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A Colorful and Eco-friendly Statement with Indian Textiles: Kambli Studio

A Colorful and Eco-friendly Statement with Indian Textiles: Kambli Studio

Hands up for those who have ever wanted to figure out how to use leftover scrap materials to make colorful and eco-friendly things that are kinder to the environment? Well, have we got a gift for you because Kamala Murali of Kambli Studio in Chennai, India, has been doing just that and candidly walks us through her inspiration, process, and more!

As an extension of our talk with Kamala about her connection to the city of Chennai, we spoke with her about her design process: from gathering scrap materials around the city of Chennai, preparing them for production, designing by doing, and believing in your work. Her stories reveal a deep appreciation for the handmade and the ways heritage textiles are an ongoing inspiration to her practice. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is as follows.

Kamala Murali of Kambli Studio shows you how to use leftover scrap materials to make colorful and eco-friendly things that are kinder to the environment
Light sketching and planning go into the creation of Kamala’s work for kambli, whether for a quilt or pillow. Often the size of the leftover fabrics that she sources around Chennai determines the final application. | Photographs courtesy of Kamala Murali.

A process grounded in community exchange

K+C — Hi Kamala! It’s so nice to speak with you today. I want to talk to you about the material and process aspects of kambli. First, how do you typically get started on a project?

So what I do, is I have found a couple of regional shops that have a lot of surplus fabric, so every couple of months, I visit them, and I purchase the fabric from them. These are all fabrics that are pre-consumer, so they’re not used. They’re not like discarded shirts or pants, none of that. So they’re all pre-consumer and straight off the roll, but they’re all in pretty small bits — like a meter to five meters, sometimes even really tiny. Of course, I also go to many other shops that have smaller bits that they just sort of cut away from, like making a top or making a pant, so those are also much smaller bits, but they’re also pre-consumer. 

There’s a really nice system in Chennai where the scrap that I don’t need; I already know a couple of other brands that use them in different ways — as stuffing, or they make much smaller items than I make — so I pass it on to them, and if they don’t like anything than they pass it on to me. It’s a kind of sharing with each other.

K+C — From a tailor or seamstress or something?

Yea, exactly, and oh my god, the amount of scrap is insane! I mean, it’s crazy! So, I try and sort of refine it once I get back home. And there’s a really nice system in Chennai where the scrap that I don’t need; I already know a couple of other brands that use them in different ways — as stuffing, or they make much smaller items than I make — so I pass it on to them, and if they don’t like anything than they pass it on to me. It’s a kind of sharing with each other.

K+C — That’s really fantastic! And they’re all based in Chennai as well?

Yea, it’s a nice system. 

Then, once I come home, I refine it again, and a lot of the times, I mean, generally I prefer to wash the cloth before I start because otherwise some of the cloth shrinks, and I don’t want that to become an issue later. Then, my process is very organic. I don’t really get into like mood-boards, or collections, specific things, or any of that. I sort of design on the spot. Then I have a small team that does the finishing for me. So, yea, that’s basically how it works!

Kamala collects leftover pre-consumer textile scraps from local suppliers, shops, and tailors to create her colorful and eco-friendly quilts, pillows, wall-hangings, and table runners. It is a time-consuming process, but one in which she believes. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.

Material challenges

K+C — And how much time does that process take? I mean, sourcing all this fabric and then figuring out how it could work together — is it right to assume it takes the majority of your time to plan all of that out and collect it?

Yea. So, I haven’t done a collection in a really long time because it takes so much time. I think I focused my energies more on doing custom orders and a couple of collaborations, but it does take a really long time. 

[My process] is so organic, and it feels like there’s no direction or no real theme, but that’s why I decided to do small-batch textiles and have the website as an e-commerce website. So if someone wants to drop by and buy a gift, they can go ahead and do that, but not have that as the main way of showing my textiles. So it’s ok. It’s been working so far, but it does take a lot of time. Every day is so different, and the scraps that I get are so different, so sometimes the collection may not look like a cohesive thing that totally matches each other. So, I then also have to curate.  And you know, if someone decides to drop by [where I work], then I show them those pieces. It sort of works like that. 

