There are few products circulating throughout the United States with the same sense of history and craft appreciation as Auntie Oti's textiles. (And no, we aren't speaking of so-called "heritage" brands.) Susan Hahn, the founder and designer of the line, travels to India collecting "everyday" domestic articles, from blankets to towels, scarves to throws, all of which are produced on a local level. Khadi, a practice in which materials are hand-spun and hand-woven in India, more specifically, is her specialty. We visited Susan's Park Slope home and make-shift showroom to talk about her passions to preserving a craft, her experiences in India, and what makes Khadi an aspirational example of living, both spiritually and politically.
The following are excerpts of conversation from our morning spent together.
On how she began Auntie Oti...
"Before I was doing Auntie Oti, right out of college, I started a clothing line. I did that until 2002, and then I still worked as a clothing designer until 2010. I was working for someone else and I was traveling to India. I’ve always been interested in, when traveling places, going to places like the stationery store and the hardware store, just to find those everyday things that are slightly different than what we have. I find that really exciting. So in India I was doing the same thing, I would find things there that were ubiquitous that I’ve never seen before and I’d try to hunt them down. Simultaneously, I became really interested in Khadi, so when I would go to India I would try to find real Khadi for myself. I would buy towels and things like that for myself and bring them home and give them as gifts."
"I lost my job and I was trying to figure out what to do. I went to Marlow & Sons to help them design a sweater, and then while I was there I offered them Khadi towels that would fit into their assortment. It sort of turned into a business just by accident, I never really thought of something that I was collecting for myself could be anything beyond that. The nice thing is, the business is so fun because I’m not designing into a season or designing into a moment, it’s just things that are really beautiful."
What is Khadi?
"Right now Khadi is overseen by government agency called the KVIC, which is the Khadi board. Within that, there are hundreds of these small Khadi weaving societies. This grew out of the 1920’s when India was still under British rule. The average person was incredibly poor and lived in a village and weren’t able to meet their basic needs. Ghandi sort of had this Utopian vision of a self-sustaining village where each person had their role and provided a service. People would be spinning yarn and weaving fabric, and simultaneously Britain was dumping all this machine made cloth on Indians. Indians had stopped making their own cloth, which they’d done for centuries earlier, but they weren’t able to afford this new machine made cloth. And what Ghandi was saying was that if everyone could spin and weave, everyone could clothe themselves and it wouldn't cost much money -- this was also a way of throwing off the British suppression. It was a peaceful resistance. Everyone was to spin a little each day. The act of spinning became a political statement. That’s why the government protects the craft of Khadi, and politicians will wear Khadi, because it’s celebrating what India's strengths are."
"I’ve narrowed it down to two different cities that I work in. I’m based mostly in Bangalore, which is in southern India. It’s pretty mellow even though there’s 8 million people there. Khadi, too, even though you might find it one region, it might come from another since it’s often traded. Because of certain types of weather, you can only spin certain counts of yarn -- meaning the thickness of the yarn. In Calcutta, the weather is as such that you can spin really, really fine; nobody else can spin that fine. I also work in Gujarat, the birthplace of Ghandi, so there’s a lot there to buy."
"I’ve always wished to help to preserve a dying craft, so in that way I feel like it really is helping to perpetuate Khadi and the Khadi industry. Everyone is always telling me that Khadi is dying, that the weavers are dying off, but there’s still thousands of people doing it. In India it’s sort of looked at as this old fashioned thing, the traditional types of things that I’m buying. At the same time, a younger generation thinks it’s kind of hip. Certain designers at this moment in India are starting to use it and highlight it. The things that I’m bringing in are very much standard issue blankets, towels, handkerchiefs, that type of thing that’s super traditional, and most things Indians wouldn’t give a second look to -- just because they’ve seen it so much."
"When most people would think of India, myself included, they would think of sequins and really garish colors, that sort of thing. But Khadi is sort of subtle, it has a pretty small color palette."
"It’s the kind of place where you’ll be doing nothing and see the most shocking thing. And that happens every day. I was walking to where I could get a rickshaw to go to work and I saw this donkey that was white with pink polka dots on it, and I couldn’t believe it. That’s how they mark that they’re theirs."
"The people are more philosophical. Just the average person in India is very philosophical, I think you have to be, as life is really difficult there."
"The whole idea behind the line is celebrating the mundane. There’s a lot of style going on here with heritage, but people are really drawn to the textiles because they’re so real. The people that are making them are not trained designers, they’re artisans, and they come through generations of people doing the same thing. They aren’t educated in design, per say, but they have it much deeper than we have it. And I feel like that’s the reason why they’re so compelling to me."
"It’s all for this higher purpose, where as we’re striving, we are trying to please, they could care less. They are just making it. And you can feel difference I think. So that’s what keeps me excited. There’s all these infinite variations. The things are just real, they’re not brands."
Aunti Oti products are available in both our Brooklyn and Amagansett locations.
A few photos of Susan's travels below from her blog: