Image: All images (unless stated) courtesy of Peoli.
“We try to figure out how to use indigenous materials, skills, knowledge base and processes, and celebrate their nuances and unique characteristics, as far as possible, in our work”, says textile designer Vasanthi Veluri. She is speaking of the ethos of Peoli, a design studio, co-founded in 2015 by Abhinav Dhoundiyal and her, both fellow textile designers from the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India.
As Peoli is based in Almora district, Uttarakhand state, India, at the scenic foothills of the Himalayas, this philosophy led Vasanthi and Abhinav to explore the local materials, hand-worked techniques and garments of the mountain-dwellers. Their research and fieldwork, interactions and engagements with the simple, gentle, hardy local communities gradually offered them an insight into their centuries-old tradition of sheep rearing in the region and processing of wool; of the practise of hand-spinning, natural dyeing and hand-weaving of yarns; of hand-knitting sweaters; and the draping of shawls and wearing of thick coats in the winter. And this led their design efforts that are manifest in a wonderful collection of handcrafted garments, textiles and accessories, steeped in a gorgeous organic, earthy look and feel in their colours, textures and forms.
Seeking “to capture what is existing in local knowhow before intervening”, the designers decided to first build on the practise of hand-knitting. They asked the women to knit 6” by 6” squares of patterns they knew. They thus built up a bank of 3000 swatches which they could dip into to design mufflers and sweaters with a play of textures, patterns and patchwork.
Simultaneously, they experimented with natural dyes (also sourcing locally available raw materials like walnuts shells, rhododendron flowers, seed coverings of the kamala plant), and noted each recipe using different natural dyes and mordants, the hues and tones of different permutations and combinations, and created about 500 swatches of colours.
In the dyeing process, they observed how different natural fibres absorb the dyes and sensitized the women to the nuances of colours. From the inception of dyeing operations, they harvested rain water and use as much of it as possible; this year they only used harvested rain water for dyeing. They use and extract colour till the last ounce of it is left in the dye bath, and create multiple hues of colour in such a way that the same dye bath is used repeatedly so as not to waste any colour or precious water.
They obtained - as they continue to do - locally available Harsil and Tibetan wools sourced from indigenous sheep. The wool arrives in a raw carded state, and is hand-spun on a foot or an ambar charkha (two different types of spinning wheels) according to the thickness of the yarn required. This yarn is then hand plied to the required thickness, natural dyed and subsequently sent for knitting.
With this reservoir of patterns, natural dyes and yarns, the studio work of designing mufflers and sweaters commenced. Peoli’s processes thus start from the raw material stage and build from there, step by step, towards a product; this approach is reverse to starting from a designed garment and then working backwards looking for the suitable material and technique to craft it.
As the women had never knitted for commercial reasons, the designers trained them to knit new products, be mindful of quality of knitting and keeping the work pristine. The women started knitting with Harsil and Tibetan wools. However, as these wools were a bit coarse and rough to the touch, the designers brought in merino wool yarns (both Bharat merino from Indian sheep and merino from New Zealand) to add softness. Thus, yarns of the two local wools are plied with the merino wool yarns as required; Himalayan nettle fibre yarns and hemp fibre yarns may also be plied with the wool yarns.
The earthy look and feel of the hand-knitted mufflers and sweaters found appeal, yet, the designers realized the products, being woollen, were appealing to Indian clients only for the winter season and only in north India. They then decided to work with cotton yarns to close the seasonality gap. Once again, they dived into sourcing of yarns, this time finding out about different types of cotton and yarns, and opted for readymade yarns instead of having it hand-spun locally. They sourced quality cotton yarn of different types of cotton including Kala cotton from Kutch, Gujarat, and organic cotton.
As the cotton yarns are typically used by weavers for weaving, even at their thickest they are very fine. So the cotton yarns are hand-plied by local artisans to obtain the thickness required for knitting. The knitted cotton garments worked out well, taking on the silhouette of the body like woollen garments. And though customers in India were hesitant to wear hand-knitted cotton garments (perceiving them to be warm and heavy), they found ready buyers overseas who were open to wearing hand-knitted cotton jumpers.
Image: Photography by Shine Bhola
In the course of producing knitted garments, Vasanthi and Abhinav realized that bringing knitted and woven sections together in a garment would be advantageous as knitting is time-consuming and thus expensive. Drawing inspiration from local attire, they returned to the drawing board to design overcoats, jackets, pullovers, and wraps for women, along with a selection for men and children.
And the results were stunning as they designed distinctive hand-stitched garments with fluid silhouettes that seamlessly mesh hand-knitted sections (sleeves, front panels and pockets) and cloth that is hand-woven with naturally dyed yarns. The garments are highlighted with accent embroidery, crochet or beadwork; quiet pockets; subtle trims; and surface designs using Shibori techniques.
Among these garments is the eye-catching, award-winning Shepherd’s Fair-Isle overcoat: it is a long sleeves hand-stitched coat of hand-woven Harsil wool fabric and lined with cotton in the body. The sleeves are hand-knitted with hand-spun merino wool dyed in natural indigo featuring Fair-isle patterning.
Another striking garment is the chutka overcoat that reinterprets the tradition of weaving of weft-pile wool blankets (woven by nomadic communities in the Himalayas) through hand knitting. The chutka overcoat is knitted predominantly with wool yarn highlighted with patterning in cotton and nettle yarns; the nettle yarns stand out for their beige colour and as their stitches lyrically loop from the indigo knitted surface of wool yarns. Interestingly, each yarn type is spun using different spinning tools, the foot-operated spinning wheel, the ambar charkha and drop spindle respectively! Other designs comprise the functional and stylish shawl with sleeves (that drapes like a shawl yet has structure and form from its knitted sleeves) as well as garments that are crafted solely from extra/ waste fabric.
After years of working on the brand and products, Vasanthi and Abhinav are now enjoying the balance they have found between their brand ethos and spreading their good work across the world. They have found clients and markets appreciative of their work; created customized garments for buyers; and have collaborated with artisanal designers. The collaborations have allowed them to create products that would not have been possible within their bandwidth or scalability, expand their design language and medium vocabulary, learn new skills and create new products. And most fulfilling for them has been seeing the artisan community swell in numbers and pride, seeing older artisans mentor younger artisans, and share their learning as they handcraft artistic garments using skills and materials of the milieu they are born and live in.
Written by Brinda Gill
Image: Photography by Shine Bhola