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Northumberland Home Accessory Brand ibbi on Their Inspiration and Travels in India

Colourful trucks
April 2015
Reading time 4

Interior accessory brand Ibbi brings bright and beautiful fair trade hand-printed, hand-stitched and hand-crafted pieces to the market for all to share, and at the same time helps provide vital employment and encouragement to so many

Based in rural Northumberland, Eliza Browne-Swinburne, Anna Kirkup and Claire McAlpine are co-founders of home accessory brand ibbi. They travel extensively in India in search of fair trade principled cooperatives which create hand made textile and ceramic products for their 'new, vintage and unique' ibbi collections. Here we talk to Claire McAlpine about cooperatives, ceramics and close shaves with big cats.

What took you to India in the first place and where did the idea for ibbi come from?

I loathe flying.  Always have.  Too many people all squeezed in to a confined space, food on a plastic tray that only ever arrives when you’ve finally fallen asleep after hours of trying, juice cartons designed to explode at altitude and that’s before we’ve even got started on the screaming babies and turbulence.

So it was rather odd that in January 2013 I accepted an invitation from friends Anna Kirkup and Eliza Browne-Swinburne, to join them on their travels. Anna, a photographer, had been invited to India to record the work of various schools and charity projects in Rajasthan and Eliza had been invited to visit a number of government and private schools operating in the same region.  

When my husband then asked me to be his navigator on the Monte Carlo historic car rally that month  (done it before and it’s right up there with child birth and dental surgery) I knew I needed a good excuse to escape, so off I went to India! And it turned out to be one of the most incredible months of my life. 

By the time we returned to Newcastle in February, we’d met extraordinary women’s cooperatives, talented artisans and also children from the poorest imaginable slums, so bright and determined to better themselves, that we knew we had to set up a business to help support them all.  So ibbi was never meant to happen, but it did happen. We love what we’re creating now and fortunately people seem to love what we’re doing too!

Where do you source your home décor collections and what inspires you?

We all love colour. Colour just adds personality to any living space. And India is bursting with colour. Travelling along the roads of Rajasthan is like flicking through the pages of the National Geographic: groups of beautiful bare footed women on their way to the water well, swathed in vibrant saris of cobalt, scarlet and emerald, carrying huge copper water pots on their heads.

Heavily painted elephants carrying their various loads. Tuk tuks draped in tinsel. Decorated lorries, looking more like Christmas trees than HGVs. And endless mountains of crimson chilles drying on the roadsides. 

Our designs and colours reflect everything we see: a painting on a wall here, a lattice screen at an ancient fort there. The saris, the brightly painted doors and walls, the food and spice markets heaving with fresh coriander, turmeric and cardamom. It’s all part of our inspiration.  

As far as sourcing our collections goes, that’s all down to Anna’s meticulous research and endless meetings across West Bengal and Rajasthan over the last 2 years. We’re now proudly designing and working with an ever growing number of fair trade organisations or companies that adhere to the principles of fair trade so our products are carefully sourced and all hand stitched or hand painted or hand crafted and of course beautiful and vibrant too. 

We also have a collection of vintage products: vintage beaded bags, decorative embroidered Uzbek wall hangings, heavily carved furniture, spectacular carved mirrors, charpois, cycle rickshaws, life sized tin horses; an eclectic treasure trove of found goodies from our travels which we just couldn’t resist! And that’s really our aim: to find and create stylish pieces that either solve practical problems or add personality to any home.

Many of the people we work with in India are women. Determined, intelligent, highly creative, brilliantly funny women. One of our favourite meetings each year happens in West Bengal and involves driving several hours South of Kolkata to meet up with the ladies in the rural villages who stitch our throws for us. 

It’s fantastic seeing Eliza at work here as her sense of design and colour is incredible. We talk through textile designs, borders, colours and intricate stitching configurations with them and finish our day with lunch on the rooftops of their homes. 

They sew and chat in the sunshine, quite rightly very proud of all they create whilst their children, home from school in the afternoon, fly their kites from the rooftops. It’s peaceful and the biggest treat for us. It makes you feel good to be alive. 

What is it about Indian textiles?

I fear we all pretty much take textiles for granted. Don’t we? Cold night: chuck an extra throw on to the bed if you can’t find the dog. Quilt: wash it, give it a shake, let it air dry, put it back on the bed. But when you travel to Sanganeer on the outskirts of Jaipur and witness the craft and tradition of textiles it’s amazing.

You see miles of glorious printed cotton gently drying in the breeze. Craftsmen combing the cotton filling. Skilled block printers carving wooden blocks: blocks for the main central quilt pattern, smaller blocks for the intricate borders and more blocks for contrasting patterns on the reverse. Each colour seen on a quilt requires a different block.

It’s all printed by hand and then stitched together by hand too. We spend hours pouring over thousands of designs with block printers. We’re just working on a fabulous throw at the moment, inspired by a very traditional Paisley design with beautiful intricate cotton plant borders. We’ve also had silk -screen printed throws made for us recently, based on a fabulous old indigo sari we found in Rajasthan. Our products have a story. We like that.

‘We all love colour. Colour just adds personality to any living space. And India is bursting with colour. Travelling along the roads of Rajasthan is like flicking through the pages of the National Geographic’

We hear such contrasting reports about Indian society. Yet you all have such a positive attitude towards the country and its people.

Our attitude is realistic. The country is not easy. Of course we’re all aware of the gender inequality, the huge poverty and issues regarding corruption and inequality of wealth. But there’s so much to fall in love with. The generosity of the people, the delicious food, the colour, the spice markets, the determination of people to better themselves through hard work, the frantic streets, we love it all and Anna’s incredible ability as a photographer to capture these extraordinary moments on film means we have a huge collection of images now that we can constantly draw on for inspiration.

