Having grown up in a quaint, 18th-century house in England, whose walls were festooned with paintings and garden bedecked with seasonal flowers, British textile historian, entrepreneur and now author Jenny Housego has sought the familiar warmth of bright colours all her life. “The flowers were very dear to my mother, it’s where my love for colour may have begun before I was whisked away to a world of carpets in gorgeous hues and designs from Iran, Pakistan and India,” she fondly recalls.
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Through her memoir, A Woven Life, co-written by journalist Maya Mirchandani, she takes a trip down memory lane, reminiscing the adventurous journey she undertook from war-hit England to the valleys of Kashmir. This, however, was not the life she had planned while growing up during the Cold War. “I had imagined myself sitting astride the Berlin Wall sending entirely wrong information to both the British and German army, while working as a spy!” she laughs.
Jenny Housego (Photograph: Adil Hasan)
Her first stint as a businesswoman wasn’t an easy one, especially while living in a new country. But what set her apart was a keen eye, not just for carpets but also talented artisans. While she never got to running around as a spy, she did get to travel across countries and have life-changing experiences that inspire her to this day. She moved to India in 1989 and set up her first textile company, Shades of India, with her then-husband David Housego, in 1992. “Colour and texture are the most fascinating features of Indian textiles and I truly believe that the local artisans have been my greatest teachers,” she adds.
Jenny Housego with co-founder of Kashmir Loom, Asaf Ali
When she met Kashmiri carpet dealer Asaf Ali, he was all of 16 and a novice. But she had sensed a tremendous amount of potential in him and eventually went to start her luxury brand, Kashmir Loom, with him as co-founder. Her biggest challenge however was to convince Ghulam Hassan, their top weaver, to use metallic yarn with Pashmina wool to modernise age-old weaving designs. “The result was overwhelmingly beautiful and we realised that we need to revive other traditional weaving techniques like Kani, which were dwindling as well,” she adds. Since then she’s stayed determined, reviving different crafts and weaves in the country, while telling her artisans, “Nothing is impossible”, a line she believes that living in India has taught her.
According to Mirchandani, it is this resilience and passion for life that has helped her survive a stroke that led to partial paralysis in 2010. “She is delightful—funny, witty and never tires of hearing other peoples’ stories—which is a wonderful gift,” she says. But what stands out about her is also her vulnerability, which has made her stronger over the years. “Her need for perfection is often at odds with what is going on around her and I could relate to that bit about her. Her anxiety to what the world may think of her when her story is out—makes her real, so relatable,” adds Mirchandani.
A Woven Life, by Jenny Housego and Maya Mirchandani, will be published by Roli Books in May