Khadi, handloom promoters want to defeat fast fashion with sound marketing

Once a symbol of fight against the British, entrepreneurs and activists are using state support, premium sales and international patronage to make women-worker-intensive traditional textile industry sustainable

Handloom is the name given to a fabric that is woven on a hand-operated weaving machine or loom, while khadi is handspun yarn used for a handwoven fabric. In the early 19th century, the British started producing cotton yarn using automatic machines in England and dumped them on Indian weavers. Nearly a century later, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement on 1 August 1920. It signified a new chapter in the history of Indian freedom struggle. One of its commandments included boycotting foreign goods and using only swadeshi, and that is where the use of khadi, among other things, became popular.

Both khadi and handloom industry have seen various ups and downs since then. Khadi saw its golden phase after India attained independence when the government started promoting it in a big way. However, over the years, the situation has changed. “At that time, Indians were fighting the British; but ironically today, it’s the foreigners who are helping us promote khadi, as ethical business models and sustainability are the buzzwords in the present-day design and fashion world,” pointed out Praveen Chauhan, the founder of ART: Association for Reforming Traditions.

In July 2015, he shifted from Delhi to Bihar to explore possibilities of promoting khadi. There he found many khadi institutions on the verge of extinction; some others lacked vigour to take on the challenges of the new world of competition. “The uniqueness of Bihar khadi is the quality of its yarn. One can see a good number of spinners coming up. The government is taking initiative in promoting khadi-based industries. It has declared 24 September as the Charkha Diwas. Once you are able to produce good-quality yarn, the fabric quality gets better automatically. In fact, most of the buyers find it the most authentic khadi they have used,” quips the patron in him.

Khadi entrepreneurs never lose sight of the ideal of sustainability. Making profits comes second. Initially Chauhan connected with the unemployed or the people badly affected by the Naxalite-hit areas. “If we talk about my business, we are able to provide sustainable livelihood to weavers, which includes fair wages, a respectable life and exposure to the international market. We like it when our buyers come from far and beyond to stay with artisans and learn from them. Such activities infuse a ray of hope for this sector. I really hope to see Bihar, as well as India, become the biggest producer of authentic khadi,” Chauhan said. It was this optimism that took him and his weavers to the Lakme Fashion Week last year.

Khadi and handloom entrepreneurs and promoters come in different guises. Prasanna is pioneers of the modern Kannada theatre, novelist and poet. His reasons to adopt and promote khadi were completely different from Chauhan’s. “Amongst all forms of art, theatre is the most sensual one. Here, we only use our body – hands and feet – and speech to express ourselves. So, it was natural that I gravitated towards crafts. I am fascinated by hand made, which is indirectly linked to sustainability. I believe that crafts are a natural amalgamation of the arts.”

He is instrumental in setting up Charaka, which is the largest producer of naturally dyed handloom products in the country. Its products are marketed under the brand name DESI, which is an acronym for Developing Ecologically Sustainable Industries. Its outlet in Bengaluru is not just a handloom store: it strives to provide a decent livelihood for handloom workers in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. The focus is on eco-friendly, ethical practices, which constitute messages to draw urban, educated buyers to these products. Charaka decided to “create a link between the city and the village by involving the conscientious millennials in building systems, which can boost the confidence of the rural community and provide dignity of labour”, said the founder.

Khadi and handloom promoters use both the logic of the market and learnings from the world of activism to make these products viable. Fighting the high taxes on handcrafted items, many producers thought it fit to start the Karamukta Andolan, which symbolically started on the Gandhi Jayanti on 2 October 2017 and emphasised on their products’ association with the freedom struggle. Their reasons seemed fair: hand-spun and handwoven textile increases employment and needs no electricity, which can address global warming. Considering the joblessness is increasing by the day in India, this sector’s potential to address the problem and handle gender inequality – since a large number of handloom workers are women – cannot be ignored. This campaign touched an emotional chord with the intended target: the patriots felt nostalgic about the freedom struggle and connected with the swadeshi message about traditional Indian industries.