A lot of Kamala’s process is rooted in spontaneity, from gathering the fabrics that she uses to matching them for a specific piece. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.
Kamala doesn’t often refer to mood boards, but she does reference multiple inspirations in her process. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.
K+C — Right, but then again, maybe it doesn’t have to look like a cohesive collection. Maybe that’s not where we should be going in the future anyway. This small-batch making on a per need basis also sounds like it has many more opportunities for sustainable making — that isn’t so fast-paced and so hungry all of the time.

Yea, definitely. I think, slowly, people are picking up on that. You know, to say that, “If we’re going to invest in something, we might as well get something we really like, instead of something really cheap.” In India, I mean, it’s not difficult at all to just step out of your house and pick up four cushion covers for less than five dollars, or less than two dollars, or whatever. But I think a lot of people realize that it’s actually better to get something that you really like and will use. To spend the money, support a small business, and understand that it’s made out of waste.

Yes, it is production-heavy, but it’s better than buying straight from the roll or something that’s mass-produced at the end of the day. It’s slowly changing. 

K+C — Mhmm. So, you’ve mentioned that you make quilts, but you also make other things. I’ve seen pillows and wall-hangings, as well. How does the process change, or does it change, depending on the product?

So, I have a couple of techniques that I use for cushion covers and the table runners, which are slightly different from the quilts. My quilts are just patchwork. I don’t do any other technique at the moment. But when I do my cushions, I include a little embroidery. I do a little bit of appliqué on them sometimes. So I think, first of all, the techniques are separate. And also, just by way of cloth, I know whether I can use a particular piece [of fabric] for a quilt or a cushion. Because you know, I don’t get six meters to make a full quilt; I get like half a meter, so sometimes even like, obviously, the size would determine that. So it’s a mix of factors, but I like that limitation, you know?

K+C — Absolutely! You know, I was thinking before that you’re a bit of a professional treasure hunter, and that helps you keep it spontaneous! It is spontaneous due to the nature of the work.

Yea, it is. So, that’s why, when someone comes to me and, you know, they’re like, “We want a quilt like this specific color,” I then have to tell them, “Only if I can source it. Then it’s possible, but I’ll try my best to get that exact shade or that exact fabric.”

This is what I truly believe in, so I’m going to at least try it to see if it can work or if it can’t work.

A detail of a kambli pillow that features scrap appliqué and stitched patterns. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.
Kamala Murali of Kambli Studio shows you how to use leftover scrap materials to make colorful and eco-friendly things that are kinder to the environment
A full view of the same appliqué kambli pillow. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.
K+C — Ah, yea, ok. So that’s a sustainability aspect too — your ideal customers. They have to appreciate the spontaneity in the process too.

Yea, actually, but it’s been great. Like I said, the minute you put out your work! I had a lot of friends come up to me early on and ask, “How can you build your business on small-batch textiles? Is it possible?” and I said, you know, “This is what I truly believe in, so I’m going to at least try it to see if it can work or if it can’t work.” 

One of the interesting projects that came to me was a friend that is working on a book about his grandmother, and it’s in memory of her. It’s an installation exhibition where he’s asking people that he knows to incorporate, into their practice, some aspect of her life. So, I was asked to make a textile piece based on the blueprint of her house. He gave me the blueprint of her house, and I did a quilt on that. So, that was a sort of interesting project, and you obviously never know what people are working on when they’re not at their jobs. You know, things that they would like to put out into the world. That’s been a great aspect of [my work], and I try to foccs my energies on things like that instead of this constantly producing for my website or the like, you know?

K+C — Right, it’s always an ongoing process. What a beautiful project to be part of!

I know, I’m so excited about it! So excited.

K+C — So when does that come out?

He wants to do an exhibition in Dubai. He’s based in Dubai. I think it was supposed to be last year, but the plans have gone haywire because of the pandemic, but the quilt will be finished next week. I can send you a photo so that you can have a look. But yea, I don’t know. I think it’s been delayed, so maybe the end of the year. 

Kamala working on a quilt. She works with four to five tailors in Chennai to create the products for kambli. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.

Time well spent

K+C — Oh, that’ll be really nice to see! Speaking of making that particular quilt, or any others — how many hands are involved besides your own sourcing the material and planning out how to use it? You said that you have a team that helps you. Can you tell me a little bit about how many hands are involved in the making of each piece and how much time goes into them on average? Is that possible?

