Balbir Kaur

Erin Dowding

Balbir Kaur (née Singh, born 1943) became a member of Dorothy Liebes’s New York studio in 1963 by way of Liebes’s secretary, Enid Lloyd Kekjik (Fig. 1). Born and raised in Chandigarh, India, Kaur was motivated to come to the United States at her brother’s encouragement. After completing her associate degree at the all-women’s Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri, Kaur moved into her brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights and needed a job. Kekjik, Kaur’s neighbor, took the young woman to the studio after describing the situation to Liebes, and Kaur started then and there.

With no background in textiles, Kaur began by doing odd jobs as needed around the studio, such as winding warps and learning to hook rugs from Emma Amos, with whom she worked closely over the years. Learning to weave from studio manager Ralph Higbee, Kaur helped where it was needed, doing a bit of everything: assisting Higbee, Amos, and weaver Engin Guleryuz with commissioned custom draperies, fabric for Bonnie Cashin, and sample rugs for Bigelow Carpets. “I had an interest and so I learned fast,” Kaur related on her time in the Studio, “I learned it all there” (Fig. 2). [1]

Liebes’s color combinations were strikingly different from other designers in New York City. The bright, sharp reds, oranges, and pinks reminded Kaur of the Indian state of Rajasthan. Liebes noticed Kaur’s own sense of color and took the young woman under her wing. A dynamic, creative mix of Liebes’s collaborators and friends—from Bonnie Cashin and Pauline Trigère to Jack Lenor Larson—would come through the studio, creating an impression on Kaur, and Liebes made sure Kaur met them all, introducing her as “a rising star in the textile field.” When the Sarabhais (of Calico Mills and the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad) came to town, Liebes introduced Kaur to them, ensuring a connection in case Kaur chose to return to India. Liebes gave Kaur a loom from the studio, handwoven toss pillows for her home, and encouragement on her own weaving.

Kaur worked at the studio for nearly four years before enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to study textile design. Her degree at FIT was fully funded through a John D. Rockefeller scholarship awarded with the help of Liebes’s recommendation. Kaur has kept her portfolio with mounted samples from her time working with Liebes for more than four decades. Reflecting on her time as a weaver in Liebes’s studio, Kaur simply states, “It was an honor.” [2]


[1] Balbit Kaur Singh, Zoom interview with Erin Dowding, November 9, 2023.

[2] Ibid.

A woman in a blue smock is bent over pulling strands of yard through heddles on shafts of a floor loom.

Fig. 1 Balbir Kaur threading the reeds of a loom in Dorothy Liebes’s New York City studio; From Irv Leos, “Dorothy Liebes: Idea Factory,” Modern Floor Coverings, February 1964; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

A woman standing in the foreground holding a rug sample with another woman sitting at a table to her right. In the background there are two women working on looms.

Fig. 2 Dorothy Liebes (foreground) and Emma Amos (right) with Balbir Kaur and Engin Guleryuz in Liebes’s Lexington Avenue studio, New York City; From Irv Leos, “Dorothy Liebes: Idea Factory,” Modern Floor Coverings, February 1964; Dorothy Liebes Papers

Erin Dowding

Erin Dowding is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at Parsons School of Design. She is a curatorial capstone and research fellow in the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.