How textiles can be socially and environmentally sustainable
Long Reads 09.10.2018
Words Tamsin Blanchard
Photographs Prarthna Singh
At Adiv Pure Nature, Rupa Trivedi and her team of self-taught ‘urban artisans’ have improvised their way into building a thriving, sustainable textile-dyeing business using the discarded flowers from a Mumbai temple. ‘Using waste is a joy for us,’ she says…
Rupa Trivedi is not formally trained in textile design or the ancient art of Shibori. Nor are any of her team of dyers – whom she seems to attract like bees to pollen. They come to her from the heat of the local slum, illiterate, with no education, and learn to develop their own creativity, mixing up delicious colours made from flowers and plants and seeds – hibiscus, rose, marigold, pomegranate and madder – and experiment with different tie-dye techniques.
Take Mukhtar. Trivedi describes him as a master. ‘He is one of my key dyers. He’s in charge of the entire dye floor production and he does super work.’ He cannot read or write and was an unemployed motor mechanic who had lost his way when he came to Adiv Pure Nature. ‘When he came to work with me, something changed in him, seven to eight years back,’ she says. ‘Now he doesn’t drink or smoke. He has become a wonderful dyer, he is an artisan – an urban artisan. Almost all of my employees have found me, just as all my buyers have to find me.’ It is as though it is all just meant to be.
Trivedi herself is self-taught, learning from books from Shibori masters and the internet. ‘The dyers are a very creative lot and it is amazing to see their creativity bloom at Adiv,’ says Trivedi. She is proud of what her team of 12 dyers has achieved and refers to them as her children, even though they are aged between 25-35 and many have children of their own. ‘They experiment on their own using many things around them, like water bottle caps. Using waste is a joy for us.’ The fabric is wrapped around the plastic caps and tied with string to produce a pattern when dipped in the vats of colour.
‘There is a joy in getting this dye out of natural flowers, which is totally out of sync in this world of Mumbai,’ says Trivedi. The 30,000 sq ft space is more like an artists’ studio than a traditional textiles factory. Everything is done by hand. How each individual mixes their dyes and ties their fabric produces particular results. There is the Tabu technique, named after its dyer, and there are a few Rupa techniques too. ‘I love working with the rose because it has an amazing beautiful texture,’ she says.
The entrepreneur started her naturally dyed textile business about 10 years ago, after her daughter got married, when she could take some time away from the business she runs with her husband in ultrasonic engineering. She had the idea to make use of the mountains of flowers discarded at temples around her hometown of Mumbai. Since then, every other day, nearly 100 pounds of floral offerings are collected from the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai. The offerings pile up into a fragrant, colourful mass of golden marigolds, hibiscus and bright red and pink roses. They are separated out and delivered to Trivedi’s innovative social enterprise Adiv Pure Nature, which is based in the densely populated slum district of East Andheri.
This is not an area where people can usually connect with nature. But here, the discarded fruits of nature are delivered to the doorstep in abundance, and the flowers are used to make delicately coloured and patterned textiles that look as though they are freshly picked from a meadow.
Trivedi was determined that the business, which now produces 4,000-5,000 metres of hand-dyed fabric a month, would be both a social enterprise providing profitable employment and a creative outlet for local people as well as being commercially viable.
‘I was committed to Mumbai because it’s my home, and there are so many urban artisans waiting to be discovered. I did not know I was an urban artisan myself. I wanted to extend out to the socially challenged in the economic strata around my factory, and that got me even more inspired.’ Although production is never going to be on a mass scale, Advi has expanded to include a small team of tailors and collaborates with artisanal weavers.
And the demand for naturally-dyed, rose-flecked, madder-hued, natural indigo-seeped fabrics is growing. The cult Californian brand dosa is a fan – together they created some table linen for the seasonal food pioneer Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, as well as bigger brands like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, who have learned to adapt their buying processes to accommodate a smaller artisanal approach. Adiv’s main client is the fashion label Eileen Fisher.
For Trivedi, the growth of naturally dyed fabrics is more than a trend. ‘The world is moving towards using more natural fabrics anyway, regardless of the dye. You want to feel a natural cotton or linen on your skin – you are not always happy feeling polyester on your skin,’ she says.
Adiv’s textiles – fine silk and cotton scarves embedded with the stains of rose petals, hand-woven linens tie-dyed with marigolds or natural indigo – are available to buy direct at IFAM. For the second year, they have been invited to participate in the Innovation Inspiration section showing how folk art can be brought into the 21st century in ways that are fresh, relevant and socially and environmentally sustainable. It’s a highly competitive area, but they were selected for the show two years in a row not only because the textiles themselves are exquisite, but because it is such an inspiring and innovative business model.
Every step of the process has been thought about to bring maximum positive impact on the lives of the artisans and minimum damage to the environment. Water is recycled and the mordants used to fix the dyes – alum and iron – are carefully monitored. As well as the Temple Project, Trivedi also gathers waste onion skins and coconut peel from local market sellers. (‘Would we use vegetables like a beetroot or a cabbage? No, I do not use anything that is edible, especially because I’ve always believed we in India have so many hungry stomachs. We need kilos and kilos of whatever we would use. I wouldn’t want to take it from anyone’s mouth.’) The discarded coconut skins produce an old rose pink colour, while onion skins make what Trivedi describes as ‘beautiful military green’.
The science of natural dyeing is not an exact one, and it is the imperfections and subtle variations that Trivedi’s clients appreciate. ‘Flowers are perennial,’ she says, ‘but there is always a seasonal variation in the flowers and the tonality will change, that’s why we can never take nature for granted.’ She has developed ways to manipulate the colour and plays around with the pH of the water to alter the depth and shade. She insists that natural dyes do not restrict the colour palette in any way. There is a range of 70-80 colours, from zingy yellow to the softest grey – which is the shade she is expecting to sell most of in Santa Fe – along with a few brighter, explosive colours that immediately bring to mind the hustle and bustle, sounds and fragrant temple offerings of Mumbai.