Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Tanvi Kant: working with little

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

The thinking behind Tanvi Kant’s recent work can be traced back to the hand-sewn hem of her mother’s sari. Curiosity led Kant to unpick the hem and then parts of the woven cloth in a gesture she explains was driven by the “pure experimentation” encouraged on the Sustainable Design BA course she completed at the University of Derby in 2005. That first examination of cloth led Kant to the new work she has developed for the shape of things.

“I often hear textile artists explain that they were taught to sew or knit by their mothers or grandmothers,” Kant observes. “I never saw anyone in my family sew. I can’t even use a sewing machine,” she admits. During her studies she was encouraged to work with materials that fit her ideas, rather than the other way around, and explains that for her degree show she found herself exploring the ways in which textiles and ceramics could be combined “because they are so opposite”.

Shortly after graduation, a grant from the Art’s Council in 2007 allowed Kant to take a three week intensive craft study trip to Kutch, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi. The journey revealed a side of India she had not seen on her previous trips to what she calls the “plastic India” of her family visits to southern Gujarat. Inspired by the craftspeople she saw creating “intricate work made without all the mod cons”, Kant returned to Britain with a renewed respect for the value of working with little.

Whole Cloth & Made to Measure

Sari fabric is unique in its use of a whole piece of cloth – from selvedge to selvedge – that is worn wrapped and draped rather than cut and sewn around the body. Because of this, clothing such as saris celebrate the construction of the textile over the construction of the garment. The textile is the priority.

Mildred Constantine and Laurel Reuter, in their introduction to their study of textiles used in fine art, note the extraordinary ability of cloth to adapt:

Whole cloth is planar and pliable; it can be given volume. One can animate cloth: drape, crumple, and fold it; compress, pleat, and tuck it; festoon, swag, and swaddle it; burn it and cut it; tear, sew, and furl it; appliqué, quilt, and fabricate it. Cloth is ductile; it expands and contracts. Cloth can be embellished with stitches, dyes or print. Cloth can be burned or scored. It is for each generation to expand the vocabulary of approaches to cloth.[i]

Kant works with precisely these attributes, suspending cloth, in her case synthetic chiffon, so that we may enjoy its sheerness, layering and movement using a vocabulary that is increasingly her own.

But Kant has not only chosen to work with the long length of the sari. Also included are fabric remnants left after sewing the cropped and fitted sari top, an often unnoticed addition worn below the dramatic folds and gathers of the sari. The sari shares one enormous benefit over tailored clothing. Pregnancy, weight loss, even injury can be accommodated with a twist, rather than a cut, of the cloth. The short fitted sari top worn underneath is another matter. Cut and sewn to fit each individual, Kant explains that the sari top is essentially “size-less” bespoke tailoring to fit the unique proportions of each woman and girl.

A sari wraps the body, creating folds of fabric to cover and conceal. When washed in more forgiving climates than Britain, lengths of colourful sari cloth are often seen blowing from windows and balconies in the breeze. (I have two images from both 2007 and 2008 trips to reflect this) The colours and embellishments are often eye catching, but without a body to wrap, the cloth reveals very little about the proportions of its wearer. In contrast, the sari top sits close to the body and is made to the measurements of each woman’s individual proportions. When the top is cut and sewn, as other tailored garments would be, the outline of wearer is left behind. (possible image of unworked shape of fabric hanging in studio before starting work on it) Kant explains that the remnants she uses occur when the “pattern of the garment itself (and of the dimensions of the body) have been cut away”.  These remnants do not and cannot conceal anything. Instead this cloth traces a curious and intimate outline of the spaces occupied by our own unique measurements.

Binding & Wrapping

We tend to think of embroidery as embellishment – a decorative luxury added to the surface of cloth. It is this, but Kant is conscious[ii] of the two fold protective function of embroidery. One is symbolic, the other structural. Of the symbolic, Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider note in their introduction to Cloth and Human Experience that the textile, in its very structure, lends itself to suggestions of connection: “Another characteristic of cloth, which enhances its social and political roles, is how readily its appearance and that of its constituent fibers can evoke ideas of connectedness or tying.”[iii]

But embroidery can also literally strengthen cloth. The Japanese tradition of sashiko, for example, which translates as “small stitches” “evolved from a need to conserve and repair garments at a time when cloth was a precious commodity.”[iv] Thus the use of bound and stitched areas can be understood as an effort to, in Kant’s words, “reinforce” the strength of an existing fabric.

In Kant’s earlier pieces of jewellery reclaimed fabric was bound into thin strips and then looped into necklaces, bracelets and rings. In amongst the thread and cloth are sections made of ceramic, units that share a similar organic form but without the material flexibility of cloth. Connecting the textile to the ceramic – and vice versa – creates a striking contrast of materials that share only the attribute of shape. More recently Kant has introduced precious and semi-precious stones with a similar interest in the contrasts created.

Elsewhere Kant’s stitches capture unravelling edges, cloth on the verge of fraying to bits. Janis Jefferies notes, “Unlike the self, which is a highly charged concept, the selvedge is an unremarkable detail in the construction of woven material or web of cloth.”[v] Kant gives her attention to the unremarkable in a gesture that suggests a desire to celebrate the overlooked scraps of our material world – to reinstate a lost value.

