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Backpacker or a textile explorer

Textile adventure

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Ritika Mittal

Ritika Mittal's saris are a smorgasbord of influences. The yarn is from the north, the weave from the North-east, the embroidery from Kutch. The results are always bright and stunning.

She travels with a backpack and lives in a hut by the Brahmaputra, washes her own clothes and doesn't have electricity for most of the year. But Ritika Mittal crafts one-of-a-kind saris - under the brand name Mora - which fly off her website within a week.

Mittal travels in the villages of the north-east for about nine months a year looking for rare weaves to combine with Andhra Pradesh's kalamkari, Odisha's ikat, Rajasthan's block prints, Maharashtra's khand and Kutchi embroidery. The result is bright, stunning saris that are elegant, completely organic and rather expensive but very much in demand even though she only sells her creations for two months in the year.

"I make just 100 to 200 pieces every year, and this year everything was gone between August 1 and 7. I'm in no hurry to produce and sell, I don't intend to sell through stores. My idea is to work with the weaving communities, nurture and revitalise their skills, " says Mittal, who turned 29 last month.

The Mora story started about four years ago when Mittal, then a television producer, was getting married. "All the saris looked the same - shiny, big borders, power loom-produced stuff, " she says. She decided to design her own sari with mulmul and a few other handloom-spun cotton fabrics. "People loved it. It made me think I have some talent though I have no formal training, " she says.

In April 2009, she made a trip to Ladakh and says she had her epiphany at a women's weaving centre. "I found textiles fascinating and knew I had to work with handmade weaves, " she says. Back in Mumbai, she designed nine saris - scribbles and scrawls on paper bundled up with fabric - and sent them to her mother in Jalalabad, Punjab. Madhu Mittal found a tailor to transform the doodles into six yards of handcrafted saris. The basic business model remains the same - Ritika travels the country picking up fabric, mixes and matches them, and Madhu works with four tailors in Jalalabad to create saris, dupattas and skirts that are priced between Rs 3, 000 and Rs 1. 5 lakh.

"I put those first nine saris on Facebook and someone in Vizag bought eight immediately for her boutique, " says Mittal. "Then I realised I didn't want my saris to reach people who had no idea about the story behind each one. " So she decided to sell only to individuals through her own website.

In 2010, she made a trip to the North-east on an impulse and discovered its weaves. "Most of the weavers have forgotten the old methods because they work with synthetic yarn which is cheaper and easily available, " she says. Mittal decided to provide communities with cotton and eri silk yarn so that they could revive the old methods of weaving. Much of her savings this year have gone into buying 1, 200 kg of pure cotton yarn from south India. "It's about bringing back cotton weaving. Some of the patterns are so intricate that it takes a couple of years to finish a length, " she says. Mittal, who lives and works with 23 families in the North-east, pays the weavers by the day and documents their work. Buyers, who have become friends, track her adventures on her blog.

Her designs usually feature the richly embroidered Naga and Khasi weaves as borders and fabrics such as eri silk, chanderi and kalamkari. "People use backstrap looms in the North-east and weave wraparounds so the width of the material is not more than 18 inches. It's not enough for a sari so I combine them with other fabrics, " she says. Mittal herself has just started learning to weave on these traditional bamboo looms.

"It's quite hard, " she says, laughing. "I have learnt so much about textiles from the makers themselves;it's a better education than any institution could have given me. "

This year, she had a two-day exhibition in Bangalore where she met each buyer and told them about the motifs and the weaver who made it. "Each motif represents something of nature or life in the North-east. This year, I sent handwritten letters with every sari that I sold on my site, " she says. "I love each piece I make and I want them to reach houses that will love them, " she says.

She has countered floods, nearfatal stomach infections, blockades and curfews during her search for traditional weaves but Mittal says it doesn't bother her. "This is love for me so I have no doubts, no fear. I'm a backpacker looking for cloth, " says Mittal. "I am the mad textile explorer. "

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