Madurai Market

Imagine an antiquated, intricately hand-carved hall that serves not as a museum, but as a living, breathing market. Instead of the sculptures and carvings being preserved behind glass, small birds roost in the crevices, and shopkeepers hang their wares in any opportune crack. Such a place exists just outside the ancient temple in the heart of Madurai, India, deep within the state of Tamil Nadu.

That's my husband and son with their backpacks on in the photo above, walking through a colonnade of 400 year old sculptures that now serve as a backdrop for rows of tailors and shops.  This place is called Pudhu Mandapam, and until about 200 years ago it was a place where parties and festivals were held. Little by little, shopkeepers began to sell their wares here, and today it is this amazing space where you can buy notions and fabrics and have a garment tailored for you while you wait.

Pudhu Mandapam

We arrived in Madurai with only a few hours to explore the temple area before grabbing an overnight bus to Pondicherry. I wish I'd had more light for my camera to capture this place, but we were rushing through at night. I also wish I'd had more time to browse the ribbons, trims and other notions on display here. Imagine only having a few minutes to browse this market. And no space in your backpack or time to buy one of these tantalizing trims....  

Madurai Market

In doing my research on this place after-the-fact, I discovered that many locals believe it is lucky to shop here. Some of these vendor stalls have been continuously operated by the same family for over 80 years!  The shopkeepers inherit their shops from grandparents, parents or close relatives, and each shop represents a family tradition that goes back generations.

Madurai Market

I spent time watching different tailors work. None of them work with a paper pattern or a muslin or pin their pieces together. They just directly cut the fabric and hold it together, clearly working off of a very familiar pattern in their own heads.  A pattern probably steeped in as much tradition as this space in which they work.

We didn't read about this wondrous place in our guidebook, we just stumbled on it, took in as much as we could of it, and moved on to our next adventure.  


Comments | Posted in Travel By Jennifer Hansen

Kanhirode Weaver's Cooperative

A weaver at her loom.

We were staying in Kannur which is a town in Kerala on the Malabar Coast. As we were exploring the town from the back of an auto-rickshaw, I spied what looked to be wet skeins, just drying by the side of the road. I asked the rickshaw driver to stop, and found that we were at the Kanhirode Weaver's Co-operative. And just like that, we just walked in to their offices off the street and were treated to a one hour tour of their facility.  

Entrance from the street

View from the road.

The Coop has been around since the 1950s. They weave mostly cotton (with some linen) for the home textile market - towels, table cloths, placemats, etc.  They buy their fiber already spun from the mill - but all other aspects of turning that yarn into a usable home object is done by hand on the premises.

Kanhirode weavers coop

Inside the washing and dying facility.

The first step of the process is washing the yarn and then dying it. In the photo above, one of the managers, Jithinraj, is walking us through the process. It was at about this point that he let me know,  "The soul is in everything we make, at every step of the process our products are touched by human hands."

Kanhirode Weavers Society

Dye recipes.

A collection of bamboo poles in the corner of this work area caught my eye - they act as a color recipe book.  Each has been dipped into a dye solution and carefully labeled with instructions to reproduce a color.

We were then led into a nearby building where the fibers are woven into fabric. I loved the sound of that room (take a look in my video above!), and the way these skilled weavers were able to create patterns from memory. They weren't referring to any references, just totally at one with the rythm of their shuttles flying back and forth on the loom.  Jithinraj said that it takes them 6 - 8 hours to warp a loom and that each weaver can produce about 6 yards of fabric per day.

Not being a weaver myself and this being the first time I was so thoroughly exposed to it, I was so impressed with how weaving engages the entire body. Not just the hands like knit and crochet, but the arms and the feet and the legs as well. Take a look at the footwork of this man creating a multi-colored checkerboard pattern. Looks absolutely effortless, I'm sure it is the result of years of practice.

Kanhirode Weavers Cooperative

Winding shuttle spools.

In the center of the room, stations were set up where workers loaded the shuttle spools with yarn from the skeins.

Just imagine walking off the street in the USA into an industrial business and asking for a tour of their facility. 9 times out of 10 you would get the brush-off. But in India, we were welcomed and we enjoyed a fascinating glimpse into a worker-owned textile business. 


Comments | Posted in Travel By Jennifer Hansen

My first sariMe modeling my first sari with the styling help of the seamstresses who made my sari blouse.

I just got back from a month-long trip to India.  It was my second trip.  I am fascinated by this country with its hundreds of languages and cultures, its crazy dichotomies of wealth and poverty, and its over-powering smells, tastes and sounds.  Other travellers have described India as "a feast for the senses", and I think almost any traveller who has visited India would agree.  

Beyond this feast for the senses, India is a treasure chest for any fan of fiber.  (And really not just textile lovers: it is a fascinating place for any crafter or DIYer - since just about everything there is hand made or cobbled together with what's available.) Whether you knit, crochet or sew (especially if you sew), there are amazing things to see and buy at excellent prices.  

The most obvious textile purchase is a sari: 9 yards of sumptuous fabric.  I bought a few saris in India with the intention of wearing them there, then using the fabric for sewing projects when I returned.  

