Majeda Clarke tells Imogen Greenhalgh why she gave up teaching for textiles
When the five year-old Majeda Clarke arrived in Britain from Bangladesh, the country was in the midst of a heatwave. ‘It was 1976, that famous hot summer,’ the textile designer recalls with a chuckle, when we meet in her sunny studio in Cockpit Arts in Deptford. ‘Everyone else was falling apart, melting, but we were absolutely loving it. It helped to acclimatise, I suppose.’
Clarke had landed in Stockport, along with her mother and younger sister, to join her father, who had been based there since the sixties. Behind them, the trio left a comfortable and decidedly middle-class existence in Bangladesh, growing up on her grandparents’ tea plantation. ‘It was heaven there, we just ran wild,’ she smiles. ‘I called Bangladesh home until I was 12 or 13. It was a real culture shock coming here. But I can’t imagine how it must have been for my mother. She’d never cooked or cleaned, and now she was trying to use a Hoover, in an end of terrace in Stockport, with no friends, no family, nothing.’
Like many Bengali women, Clarke’s mother had learned to make her own clothes, so took up work stitching denim in a factory and at home, improving her English at night school. ‘Textiles were always there in the background. She sewed all day, and gave us scraps and bits of fabrics at home,’ remembers Clarke. ‘We were pretty much surrounded by it. Until she retrained as a teacher – then we never saw a piece of fabric again.’
When Clarke recounts the tale, you sense a kind of rift, between the world of textiles and craftsmanship so integral to life in Bangladesh – ‘a country of makers’ – and their new life, as an aspirational Muslim family on the outskirts of 1970s’ Manchester. The eldest daughter, Clarke was encouraged to study academic subjects that would land her ‘a sensible job’, and took up a post as an English teacher after university.
And though, by her own admission, she fell into the profession, she proved a natural, clambering quickly through the ranks to become head of English at a secondary school by the age of 29, and later an educational consultant. By the time her third child arrived, however, she was keen to change tack, taking up a place on a year-long textiles course at City Lit, followed by a degree at The Cass. ‘I was 40 when I started the BA – nearly 20 years since my first degree. It was scary, but I’ve never looked back.’
Four years after graduation, it’s easy to see why Clarke feels confident in her choice. After ‘a bit of a lost year’, she won a prestigious foundation award from Cockpit Arts and the Clothworkers’ Guild, gaining two years of studio space, business support and an all-important loom. She has also completed the Crafts Council’s Hothouse scheme, and her business – while still young – appears to be flourishing.
Evidence in the studio when I visit includes boxes of strikingly beautiful double cloth blankets ready to be launched at New Designers, hand-woven by a Carmarthenshire mill. There is also a selection of her elegant Dhaka muslin scarves, spotted by the owner of Mint, Lina Kanafani, for the design gallery’s summer show. If lambswool blankets from Wales and translucent Dhaka muslin sounds like an eclectic mix, that’s because it is – deliberately so. ‘I love that my work can’t be pigeonholed,’ she smiles, pointing out her personal links to both Bangladesh and Wales through her husband’s family. ‘Identity is a huge issue for an immigrant who doesn’t have place, so it’s incredibly important to me. Home is the eternal problem for everyone in the diaspora, so I wanted to explore that.’
Working with jamdani weavers based in a handful of villages at the mouth of Ganges was the plan from the start. ‘In Bangladesh it is prized,’ she says, with the cloth, described by the Romans as ‘woven air’, evoking memories of her childhood and her grandmother’s elegant saris.
But before creating designs, she was determined to learn their techniques. ‘I didn’t just want to be the person designing. I wanted the respect of being a maker, to know how things work,’ she explains. ‘But they don’t let you in unless they know you. How they make the cloth is a secret, because it’s the only thing India can’t make.’
Despite her unlikely status, as a middle-class woman from the Bengali diaspora, Clarke persisted. Sitting alongside the men at their looms she acquired their vocabulary – ‘different to Bengali, a weaving language’ – finally convincing them to collaborate with her. And it hasn’t all been plain sailing, with some initial aesthetic differences to iron out: ‘I wanted them to use a motif at random in a design; randomness is a kind of principle in all my work, it makes you know it’s done by hand,’ she says. ‘They’re used to making things so perfect, so exact – they called me really worried, saying “apa [sister] – it’s really ugly!” But I think they’re happy now.’
With demand for Clarke’s designs growing she is adamant this commitment to place, people and sustainability remains at the heart of everything she does. And she’s got to have time to make, too: ‘I am a designer, but being able to make is different. It’s a gift of self-expression. It’s about who you are.’