“We gradually came to understand how special, how unique each of India’s textiles were” – Dr Valerie Wilson
Dr Valerie Wilson and Sue McFall co-founded MOTI in 2001, which sells limited edition clothing, nightwear and homewares made from beautiful Indian textiles in Australia. In the midst of researching and sourcing photos for her forthcoming book – A touch of India, Valerie spoke about her experiences in engaging and working with Indians.
Valerie has familial links to India. Her mother was born and raised in Mumbai, and her grandfather was half Indian and worked as an electrical engineer for the Tatas. Valerie’s parents met in Bombay when her English father, fighting in Burma during WW2, visited India while on leave. The young couple married in 1945 and moved to Cambridge where her father’s studies had been interrupted by the World War. Valerie was born in Cambridge two years later. She visited her grandparents in Mumbai when she was was 6 years and again, for 6 months, when she was 10. They family lived in Panchgani where her grandparents lived after retirement.
Dr Valerie Wilson
Valerie’s love for India and her desire to know more about her heritage lead her to take a year of Indian Studies as part of her BA and over the years she says she has read many great Indian writers and novels mainly, but also general reading about India.
It was during her third visit to India, much later, that Valerie was truly smitten. “There is such a lot to see and do. Just being in India, anywhere, is to immerse yourself in a wondrous new world, landscapes, religions, colours, monuments, textiles, people of all sorts!! All the obvious touristy sites are unmissable. But there is so much else besides. It’s fascinating, exasperating, exhausting, addictive!”
Valerie worked as a consultant for many years before plunging into Moti. And a lot of what she learnt in her earlier profession helped her to navigate through India. “In a general way I think that, as a qualitative researcher, I was used to asking questions and always seeking greater understanding. I was used to being self-employed, to working things out for myself. For several years I had worked in marketing research so I had a good understanding of consumer attitudes. And I had a very good partner (Sue McFall) in the enterprise who is a self-employed architect, familiar with design and production processes.”
Initially they were attracted by the cotton from Mangalgiri and even visited the town of Mangalgiri to watch the various processes in action. “We used to order multiple meterages of different colours. We loved it. We usually ordered through an intermediary in Hyderabad or Delhi. We also came to love Maheshwari, Khadi and numerous other fabrics. There are so many!”
While Valerie says they did not have a lot of direct contact with the weaver themselves, their various suppliers taught them a lot about “the differing techniques of weaving and of block-printing so that we gradually came to understand how special, how unique were each of these textiles. And how humbling. That’s what struck me the most. A garment that we might casually throw on has been through so many time-honoured processes, has taken so much time and dedication to produce.”
She describes an incident with a bangle producer and how they became impatient with a supplier who seemed to be taking a very long time to provide some resin bangles for them. “We hadn’t realized that they were being painstakingly carved by hand and he could only do two a day.
So we often had reality-checks of this sort and learned patience and humility!”
Having said that, there were issues with quality and consistency as is wont to happen in handmade goods. “Our business liked the fact that handmade goods are a bit inconsistent because that is what lends character, what differentiates hand-made goods from factory or machine-processed goods. Our customers were often surprised to learn that every thread of fabric in a garment we sold had been woven in by hand. We had to remind them, to educate them. Especially as we often used plain colours and a lot of plain black! (I’m afraid people in Melbourne like to wear black.) So it was even more surprising in a plain fabric to realise each thread was hand woven in. But they were also pleasantly surprised by how hard-wearing such fabrics can also be. However the idiosyncrasies of hand weaving meant that we didn’t ever consider wholesaling our garments. We needed it to be a personal business, where we could tell the stories, educate our customers. Then they could see, as we did, that the idiosyncrasies were charming! (Sometimes however, idiosyncrasies were simply faults and were less charming!)”
Once they ordered 200 metres of black silk-cotton and when it arrived in Melbourne it was grey. “Not even dark grey, but a mid-grey. When we protested we were told “it’s the Indian black”!!
Valerie says that Indians and Australians share a similar sense of humour, and often humour helps to deal with situations. “We see the funny side in things that others may perceive as problems. We enjoy good-natured banter. We can all use humour to defuse difficulties. And there are quite a lot of difficulties for foreigners trying to do business in India: we have to learn to deal with heat, dirt, noise, disease (tummy bugs), indirect conversations (e.g. people not wanting to say ‘no, we can’t do that for you’), power shortages, lengthy delays in Indian traffic, lengthy delays receiving ordered goods….and more! But it’s worth the effort: the rewards are both tangible and intangible, the pleasures, the gradual understanding, the insights, the friendships…”
And finally, one asks Valerie about Cricket. Valerie says that when people would ask them where they were from, while walking in a market, and when they replied Australia, it would inevitably lead to long conversations about cricket. “Luckily I know a bit about cricket via my three children who used to play. But sometimes we were tired and couldn’t cope with cricket-talk so when people asked where we were from we would reply ‘Yugoslavia’. Silence. (But a bit mean of us!!)”
In 2016 twin sisters, Marilyn and Christine Shady took over the running of MOTI. But Valerie says she and Sue continue the tradition of MOTI with their love of India.