Sayanchanda, a textile designer trained at the National Institute of Design, talks about khadi made on Amber Charakha. He wants to break the notion of handloom not being suitable for Western garments. Providing valid reasons, he says, “The handloom garment is strong and durable and does not bleed if coloured with particular methods of natural dying. And if sewn keeping in mind the technical aspects or unique characteristics of the fabric, then its seams will not open easily.”

Being a conscious millennial, he feels sad that India, despite having a rich history of traditional textiles, is unable to set standards globally. “Most Indian crafts are not even known to the masses. As textile designers, we need to strike a balance between tradition and practical application. A Lot of fashion designers prefer handloom products, instead of khadi, even though it ages beautifully. They opt for a fabric which is handwoven using a millspun and chemically dyed yarn. For me, khadi garments are naturally luxurious for their tactile quality and softness. One should strive for a good-quality handspun yarn, which is well woven. Irregularities make it unique with a beautiful selvedge. We should work at making good tailored khadi popular by keeping its price reasonable, since 70 per cent of us shy away from this fabric as we are price conscious. The khadi market right now is niche, unlike the by-gone era, when weavers earned well and sold directly to their target audience.”

Ghayur Alam and his British wife Patricia, on the other hand, have no choice but to produce handloom product with both millspun and handspun yarn due to the unavailability of handspun yarn in large quantities. Their label Himalayan Weavers produces shawls, clothing and home accessories with natural fibres, such as sheep wool, cotton and eri silk. The wool is sourced from the Bhutias of Himachal Pradesh and Gangotri, cotton from the mills in Delhi and eri silk from Assam. Alam says that it is only the older Bhutias who are still trading in this material, as the younger ones have opted for government jobs, which gives them a regular income. He added that there are possibly some newer traders of this wool who have not been involved in this business traditionally.

“Our main interest is in environmental-friendly processes with natural fibres, natural dyes and handweave. I personally prefer khadi to handloom, as it employs more people at the grassroots and because of its aesthetic value. Now, even khadi is handspun on new mechanical charkhas. Still, it is not yet economically viable to be in the wardrobes of a growing middle-income group. We pay 40 per cent higher wages than the market for handspun, even though it is two times more expensive than millspun, as most workers do handspinning only on part-time basis,” says Alam, shedding light on the difficulties they face in making their products affordable.

Whereas life for Hussain, a 21-year-old man from Mubarakpur in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, looks positive. He is the project co-ordinator and a weaver of Benarasi fabrics and sarees with 20 others, who have formed a special group which only profess to use pure yarn for handloom using cotton and silk for Kora and Katan. Supported by a private philanthropic trust, the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA), and the Burhani Mubarakpur Self-Help Group, this famous weaving centre has been set up under the brand name Mubarakpur Weaves.

Earlier working under master weavers, the young Mubarakpur artisans were unable to earn good wages or experiment with weaves and yarns. Now, under the mentorship of AIACA, this Generation Z is excited to be its own boss. Also, exposure through skill training and design intervention has encouraged them to earn better. Still, the real need is reaching out to a wider clientele as the supply is much more than the demand, with a direct-to-consumer approach.

It is not too difficult to find grassroots entrepreneurs realising the need to scale up and include modern methods of marketing their products. However, there are challenges. Hailing from a family of national awardees, a burly 42-year-old Sham Vishram Valji of Bhujodi in Bhuj district of Kutch sells the typical Gujarati colourful, geometric weaves, such as Satkadi, Wankia, Panchko, Chaumar, Chaumak, Hurdi, Dugli, Damru, Miri and Sanchor. Along with his elder brother Arjun, he has undertaken marketing activities for 150 weavers of his village. Through workshops, the brothers teach regional natural dying methods and weaving with locally produced cotton and wool. But, lately their biggest predicament is that weavers from their community are opting for fewer hours of work in new factories of consumer-goods heavyweights, such as Parle, Anchor Lights, Ashapura Bentonite, etc., which are situated within eight to 10-kilometre radius from the village. This fetches a person Rs 500 per day, as opposed to an entire family’s seven to eight hours of weaving and wrapping fetching only Rs 400.

