In 1908, the famous American artist John Singer Sargent painted an artwork he titled Cashmere. It is a striking work, showing seven women standing in a field. Sargent, known for his portraits, paints the faces of five of the women beautifully (the other two do not face the viewer), but what is worth noting too is the fact that all the women wear huge, all-enveloping shawls that cover them from head to toe. The shawls are ‘Cashmere’ ones, beautifully decorated with paisleys, of the kind that were wildly popular and very fashionable at the time Sargent painted this picture.
Sargent, however, might not have imagined just what an impact his painting would have, a hundred years down the line, on the shawls of Kashmir. For it was Sargent’s grand-niece, his sister’s granddaughter, Jenny Housego, who used one of his paintings of a Cashmere shawl to draw inspiration and revive the art of ‘kani weaving’ as part of her endeavour to keep alive the textiles of Kashmir.
Jenny Housego—founder of Kashmir Loom, an enterprise that creates exclusive, contemporary reworkings of traditional Kashmiri textiles, weaves and embroideries—begins her memoir, A Woven Life, with the story of her ancestors. From their ancestral home in Switzerland to England, where Jenny was born in 1944. The early years of her life, from the shortages and trauma of World War II to the almost Enid Blytonesque-charm of childhood days in the countryside, are the stuff of nostalgia itself.
From England to Kashmir is a long way, and from the young woman who got a job at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to the woman who founded Kashmir Loom is a long way, too. Jenny tells her story with panache and surprising candour. In chronological order, she talks of her life, first in England, and then, after her marriage to journalist David Housego, on travels abroad. Jenny and David’s stints in places such as Iran and Afghanistan read like a gripping travelogue-cum-cultural exploration: some hair-raising adventures combine here with vivid memories of discovering the tribal rugs of these areas, as well as weathering turbulent times: the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance.
For the Indian readership, especially those who know of Kashmir Loom, Jenny’s shifting to India, and the Housegos’ subsequent setting up of Shades of India, are probably of more relevance. Jenny traces the genesis of Shades of India, which was devoted to popularising high-quality Indian textiles abroad while upscaling and revolutionising the quality of these products in India. How Jenny finally left Shades of India as well as David and moved on to found Kashmir Loom forms the last chapters of A Woven Life.
A slim book, this one brings together many disparate elements from a life that seems to have been more eventful than most. From her entrepreneurial ventures to some traumatic experiences (her teenaged son was kidnapped by militants during a trip to Kashmir), from travels and adventures across Central Asia and the Middle East to her falling in love with Kashmir, Jenny talks of it all. In the process, she gives us a deep and intimate glimpse into her own personality: she comes across as an emotional, extremely passionate person, with a sense of humour and an unfailing sense of adventure.
Behind the smiling exterior, one can detect a core of steel: a strength that enabled Jenny to recover after a debilitating stroke that left her paralysed down one side but could not stop her from going back to Kashmir and Kashmir Loom. A Woven Life ends up being not just an engrossing memoir of a person, but an insight into varied concepts and ideas, all the way from art and craft to independence, women’s rights, globalisation, and more. A fine book about the warp and weft of life.