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Profile No. 2: InDesCo – Indian Designers Collaboration

Updated: Jul 3, 2023



This month BIPOC in Fiber is looking at the work of InDesCo, the Indian Designers Collaboration. Formed in September 2019 by a small group of Indian fibre artists, InDesCo celebrates and showcases the work of Indian designers, who self publish patterns for knitting and crochet. However, before talking about how the group came about, I thought it might be nice to learn about the individual crafting journeys behind each member of the InDesCo organising team. Please be aware this article includes links to Ravelry, which in each case are highlighted [Ravelry link].


Meet the Designers


Kavitha Raman [Ravelry link] is a knitwear designer based in Campbell, California, USA. Although she doesn’t have a making background, she’s been crafting on and off since childhood, turning to it more seriously in 2007. Her earliest crafting memory from around ten years old is watching a neighbour make home decor items using plastic wires. After asking the neighbour to teach her, she recalls making the same items for her own home, then for her aunt. For several summers, while staying at her grandmother’s house, she and her cousins would teach each other paper, and plastic wire craft skills picked up from various sources, including school friends, TV shows and magazines. They were kept busy buying or re-purposing supplies and planning out each project, and it wasn’t until high school that a friend first introduced Kavitha to crochet. Using ‘crochet wire’ (similar to nylon/plastic clothesline), she started out crocheting lunch totes and small baskets but soon lost interest. Years later, when she saw a pregnant woman in a movie knitting a tiny sweater, the fibre craft bug struck for a second time. Needing relief from a stressful job in IT, Kavitha taught herself to knit from videos and tutorials posted on the internet. Her first design, the Adya Baby Hat [Ravelry link], was published in 2014.


Nidhi Kansal is a knitwear designer based in Mumbai, India. She comes from a family of crafters where her mother sewed a little and still does embroidery work while her grandmother and aunts were all avid knitters, something she didn’t know before she started knitting herself in 2005. She has always enjoyed working with her hands, and as a child, she used crafting to keep herself occupied, but as an adult only knitted more regularly after quitting her job in 2008.


The change came when she saw a couple of people knitting on the bus and at her place of work. In Nidhi’s own words, “Being skinny most of my life, I found it hard to get clothes that fit me. I would also feel cold very easily, at the slightest drop in temperature. That’s what first drew me to knitting. I wanted to make a sweater that would fit me just right! I enjoyed making slippers and socks too, anything that would keep me warm.” She published her first design, a free cowl pattern called Daisies in Pearl [Ravelry link], in March 2014.


Mary Renji is a crochet designer based in Mumbai, India. She first learned to crochet and


knit at the age of ten, but both took a backseat until she rediscovered them as hobbies many years later, turning to design in 2013. Memories of handcrafted beadwork in her grandmother’s house suggest Mary’s grandmother crafted in her youth, but it was one of her aunts who introduced her to crochet.


As someone who knitted and crocheted a lot, her aunt taught Mary basic stitches to keep her occupied when she visited. These skills fell by the wayside until 2012 when Mary left her job after giving birth to her daughter. During the many hours she spent in online baby forums, she noticed a lot of activity in a crochet group where talk of a website called Ravelry piqued her interest. She went to a nearby craft store, bought yarn and a crochet hook and has been hooked ever since.


Mary now designs only for crochet, and her first pattern, Give Into Fall [Ravelry link], was published in September 2015.

Mugdha Manasa [Ravelry link](Manasa) is a crochet and knit designer based in Bangalore, India. She first learned to knit as a teenager, only taking it up in earnest in 2011. While her mother wasn’t particularly interested in crafting, her paternal grandmother was an avid knitter. Unfortunately, however, she could not pass on these skills to Manasa as they lived far apart.

While studying at high school, Manasa asked her teacher, an avid knitter, to teach her the basics during a school break. Although she lived many miles away, the praise given to her grandmother’s creative knitting skills made her curious to learn, and Manasa was soon hand knitting vests for her father and brother. After a knitting lull that lasted a few years, during which she married and moved cities, Manasa found herself passing a yarn store while on a short city break. Drawn in by the bright colours, she bought yarn and needles, then headed back to her hotel room, where she started knitting again. Later, when she wanted to learn crochet, she decided to do a skills swap with a neighbour; Manasa taught her to knit, and she taught Manasa crochet.

When asked which is her preferred craft, the designer admits, “My first love is knitting, and I love the feel of knitting needles working together to create something ethereal and useful. However, when I really need to convert that vision in my head into something tangible quickly, crochet is what I pick up”.

Her first pattern, the Daybreak Scarf [Ravelry link], was published in 2018.


Jayalakshmi (Jaya) MH [Ravelry link] is a knitwear designer based in Hyderabad, India. As a child, her mother taught Jaya some knitting and crochet basics during summer vacation but admits she couldn’t do much more than crochet a nice long chain. However, when it came to knitting, Jaya clearly remembers making a brown garter stitch scarf and a mauve stockinette scarf, even carrying them to school to knit between classes.


