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July 19, 2019

Gen-Next Designer Stanzin Palmo’s Guide To Ladakh’s Vibrant Textiles

Text by Rushmika Banerjee

The 26-year-old takes us through the indigenous weaves and techniques she uses in her contemporary label that supports local communities

It would be difficult to outline the Indian fashion story in one word today. Is it modern minimalism or refined maximalism? Or luxe nostalgia, maybe? The design space is continuously being altered, norms are being challenged and Indian Kitsch has been replaced by modern sustainability. The Indian fashion environment that was majorly concentrated amongst metropolises is slowly, but steadily, traversing to discreet corners of the country. Today, Indian textiles thrive on smart design interventions and a mindful community that support the native weave and the weavers. Ladakh-based label Zilzom founded by designer Stanzin Palmo is a perfect example of how a creator can support a small-scale economy with their design vision.

26-year-old Palmo’s label Zilzom has been shortlisted this year for Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2019 Gen Next programme this year, along with labels such as Amaaré by Sahib Bhatia, Anatomy by Gaurav, Little Things Studio by Ankita Srivastava, Noié Noéi by Akanksha Aggarwal and Ura Maku by Manjushree Saikia. What makes Zilzom stand apart? The colourful traditions and narratives of Ladakh that are woven into her designs.

Born in Ladakh, Palmo had moved to New Delhi to study design at NIIFT, Delhi, where she briefly worked with designer Sonal Verma of Rara Avis for her graduation project. After she finished her graduation, she was called to Ladakh for a government project of women’s skill development, in association with Looms of Ladakh. Palmo recalls, “I had trained around 40-50 women artisans at Looms of Ladakh between the age group of 25-65. While training these artisans, I learnt how to manage and distribute work according to their skills and potential. I also realised that respecting and appreciating their work results in higher productivity and efficient time management. During this time, as we worked on the natural fibres available in Ladakh, it gave me an insight into the technicalities of the fibre and its exclusivity and importance in today’s time. At the time, I did not know that Ladakh Pashmina fibre is the finest in the world at 12-15 microns.”

A chance decision to showcase her work at the Naropa festival of Ladakh in 2016 opened new doors for Palmo and set the wheels in motion. “That year, a local fashion show for international buyers was organised at the Naropa festival in Ladakh. I didn’t know then that Ladakh was ready for modern fashion, so I went there just to see the response. To my surprise, I received great reviews for my work. That’s when I knew that there is immense scope in my hometown and I was certain that I want to launch my own label in Ladakh,” says Palmo. The name Zilzom is a tribute to Ladakh’s noblewoman, Shema Zilzom, who stood against the strict social norms and ordains of her time. Palmo was deeply inspired by her to create collections that bring about changes in regular patterns and designs. “Zilzom has multiple interpretations, but for me, it means all the positive energy in one place.”

Ladakh comes with its share of pros and cons, the major con being limited accessibility to production materials. “I have to fly to Delhi twice a year to collect all the basic requirements. Ladakh is only functional for 6-7 months in the year. In winter, it is also not practical to operate as the temperature drops below zero degrees.” Having said that, Palmo is not looking to move her core production to another city. “I feel that the location favours my business, but I do want to expand, as I want to be functional during the peak winters as well. It is my dream to have my label in multi-brand stores in both India as well as abroad,” concludes Palmo.

Since Palmo’s aesthetic can be best described as a neoclassical spin to heritage textiles, we asked the designer to educate us about the local weaves, processes and how she is empowering individuals.

Weaving

Weaving in Ladakh takes place on the handloom which is also called the fly shuttle loom. For weaving, the yarns are separated for warp and weft. It is arranged and fixed on the loom depending on the design. Its takes a minimum of 12-15 labour days from fibre to fabric. For weaving, I work with the established weaving units in Ladakh such as Utpala and Superb Ladakh.

Pashmina

Pashmina is the golden fibre of Ladakh. It is very fine, warm, and mainly comes from the Changthangi goat native to Ladakh. The fibre is collected during spring moulting and one goat produces approximately 80-170g of the fibre. It takes around 3 goats’ wool to make 1 woven shawl.

I source the fibre from the Pashmina De-hairing plant of Changthang Pashmina Cooperative Society in Leh and then give it to the Zanskar Valley spinners for spinning. Spinning of the fibre only takes place in winters when the women are not busy. It takes them around 7-10 days to spin 250 grams of the fibre.  I work with more than 20 spinners in the winter season, after which the yarn is given for weaving.

Yak fabric

I am also working with the yak fibre that is also an important fibre of Ladakh. Since the outer coat of wool is coarse and heavy, it is used to make rebo tents for the nomad community. The inner coat, however, is fine and soft, measuring 21-25 microns in fibre thickness. It also has excellent insulating properties. I work on the yak fibre with similar processes as the pashmina shawl. After weaving, it is converted into yak fabric or yak wool shawl. The yak fabric is then used for making jackets and coats.

Nambu

Nambu is the fabric of Ladakh that dates back to the 12th century. Today there is a cave painting at Saspol of ‘the weaver weaving on a foot loom’. Usually, the fabric is made up of wool and used mainly in the traditional dress known as goncha. I am working on the fabric nambu to develop other garments apart from the traditional attire. I am using it for coats, jackets and other accessories.

Thigma (Resist tie-dye)

Thigma is again seen in ancient wall paintings at Alchi Monastery dating back to 12th -13th century. Today, it is still used in the traditional dresses, footwear and belts, but with time, the craft is dying. I am working with other experts in Ladakh for this technique. It is a slow process and can’t be easily made. I am using the technique in garments for my collection on both wool (nambu) and silk.

Process:  The cloth is pinched and tightly tied with a thread to resist the uptake of colour. Both natural and chemical dye ingredients are used to colour the fabric. After the dyeing process is completed, the fabric is washed and rinsed to remove the extra dye and the tied threads are removed to reveal the un-dyed fabric underneath.

Gathers (Sul) :

The traditional Ladakhi dress (goncha) is a long dress which remains open from the front and is secured with a hook. The top and the skirt are stitched together at the waist which has the gathers, also known as Sul. The gathers (sul) are handstitched horizontally using a thread and needle. There are 5-6 parallel lines of sul that bring together the traditional dress. Each and every sul is done by hand since it requires precision work. I am using the gathers as my USP, since it is an old traditional technique. It creates a beautiful fall for the garment as well.

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