Shruti Dandekar with her Bernina.
The first time Shruti Dandekar touched as sewing machine she was aching. It was October of 2009 and she’d contracted chikungunya, a mosquito born illness that’s not uncommon where she lives in the southern part of Maharashtra, India. “I wasn’t well,” she recalls. “It causes a lot of joint pain for a long time. For six months I had trouble getting out of bed and walking even to the bathroom.”
At the time her uncle was in the process of moving to a smaller house and offered her a sewing machine that had belonged to her grandparents. Although she’d never sewn, the machine was an heirloom and she accepted it. “It was manufactured by the Bombay Sewing Machine Company, that’s what’s written on the machine, and I think it’s at least 50 years old,” she says. “It was a treadle machine so there was no chance that I was going to actually go and use it because I had ankle pain at that time. I had no intention of ever using it.”
On sabbatical from her job as a commercial architect in order to recover, it occurred to Shruti that she could upcycle her old maternity clothes into some cushions and curtains for her home. “My cook used to sew so I asked her to make a few cushion covers and some bed spreads, stuff like that, from those old clothes,” she recalls. “My friends liked them so they asked me if I would do that with their old clothes and I said yes. I gave it all to my cook to sew.”
Shruti’s current sewing studio at her home in Sangli.
When more orders began to come in her cook brought a friend to help sew and soon Shruti was managing a small cottage business employing 14 local women. She had lots of ideas for new designs. “When I used to ask them to do something that was a little more complicated they used to tell me that they cannot stitch it like that so then I decided that I should learn how to sew so that I could show them that yes, you can do this.” She asked her cook to thread the machine and teach her to use it.
Overtime the upcycling business waned, but Shruti’s interest in sewing only grew and she wanted to buy a new, more modern machine. A Google search led her to discover Elizabeth Hartman’s blog, ohfransson.com. “She made everything look so simple and I decided I should try this. She had this series on her blog [on quilting basics] and I went through all of them. She made it sound so simple,” she laughs. “It wasn’t when I tried it, but she made it sound easy.”
Soon Shruti started her own quilting blog and discovered two quilting bloggers in India and together, in the spring of 2012, they planned a meeting. “That is how we started the India Modern Quilt Guild, with three members all from three different cities which were more than 500 kilometers away from each other,” she says. Twenty people attended the meeting, which took place in Pune, a centrally located city. People flew in from Calcutta, Chennai, and Bangalore to attend and Shruti became the founding chairman of the guild.
When the Modern Quilt Guild formalized and set up a dues structure the group voted to remain independent, renaming itself the India Quilt Guild (IQG). Today it boasts more than 2,000 members, although Shruti says there’s still only one quilt shop in India. Until recently rotary cutters, rulers, and mats weren’t available anywhere. “It’s very unusual for an educated Indian woman to turn to quilting as a profession or even as a hobby,” she says.
Buying a new sewing machine proved surprising. “My budget was 10,000 rupees [roughly $150]. I thought I had a lot of money to buy a sewing machine because what I saw in the local markets were less than a third of that.” When she called Bernina of India and found out that the model she’d had her eye on was 158,000 rupees she was in awe. “I was like why does it cost so much? I could buy a car for that amount!” Overtime, through the IQG, she befriended Ajay Gupta, owner of Bernina of India, and he became one of her biggest cheerleaders. Eventually he gifted her with the machine that she uses now.
Shruti Dandekar with Clara Siddi, a quilter from a very small town of northern Karnataka, Uginkeri.
Quilting does exist in India, however it’s done by less formally educated women with little money to spend. Quilts are typically made from saris, the six or nine yard traditional Indian garments. “It’s a lot of material in one piece of clothing,” she laughs. A few worn out saris can be cut up and made into a lot of quilts. Shruti is hoping to bring those quilts, and their specific regional styles, to the forefront of the global quilting conversation. “I would like to travel to all those remote places in India and curate an exhibit of all the quilts which I can then exhibit in international quilt shows and talk about them,” she explains. (Check out her Indiegogo campaign to learn more.)
Shruti Dandekar in front of her quilt, “White Rainbow,” at QuiltCon 2017. Hear Shruti tell about this quilt here.
In 2015 Shruti made the decision to come to QuiltCon to meet up with her longtime online friend, Emily Lang, whom she’d first met through a swap. “It was my first solo trip and my first trip to the USA,” she says. “I had never traveled internationally alone before that.” To fund the trip she sold “Aspara Aali,” a three-dimensional quilt depicting a life-sized figure carrying a bundle on her head. “Indian saris have a specific way that they’re draped so I cut up a sari and draped it onto the figure to create that effect. Even her bundle is three-dimensional. I think she’s carrying the load of the entirety of womanhood in India,” Shruti quips. The quilt she submitted to exhibit at Quilt Con, “The White Rainbow,” was one of 25 quilts that went on to be displayed Quilt Festival in Houston as well.
“Aspara Aali,” a three-dimensional quilt depicting a life-sized figure “carrying the load of the entirety of womanhood in India” by Shruti Dandekar.
Shruti meets Elizabeth Hartman at QuiltCon. Elizabeth’s blog was Shruti’s first exposure to the world of quilting.
Shruti herself has developed an innovative quilting technique. In 2012 she decided to make a portrait quilt of her husband’s great grandfather who had founded their family business 100 years earlier. She appliqued over 3,500 pieces of fabric over the course of three months and, although she was happy with the result, resolved to find a quicker way to construct a portrait quilt. “I was scared because I was new to all this and I believed, ‘How I can I come up with something new? There are so many great quilters out there and somebody most have thought about it and if they haven’t then I don’t think it can be done,’” she says of her self-doubt at that time.
“Dada Ajoba” was Shruti’s first portrait quilt. It depicts her husband’s great grandfather who founded their family business.
After a year of experimentation she felt sure she was onto something worthwhile and made a portrait of Steve Jobs as a gift to her brother who develops apps. “Steve Jobs is like his iGod,” she laughs. This one came together in just 10 hours. She went on to make portrait quilts of, Hanspeter Ueltschi, the owner of Bernina (that one hangs in Bernina headquarters in Steckborn, Switzerland), and of Alex Veronelli. This year she’s on the Aurifil design team.
Shruti Dandekar and Alex Veronelli with a portrait quilt Shruti made of him.
A portrait quilt of Hanspeter Ueltschi, owner of Bernina, by Shruti Dandekar. This quilt was gifted to him when he visited India and now hangs at the Bernina headquarters in Steckborn, Switzerland.
Portrait quilt of Steve Jobs by Shruti Dandekar. This quilt was made as a gift for the artist’s brother who develops apps.
Recently Shruti had the opportunity to talk about quilting in India to an American audience at QuiltCon 2017 in Savannah where there was a special exhibit of quilts made by Siddis, Indians of African descent. “I did it for free because I wanted to do it so badly,” Shruti says of her standing room only lecture. “It inspired me to do much more in this field. Quilts are being made generation after generation and they are so similar to the modern quilts being made today, the improvisation and the simplicity.”