It wasn’t until ten years ago that she picked up knitting and crochet again, and when it became clear it had become more of a passion than simply a pastime, she started designing too.


Jaya’s mother’s family is full of crafters, thanks mainly to her grandmother, who ensured all her sons and daughters knew how to knit, crochet and sew their clothes. Her mother still crochets regularly, while her uncle took up knitting again at the ripe old age of eighty, mainly to make handknits for his grandchildren, sons and daughters-in-law.


When asked which craft she prefers, Jaya chooses knit as she finds it meditative, particularly during periods of personal loss and trauma.

Her first design, the King Charles Brocade cowl designed for Knotions.com, was published in November 2016.


First seeds


Kavitha Raman started blogging in 2005 / 2006. She first learned about Ravelry [Ravelry link]—the fibre-based social networking site—from crochet designer Vimala Vignesh who encouraged Kavitha to sign up and also invited her to join the Ravelry South Asian Crafters [Ravelry link] group. Having connected online, a few women began to meet up at various coffee shops in Bangalore, but what Ravelry also offered was a chance to connect with fibre enthusiasts from other cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. It was through the Ravelry group that Kavitha came to know the work of Mary, Nidhi and Jaya while Manasa, another Bangalore based knitter, was already a friend; in fact, the two were practically neighbours. When the popularity of blogging began to slow the online buzz moved over to a new social media platform, Instagram, and it was from here that InDesCo grew. Or, as Kavitha herself puts it, “IndDesCo was born in the Instagram era”.


Each of the designers joined Instagram from around 2015 onwards and began creating content; in some cases to promote their designs, in others to share other pastimes such as photography and gardening. Only later did some of them realise how much it would enable them to interact directly with those looking to buy their patterns.



The birth of InDesCo


By 2019 the designers found they were interacting much less frequently on Ravelry as their use of Instagram increased. Mary and Nidhi got to know each other after meeting on Ravelry and were meeting regularly to chat about craft. It was during one of these meet-ups that they initially discussed collaborating. This meant testing the waters in many respects, but having already clicked as friends with similar design sensibilities, they knew there was a foundation on which they could build a working relationship. At the time there were lots of online conversations about the lack of BIPOC representation in the fibre industry which brought about a lot of new working relationships between large yarn companies, small indie dyers, tools makers and groups of indie designers. But while the two women already had a Ravelry group they were each used to releasing patterns to their own timeline and had never collaborated on a collection. So they came up with the idea of contacting a few other designers and developing work based on a common theme. They reached out to Kavitha, Jaya, Manasa, Vimala and Varsha of Viva Crochet and when each of them immediately said yes, InDesCo was born.


Coming out of a wonderfully organic process, nothing was set in stone. So rather than planning to produce a specific number of designs in a rigid timescale, it was more a case of ‘let’s see where this takes us’. It set them on a creative journey during which they were constantly discovering other Indian makers and soon the group grew from an initial group of six designers to twelve. Each edition or collection of InDesCo designs explores a theme that is chosen because it resonates with them as a collective of Indian designers. It means the work they produce speaks to the lived experience of each contributor. Mary Renji explains “I don’t think our format is a traditional format, where somebody is assembling and putting it out like a traditional magazine. All of us are in it together, we all release at the same time, on the same day and take accountability for what we are doing.”



Testing limits


The first edition, a collection of seven designs called Colours of Holi, was published in March 2020. Also known as the Festival of Colours, the Festival of Love, and the Festival of Spring, Holi is a predominantly Hindu festival celebrated by a number of faiths across India. Each design was promoted on the individual designer’s IG as well as the InDesCo Instagram, and what made the Instagram posts particularly interesting was the accompanying text explaining the significance of the colours, design names and motifs used within each design. The second edition, Monsoon Memoirs, published in September 2020 is a collection of twelve designs centred around India’s Monsoon season (Mazhaikaalam) which occurs between June and September. From identifying a theme and and organising photography to marketing the patterns; both collectively and as individual designers, every step of the creative process leading to the first edition tested the limits of the group. They found it a difficult but enriching experience. Jaya goes further, “We were all designers in different ways so when we all got together the flow of ideas that we had, the way we all pitched in to take up different activities, the whole planning stage it was fun. It was a rollercoaster ride. We almost pushed ourselves beyond our comfort zone.”


Having pushed even further with the second edition they are now looking forward to the third. A thorough, collective approach to producing work, themes that hold cultural or religious significance, it all helps to give the work of InDesCo a real sense of place.

What’s also key is that the group has achieved all this virtually. Having never met in person, Zoom, Ravelry, and Instagram have all enabled the designers to connect and collaborate but more powerful is the intangible connection that bonds them as Indian crafters. There’s a shorthand, a shared experience that Mary sums up, “Being Indians, a lot of things we understand about each other…we don’t have to say it. We know.”


