John Dunsmore Travel Scholarship Supports Sustainable Nepalese Textiles
MA Textiles students Kiren Passi and Anna Duthie were awarded the John Dunsmore Travel Scholarship this year, which enabled them to travel to eastern Nepal for three weeks in February and March. While there, they carried out workshops with farmers, learning the local embroidery techniques and developing applications for a contemporary homeware market.
The John Dunsmore Travel Scholarship was established in memory of John Dunsmore, and is open to students studying Woven, Knitted, Printed and Mixed-media Textiles at the RCA. The aims of the scheme are to help develop a sustainable business and industry in the Santang area of Nepal, alongside fostering the exchange of expertise and textile techniques between RCA students and the local communities.
Santang embroidery is a technique used to decorate fabric by women within farming communities. Most often it is applied to shawls and other personal items, however goods decorated with embroidery are also sold in local markets as a way to generate additional income. The women are able to carry out the activity alongside their farming duties, often taking the work out into the fields with them. Traditionally colourful threads are used, often green and red, to ornament a plain white background.
Before travelling to Nepal, Passi and Duthie carried out research into the international textiles market in the UK to establish which accessories or homeware items would be compatible with this embroidery technique. They then designed a collection inspired by the traditional motifs found within Santang embroidery. While in Nepal, they were accompanied by Ang Diku Sherpa, a friend of Dunsmore who contributed her vast knowledge of Nepalese textiles and her translation skills. Their research, supported by Diku Sherpa, considered the tastes, lifestyle and requirements of customers in Kathmandu. The resulting range has a broad appeal, in particular focusing on the modern tourist and expat market in the area.
The basis of Passi and Duthie's designs was taken from one of the main motifs used in traditional embroidery. In order to update the design they changed its scale, enlarging one detail to cover the whole of a cushion. They also adopted a subtler colour scheme, using a monochrome palette, as opposed to the usual bright colours. Whereas traditionally a plain background would be embroidered, Passi introduced the use of striped material to create a fresh appeal.
Eleven women participated in the workshops, many of whom were just learning the techniques. The more experienced embroiders made final samples, following paper patterns Passi and Duthie had prepared, whereas the beginners were given smaller strips of material on which to practice the motifs. Passi and Duthie also learned the techniques themselves, creating samples of embroidery and adjusting their designs. Through this process they developed hands-on learning, such as the need for good lighting when carrying out the detailed work and the difficulties of applying their larger designs when working with a small needle.
In Nepal, Passi found a local tailor who was able to make up her design into sample cushions to show retailers in Kathmandu. Various shops were impressed with the products and placed orders. At the end of the residency the women were still working on the designs, however production was halted due to the earthquake in April. In response to this disaster, Passi and Duthie helped the John Dunsmore Scholarship team put on a fundraising sale for the Nepalese Earthquake appeal. Through an antique Nepalese textile sale at The Livingstone Studio they have raised £1,600.
Anna Duthie studied embroidery design at Glasgow School of Art, and spent two years gaining further experience in fashion companies – including as an embroidery trainee at Alexander McQueen – before starting her MA in Printed Textiles at the RCA. She said, ‘Nepal is an amazing country, and the John Dunsmore scholarship project was a wonderful chance to learn traditional Nepalese embroidery and exchange textiles knowledge with the skilled Rai women.’
Before studying MA Textiles at the RCA, Kiren Passi was a womenswear designer. Her decision to study textiles was motivated by a desire to return to working with surface design, which was the initial focus of her interest in fashion. She described the residency in Nepal as intense, but ‘a wonderful opportunity’. Recently Passi presented her project from the residency to Monsoon and has been selected to work with them on an artisan collaboration, for which she hopes to involve Santang embroidery.