Rethinking the definition of “waste” is central to textile designer Kamala Murali’s work. Beginning with off cuts from factories in her native India, Kamala improvises her designs depending on what materials are available on any given day. Kamala keeps these materials out of the waste stream while creating richly colorful quilts, each a unique expression of her innate design sense.
Why textiles? How did you get started?
I’ve always been fascinated by design, especially interior design. From a very young age, I would visit my father’s wood workshop (he runs a furniture and interior business). I could see blocks of wood being transformed into custom furniture. I remember helping him choose upholstery for any extra pieces that would end up in our home. I’ve also been fortunate to have travelled in India and around the world at a very young age; I think visiting museums, historical sites, art galleries and local shops helped shape my aesthetic language.
When I went to design school in Bangalore, a trial two-week course in textiles inspired me to design textiles. The two-year program was practice-led, and I began to enjoy the versatility of various dyeing, weaving and printing techniques.
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But the real turning point was during a course in print-making. It was there I stumbled across a second-hand cloth market in Bangalore. People brought reams of cloth and bags of scrap to this market to sell as “waste”. I bought some scrap home and began experimenting. I used heat-press methods to mold them into various shapes and forms. And I made holes in the cloth by burning. The first products I made using these experimented scraps were fridge magnets in the shape of animals!
From then on, I began to think about using scrap material seriously. In 2011; no one was really talking about upcycling as yet. And so I worked with a fashion house in Mumbai for my graduation project; I experimented with their studio scrap and came up with new ways to manipulate scrap. I started to gently push the boundaries of surface manipulation to ask the question: is waste really waste? This project won a commendation certificate at graduation.
Today, I work with techniques like patchwork, appliqué and quilting, methods that traditionally use and re-use scrap fabrics. I also find inspiration in the challenge of transforming “waste” into contemporary objects that are luxurious and one-of-a-kind, thereby transforming our understanding of the potential of surplus and discarded fabrics.
What inspires you to create?
My aesthetic language is driven by a deep affinity for colour. I see so much colour around me in India, so I’m always inspired to bring colours together in novel ways. I live in Chennai (formerly Madras) and take lots of pictures of the city for my mood boards; it is from here that I draw colour. The quintessential lanes around the Temple Tank in Mylapore, for example – a bustling neighborhood in the heart of the city – are always full of colour and movement. Ladies in sarees rush about stalls of fresh flowers and fruit, and any and everything that you may ever want. The calmer beachside in the evenings presents a beautiful seascape of blue and brown against the setting sun. The city’s tangible and intangible textures are what inspire me to see colour in new ways.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Improvisation is a big part of my work as a quilter! When I sit down to design, the creative process is experimental in nature. I choose a colour or fabric and build my quilt from there. Since I work with available material in the form of discarded and surplus fabrics, there is already the challenge of designing in a spontaneous manner from what is available in front of you. But when you have a small business that works with a resource that has its limitations, there is an element of planning that I incorporate into my everyday work that helps keep the business running. This could be planning products or colourways in advance. But the design – the actual positioning of colour in a composition – is always improvised.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Through my textiles, I show that it is possible to upcycle “waste” into luxury. Viewers can reconsider how they perceive “waste”, redefining luxury when thinking about and acting in the face of climate crisis.
I also find that my work is driven by a simplicity of form and colour; both are easy and difficult to achieve at the same time! So I start with a lot and keep minimizing the elements of a design until I find balance, symmetry, cohesiveness and visual harmony.
When many of us think of recycling materials, we think of post-consumer products, such as thrift store garments or vintage linens. How are the materials for Kambli different and how do you source them? How do you organize them once you have them?
I source industry surplus and scrap material. I purchase pre-consumer textiles from retail shops, export houses and design studios in the city. There is a lot of pre-consumer fabric “waste”, so I’m glad that there are other designers in India who are also discovering this source of cloth. I manually go through cloth sacks, pick out what I can possibly use, and then sort them colour-wise into bins. The remaining fabric goes back into the system to other design studios that use them as stuffing or into the local recycling industry.
Tell us about your design process. How does a new work come to be? Do you have a team that helps you?
My design process is instinctive, explorative and relies heavily on improvisation. I like improvisation as a method of textile-making because working with one’s hands is very much about self-expression and its relation to the tactile nature of textiles. So I love to develop designs very much in the moment.
A typical day would start by looking through the fabrics and putting together a fabric mood board, keeping colour centerstage. I then wash the fabrics (even the bits) and let them dry in the sun. I start visualizing colour at the center of the design, so I start my patchwork process there. Then I continue building the textile, patch by patch, until I feel the design is complete. I then hand over these textiles to my tailor or my longarmer, who help in finishing the products. Lastly, the products come back to me for finishing touches: quilt binding, attaching labels and getting it ready for retail.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I work out of a studio space in my home. Since it’s quite small at the moment, I have to keep my work place very neat, so I primarily have a large desk where most of the work (cutting, sewing etc.) happens, and I keep my fabric bins in cupboards. I use the floor space to assemble the textiles as they grow and to lay the finishing touches on the quilts.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Since I’m a quilt beginner, I have picked up only a few tools along the way that I’ve learnt are indispensable. But I’ll say that I find it difficult to do patchwork without an ironing box! I make sure all my seams are pressed down as I go. This makes the textile sit well, and ensures that there are clean, flat lines on the front.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
For me, patchwork is like journaling actually! I try and do a patch a day, so I always have little pieces floating around my work place that I often leave and come back to later. They’re like a visual journey through cloth, and each is an expression of that day’s mood. I pin them to my “quilt wall”, (which is the back of a door!) or my soft board, so I’m looking at them at all times.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I listen to podcasts a lot. My favourites are Desert Island Discs, You’re Wrong About and 99% Invisible. On my music playlist I’ve currently got Sudan Archives, Glass Animals, Adele and Prateek Kuhad.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I hope to show that beauty can emerge from materials that are culturally considered “waste”. That way we may try to eliminate the concept of “waste” by showing that everything can have value in some form or the other. Textiles are so much a part of our everyday lives that we can actually start to rethink about what we buy, how we use it, how we can repair it and, most importantly, how beautiful upcycled objects can actually look and feel.
Check out Kambli Etsy store.
Interview posted December 2021
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