If ‘sustainability’ isn’t one of the most talked about subjects right now, then it should be. We live in a world of mass consumption and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that our footprints on this earth leave as minimal impact as possible. In recent years, the fashion and design industries have very much been under scrutiny in regards to their contribution to the ‘throw away’ culture we currently live in. This has to be addressed.
Samarkand Design has been born out of a desire not just to reuse and recycle vintage Indian fabrics, but to also support the cultures they originate from and encapsulate their artforms. Most of the fabrics used to make our lampshades started life as Indian saris which are no longer worn by the women who owned them. Preserving and celebrating craftmanship that has been passed down through generations of families is core to what we want to achieve. Thus, all of our products have a unique story to tell.
Saris are functional garments for the women of the Indian subcontinent and are worn every day. They have a rich history behind them; from their early days being woven by the women wearing them, being worn to attend the markets to get food for the table and to nurse babies in. They are both cool in the blistering Indian heat and provide warmth for cooler moments. Did you know there is well over 100 documented ways to wear a sari? If that isn’t a sustainable fashion garment then I don’t know what is!? They are a symbol of national pride in India and should be treated with respect. They have had a whole life of their own before making their way to your bedside table (in lampshade form of course!). They deserve to be loved, not lost amongst the other 100 billion garments that are thrown away every year around the world.
Pre-pandemic, we regularly travelled to India in search of ‘the golden thread’. From braving the massive Delhi trade fairs, to walking the smaller street markets and visiting remote corners of India in search of artisans selling their handwoven fabrics. Much of our work has been centred around establishing relationships with the artisans making such fabrics, supporting them and celebrating their culture. We don’t pay the massive factories churning out cheap fabrics for pittance, we work with the makers themselves and with local agents who source original vintage fabrics and care for the people around them. We have previously written about our adventures in Assam and although the pandemic has changed the way we personally travel to India, we continue to work very closely with the people we have been lucky enough to meet on our travels. If anything, the pandemic has shown us how invaluable our relationships are with the people of India as we have continued to celebrate their crafts whilst minimising our visits to India, which in turn helps us to further minimise our carbon footprint.
Our Assam Collection is particularly close to our hearts as the cottons used for these lampshades are all hand dyed and woven by a small group of women in Assam. These women are supported by the Tata Trust who strive to help the people of rural India by giving them the education and opportunity to improve their livelihoods in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. These women already possess the expert skills and knowledge to produce exquisite hand-woven fabrics but have previously lacked the business skills and opportunities to sell their wares and earn a fair wage. For example, easy access to the internet and the knowledge of how to use it is a major privilege of our westernised lives which these little communities in India just don’t have. A few years ago, we were lucky enough to be invited to their homes to experience how they live and work. A truly magical and eye-opening experience for which we feel so grateful – a vastly different lifestyle to ours! We now work directly with them and ensure they are paid fairly for their skills.
Another ‘lesser shouted about’ product range we have here at Samarkand Design is our Kanthas. We get very excited about new Kantha arrivals because the history, sustainability and beauty on display in every stitch really is something to shout about. Kantha, or “patched cloth” is one of the oldest forms of embroidery where artisans use threads and a ‘running stitch’ to sew together old ‘rags’ to give them new life. Although the fabrics used may be referred to as rags, this doesn’t do the quilts any justice whatsoever. They are handmade to the highest quality, by women using techniques passed down through generations. Many of them are made from old cotton saris and other common items of Indian clothing which have softened with age and wear. Fabrics not used in their entirety were often deconstructed and the single threads used for the stitching. The importance of reusing and recycling is most definitely understood by these artisans, even as long ago as 1500 BC when Kanthas are first recorded to have been made. Whilst the frugality of this craft is obvious, the beauty and craftmanship displayed in every hand embroidered stitch make them true works of art and a pleasure to behold. Available from us as quilts in their own right, many of our Kanthas have also been reused and recycled into unique accessories such as bags, placemats, cushions and laptop covers.
Whilst most of our lampshades and accessories are handmade from reused and recycled materials, these are ‘one of a kind’ lines and are unrepeatable. How frustrating it is to find the perfect shade you have been searching high and low for only to realise it’s not the right size? Unfortunately, this is the downside to offering truly bespoke interior design pieces. However, we have tried to combat this somewhat by now offering a range of repeatable shades. The Bagru (cotton), Jaipur (silk) collections for example, are now repeatable lines which are made from fabrics that are either hand block printed cotton or screen printed silk, especially for us. The intricate patterns have been carefully picked, some of our favourite vintage saris are the source of inspiration. These ranges represent our love of the textile artistry which we have experienced on our travels in India and along the Silk Road.
To be able to produce hand block printed fabrics and keep true to our core ethos of celebrating and supporting unique craftsmanship, we have thought long and hard about how we acquire these fabrics. The technique of hand block printing can be dated back as far as the 16th century and its roots are firmly dug into India’s vibrant textile history. Through both our trusty agents and our own travel exploration, we have formed relationships with some beautiful and well established small businesses in and around Jaipur that specialise in block print artistry and are passionate about protecting our planet. The designs are lovingly hand printed onto organic cotton and ethically sourced silk fabrics. Full due care and attention is used to ensure the process is as kind to the environment as possible, from careful selection of the dyes and fabrics used, to strict procedures for bleaching and washing fabrics so not to pollute rivers and streams. In fact, speculation has said that the rivers that run through Jaipur and the surrounding areas may be responsible for the now flourishing block printing industry in India. It is thought that the combination of the soft river water and natural availability of clay suitable for beaching fabrics in the hot Indian sun has unintentionally created a unique and unrivalled radiance to the fabric. Walk through the backstreets of Bagru or Sanganer and it would not be uncommon for you to come across metres and metres of fabric draped on washing lines, drying in the midday sun.
Bringing you back from the streets of India, lets now talk about what we do on a day-to-day basis to be kinder to the environment. If you have ever ordered from us, you may have received a reused box. A box that has travelled before. It may not be the smartest or prettiest box you have ever received but hopefully the items inside it make up for it. Wherever we can, we try to be as sustainable as possible by reusing boxes and other associated packaging needed to get your items to you as safely as possible. We only use plastic free packing tape and any plastic packaging that might be inside your box (e.g. bubble wrap) will be reused. We don’t buy in any plastic-based packing supplies – the cellophane wrap we put around the shades to keep them clean is also 100% biodegradable.
In regards to the manufacturing process of our lampshades, some are handmade in India, close to where the fabrics are created/sourced and then shipped to us in North Devon. Some are handmade by a small business in Portugal, but most of them are handmade on UK soil. We actively try to reduce the air miles travelled by our products wherever we can and where some of our products do travel a little further, we actively support small businesses rather than relying on large production line corporations for which their working conditions and pay are unknown and possibly questionable. It’s a bit like food miles, although it is great to buy locally sourced/UK grown foods as it is undeniably better for the environment, our actions also have consequences on food producers in other countries whose livelihoods probably depend on the export of their produce.
It’s all a juggling act working out what is the best and the most ‘correct’ thing to do. The reality is there will probably never be a perfect solution. But doing our best is absolutely better than doing nothing at all. Our doors are wide open to learning more as we endeavour further reduce our carbon footprint in the future.