Behind the scenes: a designer’s trip to India

Way back in February, when most of us were hibernating in the depths of a British winter, the designers at Habitat were in decidedly warmer climes working on the spring summer 2016 collection. The development of the range took them to India, a country usually visited twice a year, where the majority of our textile based collections are produced. It is also a country of endless inspiration so we caught up with Habitat’s textile designer, Martha Coates, to find out just what goes into making your rug.



Martha Coates is Habitat’s textile designer covering cushionsrugsbedlinen and surface pattern for tabletop ceramics. She studied textiles at Manchester University, graduating in 2010. She came straight out of uni to work for Habitat, leaving briefly, before returning in 2013.




Habitat Blog: India forms a major part of Habitat’s supply base, how often do you travel there?

Martha Coates: We tend to go twice a year – usually in February and August. The February trip was to work on spring summer ’16.

HB: So, you were working a year in advance?

MC: Actually longer than that! The design process starts 18 months in advance, but the trip is a year before. And it does take that long…to get it through development, the photoshoots and everything…you run out of time in the end!

HB: How does the design process start for you?

MC: We collate design packs detailing the stories and direction for the particular season. Included in these will be colour palettes, imagery, inspirational details and artworks from which suppliers can work from. India produces a lot of our textiles; the packs are sent in advance and we then go on trips to review samples and work on new ideas. We have been working with our Indian suppliers for a long time; we send them artworks, often just something painted, and they are so good at interpreting them. If it’s a cushion we will send the correct artwork, to scale, but if it’s a rug, you can give them a bit of creative freedom. It completely depends – sometimes we send very strict instructions if we have a specific design idea we’re trying to achieve but if we know they’ve got a certain technique or they’ll interpret it in a certain way then you can work to their strengths and collaborate on the design.




HB: Where are you based during a trip? A showroom or a factory?

MC: The agencies we work with are based in Delhi so we can see suppliers from all over India who come to Delhi to visit us. But the best bit about this trip was going to visit the suppliers in their factories, like our rug suppliers who are about 2 hours outside of Delhi. If a supplier’s showroom and factory are in the same place you get to see everything – samples and production. It’s amazing.

HB: Are you always based in Delhi or do you travel?

MC: On this trip we were mostly in the Delhi region but previously we have headed south to Kerala where some of our handwoven towel suppliers are. We’ve also been to Varanasi where all our handknotted rugs are made – we plan to go back there on the next trip to develop autumn winter ‘16. We also have suppliers in Jaipur.

HB: The nature of Indian manufacture is very handcrafted. Is that your experience of it when designing for Habitat?

MC: Yes all the Indian products are handcrafted. So, all the rug’s yarns are hand dyed, they’re handwoven or handtufted. It’s incredible. There will be a man sitting there, literally hand weaving every single Habitat rug. Most people don’t realise what goes into their rug; that it’s handmade and therefore unique. The hand of the maker is all the way through it.




HB: Is there always something new to see on your trip? A new technique, or fabric?

MC: It’s all still quite new for me because I’ve only been going for the past 2 years or so. Gemma [Habitat’s textiles buyer] has been going for 15 years so I’m not sure what she’d say! She’s probably seen a lot! But India is always inspiring and there’s always something that catches the eye.

HB: India can be quite an assault on the senses – balancing Western expectation with the chaos that hits you the moment you arrive. Does the trip always go to plan?

MC: We’ve worked with a lot of our suppliers for a long, long time so we do have an idea of what to expect and they know what we want to see. But sometimes, we’re in their pristine showroom and everything’s laid out beautifully for review and you ask to see something else. So someone runs off into a little room and you spot something and they’re like, “oh no, you don’t want to go in there’! But that’s exactly where you want to be; you want to go into that little room…rummaging around in boxes and riffling through shelves. You want to see stuff that’s chucked in the corner or a swatch from 10 years ago because it might be relevant now…it might trigger something.


HB: I almost never wanted a supplier to prep, I wanted to see the samples they’d edited out…

MC: Totally. And that’s why it’s so much better when we visit the suppliers at their factories and showrooms rather than looking at what they’ve managed to transport to us in a suitcase to our agents’ showrooms.

HB: How do you feel when you see the samples you’ve designed?

MC: The first time I went to India, I had this very ‘real’ moment where I thought, “wow, that’s the man who makes my rug!” It was quite a shock to see it being made. Before I’d been, it would just turn up in the office and I’d have no concept of what had gone into it: the amount of work, the people and processes involved, just to get that design…knowing it was just a made-up idea in my head. I was quite gobsmacked. There’s also the other side…the anxiety of wondering whether it worked or not. Gemma is quite used to it; sometimes things don’t work, but all I could think was that someone had spent so much time making it and it wouldn’t go anywhere! And that’s difficult because things, quite rightly, get dismissed quickly, but I thought, we’d developed that, someone had made it and now we were just going to forget it?! You might go to supplier and only one thing out of ten has worked and you feel a responsibility for their business.




HB: On the flipside, there must be a that buzz of visiting an Indian supplier and seeing a concept that has just worked and you know that your products are going to support that business and the wider community. In the world of mass retail, does that make Habitat feel like quite a unique place to work?

MC: Yes, because the whole process is lead by the design. Habitat does feel crafted, a lot more unique, a lot more artisan-led. Even though it has a clean, modern aesthetic, it might be about a bright white wall but with an amazing tribal rug in front of it.

HB: Is your personal style quite handcrafted or do you prefer a more minimal look?

MC: I think it’s quite handcrafted, quite ethnic but not too ethnic…

HB: So no dream-catchers and patchouli!?

MC: No [giggles]!! But the hand of the maker, especially in textiles, I love that.

HB: Do you get any time off during a trip to explore?

MC: The trips are so packed…the last trip we had about 5 hours sleep a night. We also went to Amendabad and we had a lot of internal flights. It was just shattering! A spare hour was spent collapsing in bed. I keep meaning to extend a trip and tag a little holiday on the end but after 10 days of craziness I’m really ready to come home. Even though I loved it there…it’s just amazing…but you’re so tired [laughs]!

Thanks so much to Martha, I don’t think any of us will look at a Habitat rug in the same way again! Keep checking the blog for more behind-the-scenes insights at Habitat over the coming months.

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