A few months ago, I went fabric shopping at Mood Fabrics, the designers’ Mecca in the heart of Garment District.
I climbed up on the step ladder and pulled out rolls of patterned cotton on whim, but many left me feeling underwhelmed by their lackluster colors. A lady next to me noticed and said,
“Aren’t these digital prints drab? Fabric used to be so much more vibrant back when they used to use real processes. Now they all have these fancy digital patterns but they just don’t have the colors they used to have.”
I wasn’t looking for anything fancy, I told her. Just something with a good indigo hue.
“You want to know how to tell the good fabric from the bad ones?” She walked over and pulled out a roll from the shelf. “Look on the wrong side of the fabric. The digital prints like this one have a dull gray back. A proper fabric will tell its story on the wrong side.”
I was looking for indigo cloth because it reminded me of the ones my mother and her friends used to dye together. Japanese indigo is called aizome. Although as kids we used to run around the giant bucket of indigo holding our noses and screaming at how smelly it was, I was in awe when the cream fabric would emerge out of the vault in the most cathartically hues of blue.
The tones were uneven, and gathers were carefully made on the fabric to create creamy primordial silhouettes against the oceanic depth. My mother and her friends would sit around the table, drinking earl gray and sewing pin cushions and linens. Aizome doesn’t have a gray back…
Right side, wrong side… dull gray, indigo blue… Months have passed, and I keep thinking back to what that ladies had told me at the fabric store: You want to know how to tell a good fabric from the bad ones? A proper fabric will tell its story on the wrong side.
She’s right. A hand-block-printed fabric is beaten by layers inky patterns, telling its tale on the wrong side in rhythmic blotches. The wrong side of a rice-stenciled fabric will reveal the ghostly negatives of the rice paste. And the wrong side of a jacquard fabric is a story of strife: an intricate web of threads, teetering miraculously on the edge of virtuosity and chaos.
Perhaps the fabric is descriptive of how we synthesize time and experience into art. The right side of the fabric is our art-selves that we show to the world. And if we are honest in our creative process, the wrong side of the fabric tells the story of how the right side came to be.
Perhaps it’s the tradition you carry in your blood, or an afternoon of earl gray with friends. Perhaps it’s that disappointment from last year that propelled you forward, or the ecstasy mundane and profound.
But somehow, this inky cacophony of tangles and blotches get synthesized in us, through us, into an art to behold.