Knotty Affair

The swinging monkey

Two pieces of wood woven into a cherry red handwoven fabric forms the background for a design of black and white threads, knotted to look like a monkey swinging from two poles.

The eye-catching bold designs is the backbone of a veteran handloom designer who has turned her back to mechanisations to embrace labour-intensive process to churn out colourful tapestries, table mats and table cloths.

“What inspires me? Everything around me,” laughs Marie Gnanaraj, artist and principle designer behind the “Barefoot” brand that has carved a niche making handloom fabrics, toys and clothes since 1964.

The petite-Gnanaraj, 59, initially juggled her speech and drama career with making beautiful handmade paper flowers, leaves and twigs for special occasions.

She briefly moonlighted as an audit trainee, before landing a job as a trainee designer at Barefoot in 1975.

“I was sent by the audit firm to help keep books at Barefoot,” chuckles Gnanaraj as she recalls her brush with Barefoot, a firm that has successfully built up a lucrative niche market among overseas clients.

“My background in decorating, flower making I think, gave me the courage to apply for the post. And I literally learnt on the weaving loom first under Ann Cock (fabric designer) and later Barbra Sansoni,” she said.


Using over 60 colours, Barefoot’s cotton and silk fabrics use geometric designs to give a distinct identity to their sarees, sarongs, shawls, rugs, mats, tapestries and furnishings.

Gnanaraj ventured further, creating works of art using yarn, rope, twigs, colourful bobbins, electrical wires and even permanent marker pens, to weave mats, tapestries and rugs.

“In Barefoot, we are taught that everything must look nice,” she says.

“We avoid black, because Barbra says we shouldn’t put black on the table. People should feel like eating at the table. So we use food colours like bright greens, oranges, purple, pinks, yellows for table linen,” she said.


Pastel colours are also avoided as it reminds users of babies excrement.

The contrasting colours are stunning, allowing the different textures of fabric to be used as a table top, a tapestry, a curtain or even a wrap-around sarong.

Under her own label “Marie”, Gnanaraj’s artistic style has developed to textured woven panels and table mats that are mixed with yarn and choir.

Today the tapestries — some done under her own label — add a touch of class to homes, offices and top resorts in Sri Lanka.

Sansoni, the designer, artist, writer and the backbone of the “Barefoot” label, once described Gnanaraj’s creativity as an artist who builds her work using colourful dyed threads, yarns of silk or coarse plant fibre.

“Her pieces come off the wall, travel over flat surfaces or hang, swinging in space like an indoor rainforest,” said Sansoni.

Having showcased her work in over dozen solo or group exhibitions, Gnanaraj’s tapestries are on public display to coincide with the Sri Lanka Design festival that starts on November 27.

Title “Dream Weaver”, she uses “knots” to illustrate her contemporary art.

“The weavers’ knot is the first step to learn the art of weaving. A weaver keeps joining the threads, and the knot becomes the solution for broken threads,” she explains while showing Colombo Spirit around her studio.

Weaving has also became the center of her life, with the wooden looms, bales of colourful yarns, threads and bobbins occupy a pride of place in her home, amidst medals for winning Latin dance competitions with her husband, Mano.

Gnanaraj’s family has grown up around her artistic creations. The creativity streak runs through her three children, who dabble in theatre, music and hand craft despite individual careers spanning engineering, law and fashion design.

Hailing from an artistic family, her mother used to illustrate nature using oil and water colours, while her aunts and siblings are deft at needlework, sugar craft, handmade cards and table decor.

“My career has taken many different paths, but the time I spend creating with yarns is the most rewarding experience.”

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