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Travel Memories: Scarves with a Story

The author and her friend, James Jondreau, at the Taj Mahal.

 

By Beverly Stephen

You can keep your mugs and magnets, your snow globes, key chains, and t-shirts. I wrap my travel memories around my neck. I buy scarves. They’re not marred by logos or slogans. But they speak a sense of place—at least to me. Only I know my red cashmere scarf is from Paris. There’s no Eiffel Tower embroidered on it but it evokes memories of flaky croissants and charming cobblestone streets. The black silk with gold trim from Madrid only subtly suggests Flamenco. The alpaca from Peru is neutral but triggers memories of Machu Picchu.

I didn’t set out to collect scarves but over the years I realized it happened. They were relatively inexpensive and easy to pack and somehow they spoke to me as almost nothing else did.

I will confess to buying tango shoes in Buenos Aires and a concha belt in Sante Fe. Two minor indiscretions. Oh, and there was that bikini in Guadeloupe. But scarves are my true love.

Nowhere have I been more infatuated than on a recent trip to India. Textiles have long been a strong suit in India, known for its fine silks and handwoven carpets. In countless shops, there are piles of scarves from the featherweight pashminas to silk squares and shawls in glittering jewel tones of sapphire, ruby, and emerald. Upcycling saris into scarves is a thriving cottage industry providing employment for numerous village women.

Double paisley Anokhi block print scarf. Credit Anokhi USA.

I bought more than a few—some for gifts, some to keep–squares, rectangles, sarongs. There’s a fuschia silk whose former life was as a sari as was the intricately woven emerald, garnet, and gold stole. There were a couple of colorful silks and a magnificent hot pink with silver threads that are so long you just have to keep wrapping and wrapping until you feel really good about your neck.  And I must say the hot pink looked fabulous when we took a selfie at the Taj Mahal. The least you can do is dress for such a magnificent monument.

Nothing caught my imagination though like the Anokhi block print scarves. Each one is more beautiful than the next and the names are magical: moonlit garden, lilies on indigo, blue parrot. They are hand-printed on soft one hundred percent cotton voile. The story behind them is pure romance. The founders, the late John Singh, a Rajput royal, and his wife Faith, met by the pool at the legendary Taj Rambagh Palace in Jaipur in 1967. His philanthropic bent and her fascination with the entrancing colors and patterns of Indian textiles were the perfect marriage to embark on what would be a life-long mission to save the endangered craft of Indian block printing.

 

The Anokhi Starlight pattern. Credit Anokhi USA.

Over the years, the enterprise expanded. Today there are more than two dozen retail stores in India and they produce home accessories as well as clothing. The Anokhi office and factory on the outskirts of Jaipur is equipped with 200 sewing machines and employs 800 craftspeople and artisans involved in the hand block carving, printing, and dying. There are an additional approximately 2500 people whose living is largely dependent on their association with Anokhi. These are printers, dyers, weavers, embroiderers and other skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers who are part of the bigger picture.

An Anokhi museum, housed in a restored mansion a short walk from the renowned Amber Fort in Jaipur, displays a variety of textiles and the tools used to create them. Artisans are also on hand demonstrating the technique of block printing. It’s an enchanting stop on any tourist itinerary.

 

Block printing an Anokhi scarf by hand. Credit Anokhi USA.

Anohki even made it to the United States. Two ex-pat women Melanie Vogel and Meryl Nelson, then living in Saudi Arabia met at a Moms & Tots group. They had fallen in love with the prints on a trip to India and believed they could sell them through Tupperware style parties—which they did to great success. When they returned to the U.S, they opened a retail store on Newbury Street in Boston in 1987 and imported their inventory from Anokhi in Jaipur. They closed the store in 2007. Meryl retired and Melanie established the Anokhi USA retail website. (Yes, you can now buy a scarf online although it’s more romantic and less expensive to make the purchase in India if you happen to be there. There are currently 270 distinct prints available on the scarf section of the website.)

Carving the printing blocks. Credit Anokhi USA.

Today John Singh’s son Pritam runs the business. His wife Rachel, who originally came to Anokhi from London on a 10-week placement after graduating from Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design, is now the design director. She also founded the Anokhi Museum. Melanie’s daughter-in-law Gabrielle Vogel works as Anokhi USA’s photographer and graphic designer. Friends and family.

Not all my scarves have as inspiring a back story as Anokhi. But I treasure each one. When I tie a scarf around my neck or drape a shawl over my shoulders, or cover up a bathing suit with a pareo, images of their exotic origins come flooding back—Provence, Lyon, Delhi, Como,  Paris, Madrid, Lima, Punta Cana. Thanks for the memories!

To purchase Anokhi scarves in the US, please visit Anokhi USA.

 

 

 

Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays.

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