Apart from me, I have a group of tailors, and I work with them on a contract basis, so I don’t employ them, but I work with them every time I have work. There are about four to five of them — so not a really big team. And to make a quilt, oh my gosh, it takes… so for me to do the design, it takes a couple of days, maybe three to four days, and then to get it quilted another week. So I can manage a quilt in about a week. 

K+C — Wow, and that’s a full week of working on it? 

Yea, it’s a full week! 

K+C — Alright! Yea, I mean, we don’t think about these things too often — especially with mass-produced things and when more machines are involved rather than people. Or how much time that shaves off the process. But maybe we don’t think about the lack of soul involved in that process, too. 

Yea, there’s a line that keeps shifting. A lot of times, I feel like I need to try and source enough fabric that I can maybe not do small-batch, but like six cushions in the same design. Instead of one in the same design. So, you know, it varies. 

Coordinating the fabric scraps and preparing them for final production is a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.

Making space for creativity + self-belief

K+C — Yea, absolutely. So since you hire the team based on contract work, is there one studio space you work from? Or do you visit them where they’re based?

They have their own spaces. So yea, I visit them and give them my stuff then. I work from home right now, so this is my studio!  [indicating to the space around her]

K+C — I can totally relate on many levels, as I think many other people starting. You know, kambli is relatively young still! I mean, it’s two years old. Right? 

Less than, yea.

K+C — Yea. When you’re first are starting out, you’re like, ok! — this is in my garage, or it’s in my living room or somewhere else at home.

Yea, I find that it works. It works to some extent. I mean, sometimes, obviously, it’s a little frustrating, but yea, I like it. I like the setup. No complaints.

K+C — And no judgments! So what are you most proud of with kambli now, and where are you looking forward to taking it?

Oh, that’s such a hard question! I think, two things. One is — there are many things I realized that you have to do to when you have your own business that you’re not going to like, or that take up a lot of time, or that are just really frustrating. I’ve sort of, like, learned to just get it over with and just deal with it and take it as a learning process or just part and parcel of the whole deal. So, you know, it’s taken a lot of time just to say, ‘Ok, let’s look at a little more positively so that I can get it done,’ — that’s one thing. 

The other thing is, like I said, knowing that there’s no such thing as being perfect at anything. I think I used to be very concerned about how my work would look, not really to others, but more that I was not satisfied with it. So I think letting go of that notion, and just, as I said, you never know what’s going to come up when you put your work out, so you might as well just hope for the best and put it out there! I think these two things, yea.

It’s been challenging, but I think I’m in a good place with both of them right now. 

K+C — So the compassion that you show yourself in this process, it’s… 

Yea, it’s very important. And I don’t think anyone can like tell you that that’s needed. It’s just, you have to learn it on your own. 

I think realizing that, however you want to do it, there’s a way. 

Away Quilt by kambli, which was selected by a jury for The Modern Quilt Guild’s annual show under the Minimalist Design category. This particular piece was made during the lockdown of early 2020 in an improvisational manner, and represented an escape away from the pandemic for Kamala. It is 31.5 x 40 inches (80 x 101.6 cm) | Photograph courtesy of Kamala Murali.
K+C — I love that that’s one of the aspects you’re most proud of! You know, because sustainability doesn’t involve just how green something is, or how long we’re going to use it, or what it’s made of. It’s also about what goes into making things and how sustainable that process is for our own well-being, or the team that we’re working with and their well-being. 

Exactly, yea. And also, like a lot of people, as I said before, they would look at my stuff, and they would be like, “This is not design. And this is not conventional design. And how are you going to keep up?” You know? A lot of buyers would see my work and say, “You know, we really like your work, but you only have one piece, so how are we going to work with you?” But I always tell myself that there’s always value in doing things how you see it, but doing it in an ethical fashion. So even if someone else is not able to understand it, there’s a lot of value that you bring to your own life.

I’m very happy making one-of-a-kind things. I mean, I love to buy one of a kind things, so I know the happiness that is attached to that, and if I can give that to someone else or find someone else who has the same values as me, that’s greater than satisfying some buyer that wants to buy fifty pieces off of me. Like, that’s not… it doesn’t benefit. It doesn’t benefit the way that I look at things. 

And also, I think realizing that however you want to do it, there’s a way. 

K+C — Absolutely! Thank you, Kamala!
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