Priya Ravish Mehra: Witness to the Invisible

Over the past eight years Priya Ravish Mehra has worked with the Rafoogars, or darners, of Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India to reveal the contribution darning makes to the creation and care of cloth. On a material level the ‘invisibility’ of this labour is, ironically, part of the point. Expert darning is about repair made seamless and, as Priya explains, typically involves “reweaving the structure of the damaged fabric once again, not on the loom but with a needle and thread”.[i] Ideally the material outcome of this work is imperceptible, but that does not mean the skill behind the craft deserves to remain unseen. “The darner’s job, from the start, is not recognised within the textile industry,” Priya explains, “I am interested to know, from the darners, if this is good?”[ii]

In an effort to answer this difficult question, Priya has lead workshops with darners and local communities within India, as well as America, Australia, Mexico, Italy and Japan. These varied contexts have provided opportunities to consider not only the “importance of restoration, but also recreation” within the darning tradition. Adaptation, as well as repair, is central to the work. As the geographic context of her workshops have shifted, so too have the lessons each location has taught. Two recent residencies in Scotland, first at Cove Park on the Rosneath peninsula, followed by time in the town of Huntly in Aberdeenshire, Scotland were originally intended to create “Scottish textiles repaired by Indian hands” – an ambition that proved curiously difficult, but eventually successful, to realise. The Rafoogars who joined Priya in Huntly for the community workshops noticed considerable differences in local engagement with the darning tradition. While textiles were brought for repair “in a spontaneous way” during workshops closer to home, here: “people are not always willing to bring damage into the public domain.” Perhaps more crucially, we just don’t keep damaged textiles; discarding has become our first instinct. Priya observed that local community knowledge “struggled to see beyond the darning tradition as mending associated with socks. To revive darning is not just a revival of skill and craft. It is also about healing suppressed past emotions connected with memories and the mending of cloth.”

While Huntly remains a small community with family ties, haptic knowledge such as darning that “is unconsciously passed on in India, where the India family structure still exists” proved inaccessible in Scotland. The predominance of fragmented family structures in Britain may in part be responsible for such knowledge gaps, along with the extent of our throw away culture that discourages investment in repair. Our throw away habits are, at least in part, driven by an economic reality that places more value on our time, rather than the worth of our materials. As a result the commitment of time to the process of repair is difficult to balance with the diminished economic value the majority of our textiles face. “The importance of high skill in darning has survived because of the investment made in preserving precious textiles in India,” Priya explains. The trickle down benefit of demand for this work “keeps skills alive for ordinary textiles. The tradition of reusing, recycling and renewing old used fabrics passed on from one generation to another is the other reason why mending skills survive.”

The textiles that eventually emerged from the Huntly community for repair tended to be loaded with emotional value: a wedding dress from four generations past, for example, or personal garments such as a “father’s dressing gown, which bringing into the public domain is not a simple thing.” Australian curator Robyn Healy, in her proposal of an alternative value system for fashion and textiles within the museum context that is accepting of wear-and-tear, observes, “Clothing can cause apprehension, which is not experienced through the viewing of other artefacts.”[iii] The absent body looms large in our discarded garments; despair directed at the aging garment is often connected to uncomfortable reminders about the state of our own ever-changing bodies.

A further motivation for repair with the darners visiting Huntly stemmed from a desire to please the original maker, such as a garment originally crafted by a member of the family. Here Priya observed the “bonding and bridging of gaps” within local family units. “Inevitably the care and maintenance of clothes is critical to achieving standards of appearance, longevity of material assets and sustaining the ‘new’ look,” Healy writes.[iv] “This is certainly no simple undertaking. Historically it involved complex, time-consuming processes; cleaning, mending, plus putting clothes correctly away, in and out of storage.”[v] As a result, efforts by the Huntly community made on behalf of another to repair an ageing garment offer positive gestures of consideration and an increasingly uncommon evidence of sheer effort.

The crucial contribution the darners make to our textile futures lie in a simple threat: the historical Indian textiles risk being cut into pieces if not repaired. But Priya is quick to assert that textiles need more than repair, they also need to remain in circulation and use – not just fossilised in the museum context – for the darner’s tradition to continue. Value is a complex task to assign, and the darner’s perspective understandably defines progress as seeing their children move into different worlds of employment rather than continuing the darning tradition. While this future is difficult to predict, unexpected benefits for the present were found by the darners who travelled from India to Scotland and saw first hand “problems in Scotland never facing their own small towns”. This contrast has the potential to reveal a new perspective and importance to their work and a heightened sense of contribution within their own community.

Britain’s textile traditions have long been in danger of survival solely within the realm of the museum. “I expected to see things associated with linen when I arrived in Huntly,” Priya reflects with disappointment. “Nothing exists except past glories; things associated with textiles in museums.” Her perspective anticipates that the past helps to explain the future, but she clarifies that this involves “not only talking about past, but making it visible.” Her next residency will return to the darners local community to reflect upon the outcome of the last eight years of exposure. “Passing textile knowledge from one generation to other parts of life, still exists in our society,” Priya notes of current practice. “The work of the darners is a living tradition.” While darning as a skill is intended to be invisible on cloth, it is for the darners themselves to determine if the anonymity of their labours continues to be desired.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh
February 2012

[i] Priya Ravish Mehra, unpublished notes, September 15, 2011.
[ii] All other quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from Priya Ravish Mehra telephone interview with author, February 26, 2012.
[iii] Robyn Healy, “The Parody of the Motley Cadaver: Displaying the Funeral of Fashion”, The Design Journal, volume 11, issue 3, 2008: 259.
[iv] Healy: 262.
[v] Ibid.