Gabrielle Soyer

When the Paris-based Swedish designer Gabrielle Soyer bought two chain stitched textiles from Kashmiri merchants while travelling in Goa, India twenty-six years ago she had little idea of the impact the purchase would later have on her life. At the time Soyer recalls thinking that the two traditional textiles –depicting tigers attacking a deer – could one day be used as the back panel of a sofa. By 2007, Soyer was facing her 50th birthday when her work as a textile designer for Donaldson came to an end. She found herself pondering the next step and, reminded of her earlier purchase, decided to travel to Kashmir in the Himalayan Mountains in search of artisans still working with the embroidery tradition.

Aware of Kashmir’s fragile political stability, Soyer’s first visit in 2007 began with a trip to the French embassy in Delhi to register her plans before heading north. “I wanted someone to know I was there,” she explains with pragmatism of the practicalities to be considered when working in an area geographically remote and politically unpredictable.

But the region’s recent turbulent history also offered Soyer the opportunity to reintroduce to the European market a style of looped hand stitching that had temporarily become unavailable. “For twenty years you did not see chain stitch [exported] because of militancy in the region,” Soyer reflects of the distinction afforded by her current efforts to revive hand production.

On arrival in Srinagar she worked by word of mouth, asking everyone in the hotel where she was staying if they knew of artisans still producing chain stitch embroidery. The region’s high altitudes and cold winters meant that artisans of the past would have likely embroidered throughout the inhospitable winter months. In what is testament to her tenacity and diplomacy, Soyer returned to Paris after her first five-week trip already armed with samples to show at Maison & Objet that same year. A year later, LINDELL & Co was born.

The business model Soyer works with is an admirable but challenging one. Her home in Paris is a mere 6,000 kilometres as the crow flies from the artisans she regularly works with – a reality even in our Internet obsessed culture that presents challenges for communication and quality control. Today, she continues her annual summer visits to develop designs and oversee production and observes that there are essentially three levels of export quality textiles now produced for the market. Her decision to work with the most labour intensive, detailed stitches means LINDELL & Co’s annual production is very small: a maximum of twelve hundred items a year because of the time required to cover an entire surface in small scale stitches.

Even with the established relationships her past six years of work in the region afford, production standards demand constant attention. She explains by way of example lengthy conversations to dissuade artisans from pressing the embroidery flat to create a shiny surface which – ironically – flattens each stitch, masking the embroidery and making the textile begin to look like a print. But her efforts have not gone unnoticed, particularly by loyal design shops that emphasize the intrinsic value of hand production.

Today LINDELL & Co carries pillows designed in a hybrid of contemporary geometric patterns. Alongside these she stocks organic mimicry of chain stitched tiger and leopard hide patterns (complete with pink noses). The product is yet another indication of Soyer’s tenacity. Remembering an image from World of Interiors magazine in the early 1980s of a chain stitched hide pattern, Soyer spent two years enquiring before she successfully tracked down what she suspects is the same extended family she works with today.

Design development continues to be the central production challenge. Energy has gone into the development of hand dying techniques so that the colours are more vivid, but even this change posed unexpected challenges. Perplexed as to why her repeated requests for a small sample of new colour never appeared, she finally learnt that the knowledge to scale down the dye recipes for smaller batches wasn’t familiar. The request was not being ignored as much as perceived as a mystery to execute.

The launch of LINDELL & Co coincided with the global economic slow down that has presented small, independent businesses in particular with some of the most challenging economic changes of recent years. In the first years of LINDELL & Co Soyer reflects that her products were well received by Spanish and Japanese buyers. As these national economies have slowed, interest has moved elsewhere. Swedish buyers, she explains, have long shown loyalty perhaps out of greater familiarity with the value of the handmade.

More recently Soyer has developed a further product: plaid blankets woven in Kathmandu, Nepal. Made from hand spun and hand woven camel hair from Kazakhstan, the blankets are now popular in Switzerland and, much like the embroideries she develops, represent an unwavering devotion to quality and support of hand production. Like much of Soyer’s work, they epitomise a very different kind of luxury: time.

Selvedge magazine 2015