The web of Sally Campbell’s work may be just as intricate as the crafts she commissions. Dividing her life between Sydney and South Asia, it is like she has walked to the ends of the earth to find each craft she works with.
The artisans come from Bangladesh, Calcutta, Delhi, Gujarat, Hyderabad and Rajasthan. Their skills, drawing on the rich textile heritage belonging to each region, include block print, embroidery, natural dye, shibori, stitching, tie and dye and weaving.
They are men and women - Hindu and Muslim, modern and traditional - all working from environments as rich and varied as mother India herself. From concrete bunkers, to the desert, to thatched huts with hand painted walls, they bring together Sally’s modern interpretation of each traditional textile technique. Culture, language, distance and extreme heat weave further complexity into the mix.
“My aim is to get good quality work," explains Sally. "Nine years ago, when I first started, I was very naïve and didn’t know anything. I had worked in film in India, so I was put onto some people and I went from there. One thing went to another, from block printing to applique, so over a period of years I have tapped into this fabulous group of artisans,” says Sally.
“These artisans work with different people. Some work with lots of people, others don’t. I am the only Westerner that some of them work with, whereas others deal with lots of Westerners and are more savvy when it comes to our taste.”
“I am quite unusual because I am a designer that works directly with artisans," sally clarifies. "Big companies use a 'fixer', someone who finds all contacts for them. The designers meet the fixer, the fixer tells them where to go and they go and choose something. Or they give their designs to the fixer, who then gets them all made up. So it is like this big quality control way of doing business and takes a huge amount of headache away from doing it all. But these companies do not get to work with each artisan; they just do it through big companies. I can’t do that, because you have to put in big orders. Without realising it, I have chosen a pretty hard task.”
But one that she relishes. Constantly chewing on everything she has seen and learnt, she usually leaves Australia with a vague idea of what her next collection of quilts, throws, table cloths, towels and curtains will be. Block print designs will be drawings, ready to be carved by the block master, always with the added option of using his blocks, should one catch her eye.
Colours for her natural dye pieces are also in Sally’s mind, ready for the age old process of making brown from onion, saffron yellow from turmeric, green from pomegranate skins and “that gorgeous earthy rust” from the bark and leaves of eucalyptus trees.
The process is more fluid for the other crafts she uses, particularly Sally’s woven quilts and vintage throws. “With weaving, I always know the colours that I want to use, and the stitches, but I work the borders out when I am in India. The working environment is incredibly inspiring and I get all sorts of ideas from seeing the different weaving techniques when I am there.”
“The loom can take a month to thread, and then you also have to do a minimum of fabric. It takes years and years to train the weavers in Bengal my kind of work, because they are used to doing something totally different. You also have to make sure you give them regular work, because then they know they know they will be getting regular money… it is a responsibility you take on.”
Admitting that improved domestic flight and mobile phones have made her work easier, Sally also credits a good diet, driver, translator and lots of water as some of her secret weapons in a country where "nothing ever goes to plan". As well as these tips, all gleaned during her 25 year former career as a film designer, she sings the praises of a comfortable abode to retire to each evening, well away from the frenetic Indian streets.
Her husband, a documentary film maker and constant travel companion, pulls together three or four packed itineraries each year with almost military precision, both drawing on the lifetime of skill they have accumulated to plan well, stay flexible and nimbly respond to the unexpected. “My experience working in feature films was brilliant because there is a lot of spontaneity required and I was extremely experienced in going from one place to another and not being phased by it. If there were problems, you can solve them on the spot, rather than getting freaked out,” Sally explains.
So why? Apart from the beauty Sally finds in each object she designs, from the travel and adventure, and ability to work and live creatively this amazing business of choice affords her, why does Sally weave this intricate and relentless web?
“Because these objects are total treasures and a rare luxury. I consider that you can personally treasure a handmade object – tremendous delight and inspiration can come from creating something special and rewarding. Handmade is always very unique and needs to be kept alive. The whole world is becoming the same with mass production. I am making an alternative for a small minority that are very special to me” says Sally.
“I have got a creative gene and I am also very optimistic. I love every day of my life and try and make it something special, no matter what I do – with food, with exercise, with seeing friends. Most of the day goes into working because it [work] takes so much time and it is very hard to keep a good balance – but I do put a lot into everything because I have very high ideals. And it is important for me – I am a perfectionist.”
And perfection her work is. We all know that there is a plethora of cheaply made hand dyed, printed, woven and stitched textiles available from India, where many people are genuinely desperate to "earn a buck" as Sally puts it. Sally has made hers a very different journey, where the quality of the work and the skill of the maker determines every other step in the making chain. This choice has a wonderfully creative and flamboyant woman, nearing her seventies, running around the world. In the process, the life of each traditional technique has been extended for just that little bit longer.
Images Sally Campbell Handmade Designs