: How to Look After Your Darlings

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A guide to caring for Indian clothing by Wendy Borthwick, founder of Tree of Life.

 It all began at Woodstock. Channel Jimmy Hendrix in tie-dye, velvet and fringes, Janis Joplin in flares and Joni Mitchell in cheesecloth maxis. Indian-made boho clothing for the Western world had its beginnings in 1960s hippie culture. During the 1970s the fashion for Indian clothing boomed worldwide. Everyone wanted a cotton voile embroidered kurta shirt, a bagru wrap skirt, a handblock kaftan, a velvet maxi or a tribal dress decorated with wooden beads and tassels. Romantic flowing garments in the style of Stevie Nicks perfectly suited to the free spirited ethos of the time.

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Garments with a life in them...

The fashion for Indian clothing has evolved and the appeal and wearability has broadened. In the 1980s beautiful multicoloured floral prints were added into the mix , while the 1990s brought New Age trends, simple drawstring pants, vintage wash lacy handkerchief skirts and gothic lace-up bodices. The styles are cyclical and come and go, but Indian clothing retains it’s own character. As a designer friend in India once told me, “these garments have a life in them”. Soft natural fabrics that move easily with your body, amazing decorative finishes, prints, flourishes, embroidery, beading and trims. An incredible palette of colour from pure whites to deep indigos, from vintage tea stain to vibrant turquoise.

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Made with love...

Our Indian garments are made by a long chain of skilled and dedicated workers, literally passing from hand to hand. They are not made on a mass production line and they are not made from synthetic fabrics. These are not perfect, but rather, are hand-produced creations with all the inconsistencies and interest that this process brings. The garments are alive, the fabrics breathe and fall beautifully, each piece flattering, comfortable and uniquely individual.

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Wearing and caring...

I have loved Indian-made clothing since the late 1960s. I always use quality washing liquid, never harsh bleaches or stain removers. White cotton garments are an exception if they become stained or yellow. For simple, sturdy items (not lacy or delicate) I use whiteners according to the instructions. I expect that heavily saturated colours such as deep greens and blues may exude some excess dye, so I am careful about wearing such colours with light clothing and underwear, especially on a hot day. Incidentally, I have never found salt especially helpful in fixing the dyes. That said, in nearly 50 years I have rarely had any problems with dyes running.  I am also careful drying my clothing. I never tumble dry in a machine and I always line dry on clothes hangers, not with pegs, minimising the need to iron. I dry darker colours in the shade.

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How I look after my darlings...

I wash all my Indian clothing - be it cotton, rayon, handblock, printed or embroidered - on the delicate cycle of my washing machine. I never wash them on the regular cycle. However I place particularly delicate pieces in a lingerie wash bag. Some clothes I rarely wash. Instead I air them, just hanging them out in a shady spot for a few hours. This process will freshen clothing that is not necessarily ‘clean’ but also not really dirty. Less washing is better for the environment and for your clothing.

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I always wash my clothes in colour families, keeping blues with blues, whites with whites, reds with reds and black by itself. I always assume some surface dye may come out of these garments, particularly in the first few washes. Washing in colour families means the garments help each other stay fresh and vibrant.

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The only pieces I hand wash are pashminas (cashmere shawls) and very delicate beaded and embroidered items. Fabrics such as velvet that specify “Dry Clean Only” I dry clean.

An enduring pleasure...

Our clothes don’t need to be cosseted, but you do need to understand their distinctive qualities and treat them with respect. Don’t forget, this is boho clothing. You don’t expect your ripped blue jeans or deconstructed designer edges to be conventionally neat and tidy.

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A few imperfections add to the charm and individuality of the garment. I invite you to use your creativity and customise your garments - sew on a vintage patch, overdye your favourite dress and perform minor repairs to extend the life of the garment. This is authentic bohemian clothing made in India. While many well-known boho brands make their garments in other countries  the inspiration for this look came from India in the late 1960s and it remains the spiritual home of the boho style.

My Indian clothing has been an enduring and real pleasure in my life. I hope it will be in yours also.

love & light,

Wendy