This weekend, I went to the the Hermès Festival des Métiers in New York. It’s off to its other U.S. destinations of San Francisco and Houston, and I highly recommend it to you if you’ll be anywhere near those cities.
First, we watched Naomi explain the steps necessary to create the transparencies for the scarves. She showed us a design from last year’s collection, based on a painting of an Indian woman. Each color requires a different transparency on which she draws the elements that will be reproduced in that shade. The face and hair alone took 14 transparencies. Naomi has been working for Hermès for32 years and she has produced a total of only 40 scarf designs. The Indian woman represented 2,000 hours of work.
Next, we watched what happens when Naomi’s designs are turned into the screens for each layer of the design. Using a much simpler design than the Indian woman, the master printers showed us how they went from white silk to the end result of the printed scarf you see here (before it’s trimmed and the edges are hand-rolled and sewn.
The first screen has the black outline and every subsequent screen has to be lined up precisely so that everything stays inside those lines. The dye is spread on the screen with the giant squeegee you see Henri, a 35 year Hermès veteran, wielding. The dyes are of different viscosities, depending on the size of the holes in the screen.
The 40 “mother dyes” are made up one week at a time so that they don’t dry out and then the nuanced colors that the artists have identified are blended from those 40. Sometimes the dye was applied to the whole scarf, sometimes just to one section.
If you are artistic, Hermès welcomes art submissions. The Indian woman was painted by a postal worker from the American south. A Congolese artist, who has been working for them for the past 15 years, started when he was only 14.
One of the aspects of the exhibit that I really enjoyed was the opportunity to ask questions of the various craftspeople. I asked many of them how many years l’apprentissage lap-ren-tea-sazj), the apprenticeship, had taken. In Naomi’s case, the answer was 8 years. As a teacher in the U.S., I’m convinced that the drive to push everyone into a 4-year college is misguided. There needs to be a viable apprenticeship program for meaningful skilled trades in place, and then jobs to work in after graduation. Each of the artisans were more than an ambassador for Hermès; they were ambassadors for a way of life that values skill over speed. Coincidentally, one of the bloggers I follow just published a post on The Pleasure of Working by Hand. That value was certainly in evidence at this event. I’ll show you some of the other artisans and their handwork in subsequent posts.