How things are made, vol. 2

Visiting workshops or homes to watch people make things by hand is one of our favorite traveling activities; in southeast Asia, we learned how to make incense, rice noodles and tofu. And now in India, where traditional handicrafts are still a way of life for millions of people, we’ve had more opportunities to see beautiful things take shape.


India is justifiably famous for its textile industry.

In Jaipur, we visited a traditional block-printing house. Block-printing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: designs are hand-carved into blocks of teak, then dipped in ink and stamped onto fabric. Different colors can be layered in, and the design is dried then set permanently through a special chemical treatment.


A hand-carved teak elephant block used for printing on fabric.


Please do not trip over these.


Hundreds of teak blocks in various designs.

Each block can only be used about two thousand times before the design becomes fuzzy and indistinct. That seems like a lot, but a single tablecloth might have three hundred or more imprints.


Skilled artisans can layer in different colors within the same design.


The fabric is placed in a chemical bath that alters some colors and sets the final design.

The city of Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, is known not only for India’s most famous attraction but also for its classical marble inlay work. This work involves carving shapes into marble, then filling those cut-outs with precisely cut semi-precious stones such as agate, turquoise, amethyst and onyx. Many of India’s significant monuments, including the Taj Mahal, showcase this craft; we were lucky enough to see it done up close.


A marble inlay serving platter in its early stages.


These artisans are carefully cutting semi-precious stones. The bamboo pole is attached to the wheel with string and operates the grinding wheel in a simple but ingenious manner. 


Carving the design into marble; flowers and other natural motifs are traditional.


Carved semi-precious stone pieces ready to be placed.


This flower is made up of six individually carved pieces. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this sort of work is staggering.

Like so many other traditional arts and crafts, marble inlay work, which requires thousands of hours of painstaking hand labor, is slowly being revived as people learn to value quality and authenticity again. The workshop we visited ships their marble pieces – some as large as tabletops! – all over the world.


An array of elaborate pieces for sale in the attached shop.


Can you imagine how many hours this took to make?

In the heart of Varanasi’s old city, thousands of people make their living spinning thread and weaving fabric into gorgeous, colorful saris, scarves and bedcoverings. The industry is centered in a rabbit warren-like area that houses both people and machinery. The clacking sound of the looms can be heard throughout the neighborhood.


Thread spools awaiting the loom.


Threading the loom is a complicated process.


Almost every doorway in the old city offers a peek into Varanasi’s main industry.


Even fabrics of a single color have such depth and texture.


More elaborate designs might require numerous thread colors.

Interestingly, the Jacquard loom, which revolutionized the textile industry, was also an important precursor to modern-day computers. The loom, still in use today, holds specially-punched cards laced together in a specific sequence, allowing the creation of complicated designs in the fabric. Early computers received programming instructions from paper tape punched with coded holes. Now go win at your next bar trivia night.


The noise of the looms operating was almost unbearable; of course, people still managed to live and sleep there.


Finished shawls and scarves.

Travel is not always about crumbling monuments and boring history!


How things are made

Hi! We’re in Cambodia! Adjusting to southeast Asia’s extreme temperatures (currently 96°F with 43% humidity) after New Zealand’s temperate climate has been a bit of a shock, but we’re adapting. The key? Drinking plenty of water and a hotel with a pool. Plus, no heavy-duty touring activities (like dusty temples) between the intense hours of noon and 5PM. One must take good care of oneself when traveling.


$29 a night gets you quite a bit of luxury in Siem Reap.

One of the benefits of traveling in less developed countries like Cambodia is often the opportunity to see things being made by hand that are almost always created by machine elsewhere. We participated in a tour that took us through small villages outside of Siem Reap where we had the chance to see incense, rice noodles, and tofu, among other things, all crafted by hand.


This incredible woman has been making incense sticks since she was 15. She’s now 76.


Scented bark, used as the base for the incense sticks.

Bark and other raw materials for the incense are collected from the surrounding area, then sifted and made into a paste with water. The paste is rolled around bamboo sticks, dusted and dried in the sun.


61 years of making incense by hand might be the embodiment of mastering one’s craft.


Dusting the incense sticks before they’re left to dry in the sun.


The finished incense sticks are collected into bundles and sold at the market for ceremonial use at altars such as the one below.


An altar at a village pagoda.

We stopped at a home in a village outside of Siem Reap where fresh rice noodles are made. As with most of the homes we visited, this business is a family affair, with everyone participating in the household’s livelihood.


The dough for these noodles is simply finely ground rice and water.


This contraption uses the well-known engineering theory of “playground seesaw” to knead and pound the dough in shallow pans.


The noodle dough is placed in the cylindrical press and tamped down with a wooden plunger.


The boy wasn’t heavy enough to weigh down the press, so another family member joined in.


Noodles gently dropping into their hot bath.

The family’s press is a simple yet ingenious human-weighted device that forces the thick, dense dough through a metal sheet pricked with tiny holes, creating the thin noodles. The noodles are quickly cooked in boiling water, then removed and drained.


Bundles are carefully weighed, although these women are so skilled and accurate that the scale probably isn’t even necessary.


The noodle bundles are packed in bamboo-lined rattan baskets for transport to the market and local restaurants.

Another stop was a house near Siem Reap’s wholesale market where a local family makes fresh tofu. Batches and batches are made every day and sold at the market or to a multitude of small restaurants. The “production kitchen” is of course also the family’s home.


The wood-fired stove used for heating the soymilk.

Tofu is made in a manner very similar to cheese: fresh soy milk is heated, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk, and the mixture is pressed to remove liquid.


The hot soymilk curdles immediately after the coagulant is added. 


The curd is drained through fabric before being placed in the press.


The drained curd is placed in a tray and pressed to remove liquid. Note the clever use of a bottle jack!


Finished tofu.


Tofu cubes, ready for sale. Tofu is always stored in liquid (usually filtered water) to keep it fresh and moist. 

If you’re interested in making your own homemade tofu, start here!