Rachel Jeffries uses vibrant, planet-friendly fabrics from Rajasthan to make ethical and comfortable clothes for her local customers
Natural dyes and fair working conditions are all-important in Rachel Jeffries’ clothing. She brings the brilliant colours of an Indian bazaar to Dorset – a journey that begins deep in rural Rajasthan. She has travelled into the heart of India, both figuratively and physically, to learn how the clothes she sells are produced. She has stalls at the monthly Sherborne and Shaftesbury markets, and is stocked in a shop in Frome.
In the winter months she returns to Jaipur, where she designs her fabrics and clothing range.
And the rest of that paragraph goes. where she designs her fabrics and clothing range. Her stall is easy to spot – the riot of vibrant colour brings the bright shades of an Indian bazaar to Dorset. For ten years, Rachel had an Indian textiles emporium called House of Eunice on London’s South Bank. ‘During those years I went on an amazing journey. I wanted to travel to the source of my textiles rather than using middle men. I wanted to see where the money was going,’ she says. ’There are some incredibly talented artisans but often they only get a pittance for their work. Whenever I travelled to India I took an extra excursion, into the interior. I wanted to bring back the story.
‘I saw what was happening on the ground, and the more I saw the more I was motivated to work within a fair trade ethos. These are the real core values of my business.
‘I effectively gave myself an apprenticeship in how to make clothes. I’m totally self-taught. At first I bought some clothes off the peg from Indian wholesalers, but the fit just wasn’t right. The fabric was beautiful but the fit just wasn’t there. For example, Western women have broader shoulders. And as we age, there are body parts that we’re sensitive about. I quickly realised that I needed to design clothes to cater to my western customers. Through necessity, I learned to make patterns.’
When the lease on Rachel’s London shop ran out, she decided to relocate to Frome, just before Covid hit. After lockdown, her business continued to evolve with a rebrand to Jaipur Joy and she sold direct from market stalls. Her direct contact with India has helped her in developing her business and given her a second chance, she says. Her focus is on the environment and the impact of the clothing industry. She sees countless examples of poor working conditions in India and is determined to work fairly and directly with the artisans. ‘I discovered ugly dyeing processes, such as an acid-based bath where workers were operating barefoot and had no protection. It has a terrible impact on both the people and the environment. I felt that there had to be a better way – I didn’t want my fabrics to depend on these processes. Then I found a wonderful community of printers who work in a more humane way, using natural dyes. They bake the designs on the fabric using rollers in an oven. Fabric gets through the rollers in five minutes and it fixes the dyes.
‘I also work with artisans who are using plant enzyme technology, which is far kinder to the environment. Significant amounts of water are used in the process and a lot of dyes end up in rivers. I’m working with artisans who use a natural process – they’re using the calla lily in the water, because it produces natural enzymes which effectively ‘eat’ the waste material, making the water almost drinkable so it can then be reused. It is much cleaner.
That’s really important in a desert state like Rajasthan.’
Jaipur is famous for its colourful sandstone buildings, earning it the name of The Pink City. It inspired Rachel to design an initial capsule collection of clothing,and, to her amazement, she sold out of the six designs and four colours.
Rachel loves Jaipur: ‘There’s so much beautiful architecture, and the history of the Mughals, the Maharajahs, the palaces, the art … and, of course, the people. They are so warm and joyful.’
When Rachel started working with artisans she encountered several people greeted as masterji – a term of respect for a male teacher. ‘You really have to work with a masterji. There is a masterji for printing, for dyeing and for pattern cutting. They are the experts and they command significant respect. You need your masterji to get things done. In fact, when I was there they called me madamji!’
The patterns and processes of some of Rachel’s textiles are embedded in Indian culture. For example, some designs use Kantha stitching – ‘essentially a running stitch and used to quilt fabrics together. We’re only just getting started with recycling in this country, but other nations have been doing things a lot longer. Typically, old saris or curtains were sewn together to make a bedspread or bed cushion, to make a further use of the fabric. It’s originally from West Bengal, a region known for its monsoon rains – when they sew Kantha stitching they try to imitate the monsoon rainfall in the embroidery. It’s very dense, vertical embroidery.’
Rachel has Kantha-stitched jackets and throws in stock, as well as a range of pintuck shirts, tunics and comfortable loosest dresses, and bags dyed with natural indigo and pomegranate.
At the end of September, Rachel will head back to Jaipur, but her fabrics and clothing will still be on sale in Sherborne, Shaftesbury and Frome, as well as being available to buy direct on her website.