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ILAMRA: Reviving Kalamkari Block Printing

A critical part of sustainability is reviving cultural practices.

In a generation focused on new technology and efficiency, we crave the slowness and intentionality behind ancient forms of textile and print making.

Kalamkari is one such practice that I have been mesmerized by and has only a few craft communities practicing its true form. Many Kalamkari prints you see today are mass produced and machine made, which has put Kalamkari artists out of work.

That is why when I learned about Ilamra a brand by Trishala and Yashila I was excited to hear about how they were incorporating Kalamkari block printing into everyday silhouettes.

I knew immediately that their Kalamkari lehenga would be perfect for my cousin's mehendi. And let me tell you many people were in love with it's elegance and sparkle from the mirrors to the intricate designs. Here I am in conversation with Ilamra on kalamkari and the importance of artisanship!

I would love to learn about the conception and journey of your brand!

ILAMRA started as a conversation between the two of us - Trishala and Yashila back in 2017. Born in a household of people who got creative with everything around them - old saris, empty cardboard boxes and food leftovers, thinking creatively came naturally to us and with it the zeal to do something around it. We both knew we would definitely end up working in the creative professions but just did not know exactly what it would be and when.

In one such conversation in 2017 around being inspired and our impeccable sync - we decided to start a lifestyle magazine together as we both enjoy reading and writing alike (not without the confidence that we had unique offerings to give to the world). After a couple of sessions together - we shifted our plans and decided to make clothing instead. Owing to the multiple dupatta draping days as kids, upcycling mom and aunt’s saris to make brand-new heritage lehengas, playing mix-match, a reflection of our skill-sets and things of such ilk. ILAMRA is the intersection of our memories, inspiration, and passion - to make an impact, in whatever capacity the universe allows us to.

While the idea was conceived in 2017, our current line of work with traditional Kalamkari hand block printing only came out in January 2019.

What are your ethos and mission as a brand?

Thinking of it, it occurs that Trishala and I have always tried to achieve more with less. For example, the limitations of using natural dyes are plenty - one there is only a maximum of 7-8 colour variants that are possible, two is the lengthy process involved in printing using natural dyes. In spite of these limitations (especially of colour) we seem to be really happy with the kind of prints we’ve developed and the mix-match we have done with the overall patterns in order to make each piece look as vibrant as it can be.

This brings us to a core brand value which is to break the stereotype that sustainable fashion is associated with - earthy tones and anti-fit silhouettes. Our breakthrough with this value is evidently visible with the bold Morse Code print in different colours.

Another point of mention under the umbrella of ‘doing more with less’ is with regards to how we funded the brand. We bootstrapped all the way and we're always looking for ways to get the best results with lesser budgets. This initial need has now become a fundamental fashion in how we operate as a business.

You work with artisans in Pedana, Andhra Pradesh, what is that collaborative process like?

The first thing we’d like to say is, “We got so lucky with our unit!”

We absolutely commend their passion and dedication to the craft. We earnestly try to imbibe the same level of commitment - and are happy to report that we do in fact make a difference to the unit, socially and financially as well as are providing our clients with the best-in-quality garments.

We have been in association with the artisans in Pedana for about 3.5 years now. The daily collaborative process involves making fabric orders (we work on a made-to-order basis i.e., we operate on a no-inventory model and place fabric orders only when we receive an order), sending them out, and tracking the printing-washing process.

Although the interesting part within the collaborative process is discussing print ideas, the scope for new colour developments, ideating future collections, and business development plans - for us and the unit alike.

Why are practices like Block printing and Kalamkari central to your design philosophy?

Through a fortunate confluence of chance and choice, we were approached by a non-profit organization 1M1B back in the day - who introduced to us the idea of working with the artisans in Pedana.

One train ride, three bus rides, and two auto rides later - we reached Pedana, a small, typical South Indian village in Andhra Pradesh. The open and spacious unit was a welcome breath to our tired but very hopeful and excited souls. The unit in Pedana is vastly enveloped by background sounds from synchronous block printing beats, cows mooing, and family cheer. With beach-sand floors, a slow-paced work culture, third-generation artisans making conversation, brilliantly printed indigo-dye paisley fabrics swaying freely in the breeze and dappled sunlight, there is a culture of non-hurriedness and ease that the Kalamkari unit - the only one in the world that practices the craft with the use of natural dyes, promotes amongst its workers, themselves and the people they work with. We instantly knew that we were going to be working with this unit.

We have to say it has more to do with the opportunity to revive and contribute to a dying craft - especially taking into consideration that we come from South India and Kalamkari is predominantly a South Indian craft.

What natural dyes do you use in your collections.

Kalamkari hand block printing with natural dyes is a seven-step process. The fabric is soaked in milk and water for three days, bleached in a paste of myrobalan nuts that are sourced from foothills, printed with dyes prepared from pomegranate peel, bits of iron and jaggery, madder roots, and ingredients of this ilk, washed in the River Krishna, dried on sandy floors and sundried to crispy perfection.

What is in our dyes?

Iron + Jaggery fermented over 21 days in a mud pot = Black

Indigo Cakes + Natural Gum = Indigo

Myrobalan Flower = Yellow

Catechu (Katha) Powder = Brown

Some interesting natural dye facts:

Did you know that the dye prepared from the bark of a tree that is 15 years old translates to a darker shade of the dye than a dye prepared from a tree that is 7 years old? Did you also know that the temperature of the river changes the hue of the same colour when washed? Did you know that the pink dye when printed onto the fabric is initially orange in colour - which changes to a beautiful blush pink when washed and dried?

What is your goal as a brand?

The larger goal is to be a one-stop-shop for all things sustainable in the lifestyle segment. It is also to be that company that is synonymous with the tag - ‘Best brand to buy sustainable clothing’ from and also to be that brand that makes some very cool content.


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