‘The conversation’


I asked how the group found discussions regarding racism in craft and how they felt Indian designers have been represented in the fibre industry, if at all. Speaking very broadly, as Indians living within India, hearing about the racism experienced by those living in predominantly white spaces they were wary of contributing to those conversations. Why? Because they felt adding their voices might be overstepping. That’s despite having to navigate the inevitable barrage of microaggressions themselves whenever they choose to travel abroad on holiday or business trips. It was difficult to hear their friends pouring their hearts out. Nidhi speaks for herself, “There is a feeling of overstepping because these are lived experiences. These are people who have faced it (racism) very directly. We live in a country where we have our own issues but it may not be the same as what they’re facing. While I understood what was being shared it felt a little out of place to jump in and say I haven’t been heard”. Kavitha agrees, “I didn’t feel it was my place to speak out immediately. But the need is to try and educate ourselves of the happenings around us first”.


So living in a country with many cultural differences they could empathise quite naturally but as Jaya explains the notion of referring to themselves as ‘people of colour’ was a new one. “I call myself an international knitwear designer because my work is published in international magazines, like everyone else. We all publish on Ravelry which makes us all international designers, but the whole notion that ‘here’s an Indian designer’ has really come out in the last couple of years”.


For Manasa, as an Indian dyer living in India, most of her clientele is Indian and the small number of international customers she’s had since her first Etsy shop, have always been loyal. Before becoming a designer she worked as a garment test knitter on Ravelry and her interactions with people abroad were friendly and positive. As she explains, “There were people in the US, there were people in Finland and they were all equally nice to me. At no point of time did I face anything in terms of racism either overt or covert. They respected me for the work I did, I respected them for the fact they gave me yarn and they trusted me to make it nicely for them”. She goes on,“I can only understand to a point but I can’t relate to it completely because I don’t have a lived experience”.


As designers they’ve had to adjust to new interest as more attention is paid to the work of non-white crafters working with fibre. Coming together as InDesCo has helped to highlight them as designers but being referred to by their ethnicity rather than their preferred craft, doesn’t sit easily with them. Each woman designs because she has a deeply held love of knitting, design and craft.


Representation


Since ‘the conversation’ Kavitha feels there have been times when addressing BIPOC representation seemed like a box ticking exercise. But, she admits the outcome can be positive-if a little uncomfortable-when it brings more attention to the work of non-white crafters. “I don’t like to put myself as Indian out there. I don’t like to put myself as POC out there but now we’re using hashtags like #asiansdoknit, #indianknitters, we’re at least trying to understand and place ourselves somewhere on the map”. Kavitha adds “it helps others to know they’re not alone”. It’s also worth mentioning their skepticism when each designer sees a sudden increase in their social media following. That’s when the inevitable question arises, are the new followers coming because their faces are brown or because their work is of merit? As for the #asianknitters hashtag there’s a huge misconception that Indian designers aren’t included. When I asked why, Mary responded, ”I noticed it most when I lived in the US for a year. They would be like ‘she’s Asian’ and I’d say, ‘I’m Asian too’, and they’d say, ‘no you’re Indian, she’s Asian”. She laughs, slightly exasperated and we all agree that having to describe herself as ‘Indian Asian’ for those who don’t consider India as part of the Asian continent is an odd clarification to make.


The future


So what lies ahead for this collective? And what could the fibre industry do, in real terms to help them, both as a collective and individual fibre artists? As a collective, InDesCo is trying to bring in lots more Indian designers, so amplifying their voices will help them reach a wider audience and it’s certainly something that we at BIPOC in Fiber will continue to do. Once again Mary sums it up well, “our designs are not the traditional designs, we have our own skillset which is unique to us”.


The upcoming third collection of designs, The Taj Mahal edition will feature work by many more new designers, in fact they had such a good response to their call for submissions, they couldn’t accommodate them all. As experienced designers they know what it’s like to go through the creative process; from design submission and grading, to sample production and tech editing, they’ve actively encouraged submissions from first time designers who will be guided as they take those first creative steps. They deliberately want to move forward slowly in order to make the collection more inclusive, with better representation of Indian designers in the global fibre industry. That really matters to them.


It’s also important that InDesCo isn’t seen as just another ‘POC project’. It’s a fallacy that the Indian subcontinent is all Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire, the Goa hippy trail or that Indian people don’t knit. They do, in fact they knit throughout the year. InDesCo’s collections speak to the real Indian experience and working collectively they uplift makers in their community who are doing some truly creative and beautiful work. While they’ve realised that producing two editions a year isn’t sustainable, the good news is that the framework is in place for edition three. As Nidhi says, “It’s happening”.


You can keep up with InDesCo on Instagram here.


InDesCo edition three, The Taj Mahal edition is due out, August 2021.

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