maybe a few design elements won’t show up well and I try to find a workaround while making the second draft.
Once the designs are finalised, the weaver starts working on the designs. The first step is to tie-dye the threads. Once the threads are ready and stretched on the loom, I visit the weavers and we work together on creating the samples. The fun with working hands-on is that I end up getting ideas that would have never appeared while planning the design in my studio. Once the first sample is made, it is easier for the weavers to replicate it without my presence.
The finished products are sent to our Ahmedabad office where my team gets them finished with trims and edgings and the products are distributed to various marketing channels from here. Our scarves are available on our website www.neelititlee.com. We also have a retail outlet at Baaya Design, Mumbai and
O.M.O, Mumbai and Goa. We also feature our products on www.jaypore.com occasionally. We are planning on coming out with a lot of new products in future and a lavish shop for the customers abroad.
ANY THOUGHTS TO SHARE ABOUT THE FINISHING OF THE SCARVES.
After the scarves are woven, they go through an elaborate process of checking and finishing. A well-finished product is a pleasure to have and we are extremely finicky about it. We add trims and edgings to them according to the theme of the collection.
HOW DO YOU SELECT MOTIFS FOR THE SCARVES?
I follow two different design approaches. The first approach is all about retaining the traditional flavour of the craft in terms of motifs and playing around with other design elements like colour, texture, placement of the motifs, etc. Often, it also helps to re-introduce a few historically used elements that are forgotten for no reason, just because they weren’t used for the longest time.
My second approach is all about exploring ikat as a technique. While following this approach, I do not worry too much about using the traditional motifs. I have learnt a lot about Sambalpuri ikat from these weavers along the way and everything they say adds on to my knowledge. I also keep reading as much as I can on ikats in general. This knowledge gives me the wisdom to respect the constraints of the craft technique and yet enjoy the freedom to play around and have fun with my creativity. Surprisingly, the weavers also like and support my ideas.
PLEASE COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT THE YARNS USED?
We use two-ply fine mercerised cotton yarn and sometimes we use silk as well. These yarns are procured from the local market by the weavers. We use vat dyes which are eco-friendly and azo-free. Natural dyeing process hasn’t been a success with the weavers yet because it is difficult for these dyes to penetrate through the tied portions, but the experiments are still in progress.
ANY MEMORABLE MOMENTS YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE.
When my teacher and guide Aditi Ranjan looked at our products and appreciated my work, it felt like an accomplishment.