You travel a lot when you’re in India.  What’s been your most memorable journey so far? 

For me undoubtedly a short tuk tuk ride through Delhi one lunch time when a full sized vulture hit our windscreen. One of the most God awful bottom clenching moments of my life and there aren’t words to describe the ear splitting screech I made when it happened.

The driver seemed totally unphased by the bird but was obviously in deep shock after my hysterical outburst. Every time I’m sitting at home now with my kids watching an episode of David Attenborough and vultures appear on the TV, I’m always slightly embarrassed to think that they may be one of the worlds uglier and more terrifying birds, but back in Delhi, for one slim and now slightly nervous tuk tuk driver, they’re nowhere near as terrifying as me.

ibbi is involved with Magic Bus. Can you tell me more about that?

I honestly can’t speak about Magic Bus without getting a lump in my throat. Really. It’s that incredible. It’s basically a fantastic charity, which runs a sort of after school club for some of India’s poorest slum children.

The charity trains up youth leaders from the local community to run sessions each week and through games, songs and discussions on scrub land next to their homes, the groups discuss really important issues like gender equality, education and health. It’s fun, it works, it’s changing lives, it’s getting kids in to full time education and you can’t believe the determination, intelligence and dignity of these young people who lead such difficult lives. 

It’s humbling, it’s inspiring and it’s always a massive pleasure for us to visit the projects when we’re in India. Last month in Kolkata we joined in with a really noisy and lively session. We’d just got off the plane from the UK, rushed straight to the project and within minutes Eliza had got herself in the middle of a football game and somehow managed to score a (somewhat unexpected) goal from about 20 yards! It made the entire village explode with applause. I don’t think any of us have recovered from it yet.

But seriously: the very reason we founded ibbi in the first place was to support local craftspeople through trade as well as help in a small way to fund local projects too. We always have what we call an ibbi100 product on our website and currently all funds from the sale of this product go straight to Magic Bus. 

Small beginnings we know...but as we grow our support for them will grow too. We’ve just started working with a group with mental disabilities in Kolkata. They make fabulous candles which will be our spring ‘ibbi100’ product and we’re so pleased to have established this partnership with them.

We’ve often wondered whether this system, reaching out to inspire young people, would work in the UK and actually Magic Bus launched In London this month. One of their young trainers is over here right now talking to youth leaders about how the system works. I visited the project in Vauxhall last week. Fantastic to see.

You must have so many memories from your journeys through India. Which particular images tend to stay with you?

Where to start! For us all it’s probably watching children diving in to the Betwa River in the spectacular town of Orchha, or perhaps sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Anna and Eliza have ridden Marwari horses through the Thar desert outside Jodhpur which apparently was incredible too.

Then there was the warm welcome we received from the Bishnoi villagers when we were bike riding through their village one day. The Bishnoi are an eco friendly Hindu group who protect their trees and wildlife and take the utmost care of their environment. 

They don’t even burn firewood unless it’s devoid of small insects. And there was an early morning visit to the Kolkata flower market.  We got chatting at breakfast one morning to Durham actor Alun Armstrong who’d just come back from the market and he said we had to see it. 

So at 4 the next morning we set off to this dark, damp, tiny little corner of Kolkata which was like something straight out of a Dickensian film set. We pushed our way down narrow streets and across rickety bridges to reach this heaving warren of flower stalls next to the river. I can’t begin to describe how spectacular it was as the sun came up: chai wallahs screaming out, selling small clay cups of hot sweet tea to passers by, barrows of gladioli, piles of fresh coriander and limes, mountains of marigold petals being weighed on brass scales, heavily scented roses..the whole of Bengal it seemed was there ..and the heavy with fragrance it was overpowering. I’ll never forget it. But perhaps for all of us some of our favourite times are at The Meghniwas Villas in Jaipur, a hotel owned by Colonel and Mrs Singh. The welcome is always the warmest and even the monkeys who nick your food occasionally when you’re relaxing in the garden don’t distract from absolute magic of the place.

Do You Ever Take Time Off When You Travel? 

We always try to have a few days off when we’re sourcing our collections and we’ve had some hilarious times and close shaves along the way. Most memorably, we visited a tiger reserve last year, ever hopeful we’d finally spot the elusive big cat.

After a very long and tiring seven hour drive we decided to go for a jog and the three of us, in finest fluorescent Lycra, headed off across the scrubland next to our hotel for a quick run. We’d only been out of the hotel grounds for five minutes when we were chased straight back to where we’d started by a frantic and almost tearful security guard on a motorbike, waving a heavy wooden stick and gesticulating that we should return immediately. Our chosen route, apparently taking us straight towards the local tiger’s den, had cause a slight panic back at the hotel. If it took five minutes to reach the den it must have taken us all of 30 seconds to run back. Never moved so fast in all my life.

And finally what next for ibbi?

Well our latest collection arrives mid Spring which we’re really looking forward to and we’re well in to designs now for our next collection. We’re currently looking at possibly working with a number of other women’s cooperatives too, including belt makers in Peru and rug makers in Morocco. We’ve new hand painted products coming from our favourite pottery in South Africa and a new pure linen collection as well. We’re still getting our brand out there, selling via our website and at fairs the length and breadth of the country but we’d love to work on a small catalogue too. Something for next year perhaps!

ibbi is based at Capheaton, Northumberland.

01830 530433

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