Sustainability & Reuse

Turning fabric off cuts into art confirms not only Kant’s commitment to recycling, but can also be read as a confrontation of the waste produced by the textile and fashion industries. Today a range of approaches by artists and designers are being tested to tackle this problem. At one end of this spectrum are projects that attempt to produce tailored garments that make use, as the sari does, of every centimetre of the bolt of cloth.[vi] At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘upcycling’ agenda[vii] that looks to embed into a design at its inception future lives of greater value than the first. Kant’s practice sits somewhere between these two, tackling waste created through another system – in this case off cuts from the home sewing of a friend’s mother – and rethinking their place and function, as upcycling encourages, so that they may enjoy a greater value in their new reincarnation.

This work is concurrent with the rise of DIY agendas across the arts. Businesses exploring sustainable models such as Alabama Chanin and Keep and Share have recently begun an ‘open source’ approach to their products, selling garment patterns and materials alongside the finished product.[viii] Andrea Zittel’s “smockshop” revealed the skill of garment production to the gallery going audience, while providing a source of income for emerging artists.[ix] The Knitting Nation series of ‘performances’ by Liz Collins similarly take production from inside the studio and factory and make the experience public in an effort to teach a broader community about the skills and time involved in textile production.[x]

At the core of this agenda is empowerment. Buy a finished garment if time and money permits; buy a pattern and source a member of the community to stitch or knit for you if time and skills do not permit; or buy the pattern and create for yourself a garment that these businesses hope will result in a long term commitment rather than another throw away purchase.

The Suspension of Disbelief

Sheer, ghostly garment-bodies leave much to our imaginations. Kant’s choice of material evokes the brightly coloured and adorned textiles of India. But Nina Fleshin observes “Many of the artists who employ empty clothing do so as a way of resisting self-images that have been imposed on them – resisting objectification by those who have the power to objectify them.”[xi] Kant explains that her research trip to India was as much a response to viewers’ questions about her heritage, than her own. (Japan, she admits, was another location of choice because of the shared aesthetic values.)

Like ideas, textiles are rarely intended to be static. Look at the energy and expense of the spectacle that is the catwalk. Part of the catwalk is theatre, but another part is function. Clothing is designed for the body. It is the body that animates and suspends the textile so that it can be seen to its best advantage. Without the body, we look to photographs, images that capture cloth moving on the body, even if they are frozen in time. More often than not we need the inspiration of movement to understand the beauty of clothing. Cloth is not meant to be static.

This poses a challenge for the gallery setting. The French artist Annette Messager brings in fans to inflate and deflate her fabric sculptures, animating the cloth from the ground up.[xii] Others such as Caroline Broadhead suspend textiles with great attention to the shadows cast. Broadhead has explained her interest in the ghostly shapes of clothing is “because of its closeness to the human being, but without being a portrait or a study or anything literal”.[xiii] Kant similarly suspends the suggestion of the body, but without enough detail to confirm or confine identity.

Meaningful Things

Kant presents us not with empty garments, but with the ghost of the garment’s production. “Why do I make when we have so much?” she queries of her own practice. Her conclusion is one we can all learn from: “There is still room for meaningful things in the world. I use my work to remind myself of that.”

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies
Edinburgh College of Art


[i] Constantine, Mildred and Luarel Reuter. Whole Cloth. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997: 9.

[ii] Interview with the artist May 14, 2010.

[iii] Weiner, Annette B. and Jane Schneider (eds). Cloth and Human Experience. London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989: 2.

[iv] Michele Walker “Japanese Shashiko Textiles” available at http://www.sashiko.org.uk/publications.php accessed May 14, 2010.

[v] Jefferies, Janis. “Self and Self Edges” in Selvedges (Janis Jefferies: writings and artworks since 1980). Norwich: Norwich  Gallery and School of Art and Design, 2000: 11.

[vi] Rissanen, Timo. “Creating Fashion without the Creation of Fabric Waste” in Sustainable Fashion, Why Now? A conversation about issues, practices, and possibilities. Janet Hethorn and Connie Ulasewicz (eds). Fairchild Books, Inc.: New York, 2008: 184-206.

[vii] ‘upcycling’ was coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

[viii] see http://alabamachanin.com and www.keepandshare.co.uk

[ix] see http://www.smockshop.org/ accessed May 13, 2010: “The smockshop is an artist run enterprise that generates income for artists whose work is either non-commercial, or not yet self sustaining.”

[x] see Liz Collins “Knitting Nation” in In the Loop: Knitting Now. (Jessica Hemmings, ed) London: Black Dog Publishing, 2010: 90.

[xi] Fleshin, Nina. “Clothing as Subject.” Art Journal. (spring 1995). New York: College Art Association Inc., 1995: 23.

[xii] For example “Annette Messager: The Messengers” at The Hayward, London March 4 – May 25, 2009.

[xiii] Interview with the artist, published in “Caroline Broadhead: interrupted gaze” Surface Design Journal, winter 2007: 28-33.