Shopping for a sari isn't as straightforward as running to the mall and picking one up. It's a 2 step process of purchasing the sari fabric, purchasing the blouse fabric, then going to a tailor or seamstress who can whip up a blouse for you without a pattern - typically in the same day!

Here are some photos of this western girl's first sari-shopping experience:

Sari Shop

The most traditional place to purchase a sari is in a small, privately-owned sari shop. The saris are sorted by regional style and fiber content. These were my salesmen at the front of the store where the finest saris were kept.  Many saris are hand-loomed, and one of the most interesting things for a westerner like me is seeing that almost no two saris are exactly alike!  Sari shopping is a very service-oriented process - you don't just browse through the stock alone, you rely on the salesman to fetch the saris he thinks you will like and he unfurls them for you to inspect.

Sari Emporium

A more recent development are these large stores where you can browse the racks of saris yourself.  These types of stores are not very common - I only saw one on my most recent trip there and I saw 100s of the little stores. This photo shows the less expensive saris in the store. Notice how many salespeople are available to assist you!

sari emporium 2

Upstairs in the sari emporium are the finer party saris.

Blouse Fabrics

Some saris come with an additional yard of fabric so that you have enough to make a sari blouse. In case the sari does not come with blouse fabric, then you need to shop for blouse fabric in a color that coordinates with the sari fabric. Many blouse fabrics have an edging design that can be used at the sleeves and lower hem of the blouse.  Most of the mid-range fabrics I was looking at cost less than $1/yard!


The array of fabrics is mind-boggling and I had to practice a lot of self-control to stop myself from shopping for saris for more than one afternoon.  One day I will schedule a textile shopping trip to India and give myself a week, an appropriate budget, and the right luggage allowance for carrying it all back. But not this time.

Blouse Fitting

Here I am getting fitted for my sari blouse.  She took about 10 different measurements and without a pattern she whipped up four sari blouses for me within four hours!  It cost about $1 for her to make each blouse.


Comments | Posted in Travel By Jennifer Hansen

Travel tips

Dec 18, 2012 6:37:29 AM

Needle Tip Bundle

The travel season is upon us. Many of us travel in December to visit family, or to take a winter vacation to far-off places. And as knitters and crocheters, many of us would like to take our projects along because the airplane really is one of the best places imaginable for knitting and crocheting.

But here's the thing: You can't take your needles and hooks on every aircraft if you are flying internationally. While flying with hooks and needles in the USA is no problem, keep in mind that TSA rules don't extend past the USA. As many knitters and crocheters who travel internationally have learned - not every country thinks it's okay to bring hooks and needles on the aircraft. I've had my share of hooks and needles confiscations (Mexico in recent years has been terrible for me...) and it's an incredibly frustrating and nonsensical experience. It can be expensive too!

What's most frustrating for me are the international layovers: many times you have to go through security AGAIN when you transfer planes. I was on a flight once from SFO to Singapore with a transfer in Tokyo and I had all my knitting needles confiscated during that Japanese transit.  While you might be able to research all the regulations of your destination countries and the countries you are transiting through, that research is far from easy and many times the regulations just aren't published online. What's more, if you are rerouted due to delays, weather or mechanical problems, you may find yourself routed through a country you didn't even anticipate.

smuggling crochet hook

So what is a poor knitter or crocheter to do? There's no way that I'm leaving my knit or crochet work at home - especially for an extended trip and a 24 hour flight. I'm a light traveller and typically bring carry-on luggage only, which leaves me no option to check in my hooks and needles. Plus, being able to knit or crochet on a long flight is an absolute must for me - what else is there to do?! That's some quality stitching time!

So this is why I've had to develop a strategy for getting my hooks and needles onto international flights.  If you do a lot of international travel and want to bring your projects with you, this is what you might want to do to: 

1.  I only bring the tools I absolutely need and I separate them out in my bag so that even if some are found, chances are high that I can get other ones on board.  I also bring redundant tools if I am mid-project. So for example, if I am working a project with #8 needles, I will bring 2 sets of needles and I will stash them in different spots.

2.  If I am bringing knitting, I bring interchangeable needles like those from a Denise set.  Plastic, bamboo or wood needles are preferable to metal, but I have had success with my metal needles too.  I bring them disassembled with the cords packed separately from the needles.  If I am mid-project, I will detach the needles from the cord and put stoppers on the cord to secure my work.  I never leave the needles attached so that the Xray technician can clearly read "knitting project".

3.  I camoflauge my needle tips among pens and pencils.  I've packed a pencil case and thrown the needles in with them.  Although now my preferred approach is to make a few rubber-banded bundles containing pens, pencils, and needles and I stash these little bundles in separate locations in my bag.

4.  I throw my crochet hooks in with my toothbrush and toothpaste. Somehow the hooks seem dental to me. 

5.  I use an old dental floss container to hold stitch markers, and more importantly, act as a yarn cutter.

Dental Floss Airplane Yarn Cutter

Do you have any international travel tips?  Do you have some confiscation horror stories or tips on which countries are the strictest about confiscating hooks and needles?  Let me know in the comments!

Comments | Posted in Travel By Jennifer Hansen