Valji feels that design and technique intervention might help the families thrive in handloom business. And to widen horizons English medium schooling and funds to study at known design institutes of the country would surely go a long way in attracting their children to the profession.

Gobardhan Panika, a 60-plus-years-old weaver from Kotpad in Koraput district of Odisha, could not help feeling disheartened about the bleak future of his traditional craft. Cotton yarn, Tussar silk and Aul tree roots are the main materials for their textile work and the colours extracted are black and maroon. The hues range from deep maroon to dark brown, depending on the root and bark’s age along with the proportion of the dye with harikari or iron sulphate. These colours mixed with the natural unbleached off-white of the cotton yarn produce dramatic results. Their traditional motifs – conch, boat, axes, crab, bow, temple, fish and fan – reflect the surroundings in which they are developed by the extra wefts. However, children of the community are unwilling to learn these tedious processes, which take nearly a month to finish a product due to natural organic dying and handspun yarn.

He and his wife Jema are both national-award-winning tribal artisans. They have up to nine families engaged under them to produce traditional Kotpad handloom in cotton and Tussar silk. Kotpad handloom fabric was the first from Odisha to receive the Geographical Indication of India tag in 2005. With disinterested youth in the community, only 20 handlooms remain functional out of the 120 in his village, despite the youth having received training in their teens by their cooperative society for six months with a stipend.

Ravi Kiran, owner of Bengaluru’s only upmarket store dedicated to khadi Metaphor Racha, observes that the local consumption of khadi has reduced considerably in the rural areas of Karnataka because of pricing and thickness of sarees, making it difficult for women to work in the fields wearing them. He adds that the influence of movies on everyday fashion has also reduced the usage of khadi. He suggests a solution: “Designers should work with khadi institutes consistently. It is a futuristic fabric, which does not require any energy-intensive equipment for production. Moreover, in the most decentralised way, it empowers 60-70-year-old women who are unable to do tedious tasks in the fields. With a full fledged value chain, it could also check migration to cities.”

Simran Chaudhary, the designer of a niche label Artisau, makes women’s upmarket handloomed clothing. She is looking for the finest count of khadi, as its wearability and washability is much better depending on the design or silhouette of the garment. Its fibre is absorbent and retains colour. If the yarn is left loose while bailing and combing, it bleeds. To counteract that, she uses azo-free dyes for colour fastness. The hand-woven fabric forms air pockets in the fabric, which makes it cool in summers and warm in winters. Hand-woven fabric also has a textural beauty and visible character due to its thick yarn. Khadi cotton is a very strong fabric even when wet, so it holds up very well to repeat laundering and becomes softer with time. That is why she prefers to mix khadi with mulmul for a sturdier, long-lasting Malkha fabric.

The young entrepreneur says, “The handloom industry has the advantage of flexibility of small production quantities, agreeable to innovations, low investment, labour intensiveness and adaptability to market requirements. Trendy design sells, but not entirely on the texture of the fabric. Mill-made fabric is much tighter and their textures are entirely different. This minimalism and textured fabric could be very momentary. It has its restrictions but is here to stay. If mass produced, then this too will pollute as much as stated in the latest The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Fibers Initiative report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. Handloom ideally promotes ‘less is more’ while mill-made material does ‘fast-fashion’. In hindsight, I too feel handloom should become more niche, with designs and textures to be worn longer (recycled and reused). As just having a handloom product does not make anything sustainable; only the processes do.”

The khadi and handloom sector has managed to keep itself going even as many watchers have written its premature obituaries. Despite the rollercoaster ride it has had in the market, it is a bunch of ethical entrepreneurs, artisans and activists, with help from government and international institutions, who are not letting the momentum slow down. It is this spirit which is likely to make this sector sustainable and profitable.

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  1. Modiji has indeed made all this possible.It is sad that a few media houses backed by the left and falling Congress are trying to undo his good work.

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  1. Modiji has indeed made all this possible.It is sad that a few media houses backed by the left and falling Congress are trying to undo his good work.