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A silk story to dye for

Thomas Wardle in a late 19th-century family photo; Brenda King (below), the chair of The Textile Society, UK, at ICCR in Calcutta. Picture by Sanjoy Ghosh

An Englishman’s contribution to the Indian silk industry is woven into 15 bound volumes, containing 10 shades on each page dyed on strips of silk and encased in two pieces of cardboard.

The Thomas Wardle documents, preserved at the Indian Museum for over 120 years, comprise one of three sets and possibly the only extant one in which the master dyer and printer documented his arduous experiments with Indian wild silk and dyestuff.

“These samples, over 4,000 of them, are the sixth installment of his experiments. Imagine how many thousands preceded these,” exclaims Brenda King, who has spent 15 years researching the life of the man who perfected the dyeing of tussar using natural dye indigenous to India. The chair of The Textile Society, UK, is in town for a textile conference and exhibition, organised by the NGO Sutra, which is allowing visitors a glimpse of three volumes of the Wardle documents, on display at ICCR till February 24.

The English textile market in the 19th century saw an influx of mechanical printing and aniline dyes, which faded in light and bled when washed. So the man, who ran a family business of dyeing, started to test traditional dyes on different fibres from the early 1860s at his Hencroft Works in Leek, 30 miles south of Manchester.

Then he turned to tussar. “The Indian dyers were the best in the business but they could not make the dye fix on tussar, the main variety among wild silks.” The Marquis de Salisbury, then secretary of state for India, suggested that Wardle help out. Thus, in the 1870s, started unending nights of experiment, in which he used traditional Indian dyestuff on not just tussar but also wool, cotton and other silks. Over eight years, he produced his 82-page Report on the Dyes and Tans of India.

“He was the first to treat the yarn in a way it could accept any dye. The result of his experiments, creating thousands of shades, was the first document on Indian dyes. Most importantly, he believed in sharing his knowledge,” King says.

Wardle worked to open the world market to Indian silk. “He published his findings, gave lectures and visited France, Germany and Italy with his samples to convince silk buyers to invest in Indian raw material.”

In 1885, Wardle came to India, meeting dyers in villages and discussing his methods with them. “He addressed a conference in Calcutta. While he was here, his manuscript of the examination of Indian dyes arrived from the India Office in London, with an order to be printed in Calcutta. On this trip, he also collected samples from across the country for the Colonial and India exhibition in London the year after which would draw massive attention to Indian silk.

“Wild silk was twice as strong as ordinary silk and France was so interested that Indian suppliers struggled to meet the demand. In England, silk threads were needed for embroidery. Wardle’s wife started an embroidery society, for which she stitched on top of the patterns he dyed.”

Wardle would do more for India. “He had heard that Kashmir silk industry was in the doldrums. In 1903 — he was 72 and his wife was dead — he drove a tonga in the snow to reach the state where he would reinvigorate the local industry with his inputs.”

Many English churches, says King, bear an India connection thanks to Wardle and his collaboration with William Morris. “Morris came to Wardle to learn how to dye and persuaded him to start printing too. Wardle learnt about colours from the artist. Many churches in our part of England have clothes with Indian patterns printed on Indian silk on the altar.”

In 2009, on Wardle’s death centenary, she curated four exhibitions in the UK. “Last year, we had another one in Leek and in 2015, Victoria & Albert Museum is holding a big show on Indian textiles in London.” She is happy that the Wardle documents in Calcutta have been digitised after an appeal to environment minister Jairam Ramesh.

After Calcutta, the Kings would be off to Jaipur where some Wardle printed textile pieces have been discovered. “The man went out of history. I am trying to write him back in again,” she smiles.