I was very excited to read over on Debi’s blog a few weeks ago that Weaving Destination were going to host a fashion contest, with a fashion show to be held during Edinburgh Festival. I decided almost immediately that I wanted to enter. The contest was open to all, with the entries to be created from Weaving Destination’s fabric; this very special fabric is hand-woven by survivors of human trafficking in Assam, India. You can read more about Weaving Destination here.
I loved the idea of helping a social enterprise, promoting the idea of ethically-sourced fabrics and giving myself a creative challenge at the same time. In this post I’m going to be telling you a little more about the inspiration behind the design of my contest entry, and about the fabrics I used and why. In my next post, I will be talking about the pattern drafting for my design. And then I will be talking in detail on the construction of the dress in a final post, as well as sharing some photographs from the fashion show (sorry, it was just far too much to put into one post!).
I was very inspired by seeing pictures of the Weaving Destination ladies working their hand looms at their campus in Assam, India. I wanted to do something that represented the tradition of hand weaving, and also something that celebrated the connection between the weaving ladies in India and Weaving Destination's fashion show in Edinburgh. I therefore chose to make the dress from a combination of Weaving Destination's cotton fabric from India and Harris Tweed, a traditional wool fabric which is hand-woven by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. The design is jointly inspired by Indian and Scottish traditional dress.
On the Weaving Destination hand-woven fabric from India
Weaving Destination is a social enterprise, run by Debi and Javita, which promotes the financial independence and empowerment of indigenous women in Northeast India through the sale of their hand-woven organic cotton and eri-silk products. All of the women employed through Weaving Destination are either survivors of human trafficking, living with HIV/AIDS or are female migrant returnees who are highly vulnerable to re-trafficking, social exclusion and poverty. Weaving Destination provides employment and also housing and support for the women and their children.
Weaving Destination currently has three types of fabric available by the metre in their Etsy shop (here). Of the three colours, I chose a bright, fuchsia pink cotton with a white woven border. The fabric is around 146cm wide (not the 45” listed on the Etsy listing) and the border print, which is along both selvedges, is around 11cm wide. I bought 5 metres and was delighted to see that the cotton was as brightly coloured as I had hoped!
On Scottish hand-woven fabric: Harris Tweed
Harris Tweed is a traditional woollen Scottish fabric. It’s made from wool raised on the Scottish mainland as well as on the islands, but all the hand-weaving is done in weavers’ homes on the islands of Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra in the Outer Hebrides. In order to qualify as ‘Harris Tweed’, the cloth must be inspected and approved by the Harris Tweed Authority, which grants the Orb trademark. You can read more about some of the weavers here.
This traditional fabric has been produced for hundreds of years, but became popular in 1846 with the backing of Lady Dunmore, who devoted much effort to marketing the fabric to her wealthy friends. Today, Harris Tweed is promoted as a hand-woven luxury fabric of the highest quality. There is more on the history of Harris Tweed here.
I bought my Harris Tweed here, purchasing many samples before making a final decision. I originally wanted the tweed to be tartan since that best represents Scotland, but there wasn’t a white and fuchsia tweed available. I eventually decided that more than one colour would have been a little overwhelming and chose a plain fuchsia (number 152 shown in the centre below, amongst my other possible choices).
Here’s the colour I chose, alone against the Weaving Destination fabric. It is a pretty good colour match, but an entirely different texture, creating a wonderful contrast between the two.
On Indian traditional dress: The Sari
I have constructed and worn a sari before (you can read about it here), and I really enjoyed wearing it.
A traditional Indian sari is made up of the sari blouse, underskirt, and the sari itself which is worn over the top. The sari fabric is wrapped around the waist once, then a number of pleats around 10cm wide are folded into the fabric and tucked into the underskirt (how many pleats is a function of how tall you are and how long your sari is). Then the sari is wrapped around the body once and up over the left shoulder.
The pleats at the front combined with the wrapped section holding them in at around knee level make for a very flattering, almost fish-tail silhouette, which I wanted to preserve in my entry. The sari also has a border along both the long edges, like the Weaving Destination fabric, so I wanted to use that too. The sari border runs along the bottom of the pleats, as well as around the bottom of the final layer at knee level.
The end part of the sari which hangs over the left shoulder is called the pallu and falls from the shoulder to around the left elbow at the side, and to the floor at the back.
On Scottish traditional costume: Highland Dress
The key part of Scottish traditional dress is obviously the kilt. Here’s a picture of me modelling my own kilt last autumn, which you can read about here.
The obvious similarity between the kilt and the sari is the pleats. While the sari has large accordion pleats at the centre front (one on top of the other), the kilt has knife pleats all the way around, except for the front panel. Kilt pleats are usually sewn shut over the hip to control their fullness as well.
Traditional full highland dress also includes a tartan sash, made from the same material as the kilt, which is worn over the left shoulder. It’s usually tamed by a brooch or buckle at the shoulder.
Ultimately, the contest is about fashion, so of course I looked to high fashion for inspiration as well.
I looked at designers who use tartan heavily in their collections, like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood (both of these, I believe, also supported the use of Harris Tweed in their designs).
Alexander McQueen, Autumn/Winter 2006-7, RTW
Vivienne Westwood Gold Label
I also looked at designers who use pleats. I studied couturier Madame Grès, who used pleated jersey to imitate Greek sculptures in fashion form.
Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1997.116.38a-c Evening gown, 1967–85 Madame Grès (French, 1903–1993) Cream silk jersey; (a) L. at center back 16 in. (40.6 cm), (b) L. at center back 46 in. (116.9 cm), (c) L. 25 1/4 in. (64.2 cm) Gift of Chessy Rayner, 1997 (1997.116.38a–c)
As it happens, Madame Gres had a fuchsia pink sari-inspired dress!
Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1993.190 Cocktail dress, ca. 1960 Madame Grès (Alix Barton) (French, 1903–1993) Magenta silk Purchase, Gifts from various donors, 1993 (1993.190)
One contemporary design I took inspiration from is this Victoria Beckham number – this is from the Spring 2014 RTW collection. The overskirt is asymmetric and covers a pleated underskirt, but the overskirt isn’t controlling any fullness in the pleats, both the overskirt and underskirt have an A-line shape.
I think the fishtail shape of the final dress also echoes the Charles James “Tree” gown, though it helps that this one is in a similar colour, I think.
Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2009.300.991
"Tree" evening dress, 1955 Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Silk: rose pink taffeta; white satin; synthetic: red, pink, and white tulle Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 1981 (2009.300.991)
Speaking of the Charles James “Tree” gown... if you haven’t seen The Modern Mantua Maker’s version of this gown, she has an epic set of posts on it, culminating in the final reveal here -- stop what you are doing right now and read them, if you haven’t already!
Anyway... you can see my pinboard with all sorts of inspirational images related to this project here.
Part 2 of this series on my Weaving Destination fashion contest entry will talk about the pattern hacking behind my final design and will be up shortly, so stay tuned!