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The Rugmaking Life: Lessons from William Morris

Once upon a time in the Industrial Revolution, a minority group were disturbed by the sinking of public taste, style and craftsmanship, prompting them to start what we now know as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Among them was designer William Morris. William Morris' iconic wallpaper company continues to amaze, but to me the legacy that deserves greater attention is his thoughts on purposeful work, connecting with nature, what makes a good economy and what makes us humans happy.

Morris may have lived in the Industrial Revolution, yet the ills of his time ring true to this very day. His solutions might then be the same answers we seek. Morris felt that the antidote to the declining social, moral and artistic standards of the day is the "diligent study of Nature". He believed that art of his current age was inferior, and encouraged artisans to take inspiration from the past.

By examining the medieval concept of the guild - where craftspeople were bound by high standards of workmanship and art was a way to glorify God with their skills - Morris noticed that when everyone fulfils themselves to their abilities, quality of life is enhanced. Artistic activity can be a force for good in society.

I stumbled upon William Morris through a series of videos called The Curriculum by The School of Life. I highly recommend you watch all of them. Brilliant, poignant and brief, the videos contain what I wish I learned in school: neither irrelevant, distant fact about historical figures nor doing guesswork on what brilliant thinkers' ideas really mean for us. School of Life puts in a clear straightforward way the lessons that we ought to apply right now to help ourselves, understand other people, and perhaps change the world. The struggle is real, but we need not feel alone. We can be grateful to past civilisation for progressing the human quest of answering life's biggest questions. Craft offers important clues to what we actually want from work. We want to know we've done something good with the day, that our efforts have counted towards tangible outcomes, that we actually see and feel worthwhile.

Thoughts of Morris ran through my mind during my long visit to the rugmaking workshop.

I arrive in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India. The workshop is quiet. Spinners, weavers, and carvers were taking their nap near the half-finished rug they were working on. I was scheduled to arrive earlier, but was distracted by the fun of eating at Indian 'dhabas', roadside eateries catering to truck drivers transporting goods in this massive landlocked country.

Despite my presence, the workers are not prompted to entertain me. They demonstrate the rugmaking process only after their due rest. I feel good knowing that this third-generation business looks after their workers' welfare. Our jolly host Vaibhav takes us around the workshop. Be it the spinner or the quality control worker, there is a sense of pride when they explain to me (with Vaibhav's translation) their task in completing a rug.

Every rug starts with good quality sheep's wool. The wool comes in various shades of cream, brown and gray. Some rug designs such as Elan deliberately use undyed wool. Natural colours exude a relaxed atmosphere, made more popular by cosy Nordic/Scandinavian homes. It also is an eco-friendly way of rugmaking, as it eliminates heavy water usage typically involved with dyeing.

When it comes to coloured rugs however, the workshop we source from are dedicated to dyeing processes that are kinder to the environment. Water used for dyeing is treated and reused in the next batches.

A cotton canvas is stretched over a wooden frame. The craftsman traces a pattern on to the canvas. The entire canvas is then set vertically to start the hand-tufting process.

Following the pattern, the rugmaker applies thick threads of wool. From behind, one sees a design forming albeit flat. The other side reveals a more recognisable feature of the rug - lengths of wool 2 cm thick begin to form.

Tufting a rug can take days even for the most skilled rugmaker. These ladies were working on a rug so large they have to climb up a ladder and stand on a ledge suspended a couple of meters in the air then continue moving side to side across the width of the rug!

On the front side, the tufted rug is trimmed to its desired thicknesses. Stray wool gets snipped out. Certain designs such as the Atlas are highlighted by cutting deep grooves across the wool surface. This method akin to carving creates a varied height for a 3D effect, and in Marrakech, emphasizes the pattern.

"Any decoration is futile ... when it does not remind you of something beyond itself". - William Morris

The rug perimeter is secured by stitching remaining yarns.

Finally, the cotton canvas at the back of the rug is smeared with latex. Latex protects the rug and also prevents the rug from slipping.

Looking for that perfect rug for your home can be fascinating. If you examine each design closely, two rugs made of wool might look different. One way they may differ is due to the construction method. The click-clack of a weaving loom is perhaps the most familiar process that comes to one's mind on the topic of fabrics. Using a handloom creates a different effect from tufting.

We explore new materials, such as viscose used in Moonshadow. Viscose has a lustrous effect similar to silk. When brushed in a certain direction, it appears to change colour, the way suede or velvet behaves.

Cotton can also be a great material to make rugs with. After all, they're what summer clothes are made of. Once dipped in dye, cotton is hung out to dry. The sun fastens its colour.

Cotton is the material of choice when it comes to kids' rugs. The rugmaker can make them turn out in soft pastels or vibrant hues like the Acapulco

Our planet is, at least for the moment, capable of providing all of us comfort through basic needs. The tough part is the proper distribution of our planet's resources and wise use of them. That's why we encourage repurposing excess materials from other fabric industries. Grand Bazaar is made of cotton clothing. Vivian comes from denim factories. Benares is an assembly of scraps of the famed Benares silk saris. 

One cannot imagine the infinite number of ways a rug is constructed. After tufting, the Riviera design undergoes a process of screen printing.

It takes two to carry a print large enough for a rug!

A rugmaker's workshop is full of artifacts that communicate their daily life. During their lunch break, I had the chance to snoop around. I noticed this man used a cushion he made from spare leather strips to provide him comfort as he works the sewing machine.

William Morris supported the medieval concept of craft because he observed that with craft, the worker develops sensitivity and skill, and enjoys the labor.

There is much more than fabric that goes into a handmade rug. Human hands leave a bit of love, dedication, life story and soul into their work. Just like a mechanized chair is never a substitute for a good old massage, the touch of another human being revives our spirit.

William Morris' observations teach us that we collectively need to get clearer about what we really want in our lives and why, and how much certain things are going to be worth to us. The economy is built upon our choices and preferences. When we learn to want better things, the world will also create better things. 

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