Decorating trends and interior designs come and go, but silk is a timeless classic.
When Felicia Gimza, a great friend and award-winning interior designer from The Expert Touch, suggested a silk carpet to complete my newly decorated Toronto condo, I assumed we’d find a traditional silk rug. But I never imagined our search would introduce me to India’s women weavers and their one-of-a-kind Silk Road carpets that combine modern artistry with vintage silk scarves.
You may remember Felicia from an earlier WomanScape article about Grace Farms and Architectural Design. We’ve been friends for over twenty years and she knows I prefer traditional design – aka elegant, comfortable furniture with clean lines that stretch across many centuries of style. Color choices are typically simple, and the overall décor appeals to a broad audience.
It was love at first sight when I saw this carpet of my dreams. Felicia worked behind the scenes with Linda Payton, a design specialist at ELTE Furniture in Toronto, to pull some samples together when I met this magic carpet one rainy afternoon. I learned that having a good working relationship with local design specialists is critical when it comes to customer service. Felicia shared photos of my furniture with Linda and a colorful inspiration, a painting by Toronto artist Pietro Adamo.
As we flipped through a pile (pun intended) of carefully curated rug options, Linda explained buying considerations like size, type and quality of the thread knotting, fabrication process used, and other factors that affect the price and history of the carpet. And that’s when I saw it – the pattern drew me into its mystical swoops of bright hot pinks, soft blues, and earthy greens. The unusual color combinations tugged at my heart like an old friend’s embrace bathing me in happiness. It may sound crazy, but I knew right away that this carpet was special. It pulled me in the same way a great painting pulls you into the whispering’s of an artist’s mind.
I’ve been lucky in love and marriage, and turns out I also have an eye for beautifully crafted carpets too. My new carpet is reinvented silk scarves and the story behind their production is just as captivating as the silken jewels. Linda graciously shared the story of ELTE’s collaborative production process by providing me with a copy of the details in House and Home, April 2017 issue.
The New Silk Road
In “The Silk Road: An Essential Part of India’s Social Fabric,” writer Wendy Jacob describes the collaborative process between ELTE’s Toronto buyer and general manager, Jamie Metrick, and third generation Indian rug makers who created ELTE’s Silk Orchid collection. The name is fitting and underscores the labor-intensive process used to create these exotic carpets. Silk threads from vintage saris are sourced, deconstructed and pooled into like colors. At this point, the silk is respun and may be dyed again before it’s rewoven by hand to create a new rug. Traditional Turkish or Persian knotting techniques are used but the artful process isn’t finished. The rugs are laid out in the sun, sometimes for days, before they are washed and bleached in the sun, only for the process of washing and bleaching to repeat again.
Two things struck me when I read Wendy’s beautiful article about ELTE’s rugs. I loved the intensity of the manufacturing process, and I marveled at the new opportunities for women prompted by the increased western demand for the Silk Road. Captivating photos of charkhas (spinning wheels used to turn the sari threads into yarn) and Indian women creating design templates with laser tracing papers revealed India’s industrious women. The numbers in my 8’x10’ rug were mind boggling – more than 100 silk saris grouped, unraveled and respun into new rugs over 8-10 weeks. The washing process happens 3-6 times to bleach them in the sun and one rug takes 10 months to a year to complete.
You’ll have to subscribe to House and Home to read Wendy’s entire article, but this video link to Jamie Metrick and the Silk Orchid manufacturing process in India really captures the energy and spirit behind ELTE’s unique, old world meets new world, carpets. See: https://houseandhome.com/video/sari-silk-rugs/#tab-b
The second point concerning the industry of India’s women was this re-imagined Silk Road. Silk was originally an ancient Chinese textile; a discovery that harnessed the protein fiber of silkworms as they built cocoons. The process of making silk dates originated in 2700 B.C., and was used by the imperial court for cloth, drapes, and other royal products. It quickly became an export and diplomatic gift, spurring the development of expanded trade routes from Europe to the Far East. Hence, the trade routes namesake, the Silk Road.
Today, silk is a luxury good in India and according to Wikipedia, 97% of raw Indian silk is produced in five Indian states: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Jammu, and Kashmir. It makes sense that the weaving industries in India developed around royal residences and holy temples, and now account for about 85% of the world’s silk production.
A recent resurgence in silk demand fueled by companies like ELTE is good news for India’s women living in a country where poverty levels affect 22% of the population. India’s poverty profile, according to the World Bank, estimates that more than 270 million people – 80% of whom live in rural areas – live below the poverty line and make less than $1.25 a day. Increased demand for silk production can translate into lower poverty rates if fair trade business practices exist; especially since silk production is the second largest industry in India after agriculture.
Preserving the Artistry of Handlooms
On a personal level, I’m also thrilled that my rug supports the artistry of women who use traditional hand-looms. Indian women complain about the difficulties and dangers of power-looms, where flying parts can cause life-threatening injuries. Power-looms are also more expensive for the poor because they can’t afford to spend more on electricity. When mechanical repairs are needed, the process is expensive and slow. This increases the vulnerability of women, who live in rural areas where their livelihood depends on silk weaving. With few employment options, their weaving skills are also an important vital link for keeping the ancient tradition and quality of hand-loom products alive.
These issues never occurred to me when I visited Mumbai several years ago. I purchased beautiful scarves at low prices in outdoor market areas. Signs of poverty were everywhere but blurred in the abundance of bright colored sights, frenetic traffic and pungent smells. How many of us think about the source of our products we buy, and whether fair business practices were used?
In 2004, the WomenWeave.org project was created to help women in India become less vulnerable to industry changes. The organization helps women dependent on jobs that use traditional hand-looms, by connecting them to potential customers and businesses. Additional skills training and design assistance is also offered, to increase profitability and create more sustainable businesses.
Every time my bare feet enjoy the luxurious feel of my beautiful handloom rug, I’ll think of the women and the scarves underfoot. I’ll treasure my friendship with Felicia and continue to celebrate her creative skills and impeccable design talent.
I’ll also remain ever grateful to my new friend Linda Payton, who generously provided information about her company’s Silk Orchid rugs. Most of all, I’ll cherish my connection to the women of India. Their artistry and future rests in the hands of global businesses and consumers like me.