In the West, hand-weaving is a relic for museums, crafts fairs, and people in search of something special. In India, handloom-woven fabrics - called handloom or khadi (referring to both loom and cloth) continue to be part of everyday life.
A significant percent of the population earns a living spinning, weaving and embellishing textiles, the majority of which are sold within India, at prices comparable to those of their machine-made competitors. Surprising, given that a weaver easily spends two full days to produce one sari (six metres of cloth), which a machine can churn out in a few minutes. And yet, the handloom industry employs millions of people (significantly more than its industrial counterpart), over 80 per cent of whom are women.
Most Indians are conscious of the economics of handlooms: when there are not enough hands, it makes sense to economise labour; when there are too many hands, it does not. Though industrialisation exists in India, one would be surprised to learn when buying Indian goods how much work is still done by hand. Often, factories are not huge industrial centers, but small, semi-outdoors, or even cottage operations. Electrical supply cannot be counted on. Machines can break down and need expensive parts. Hands can be counted on.
Valuing handlooms may be linked to Hinduism - indeed the Sanskrit word chakra (energetic hotspot in the human body) is etymologically linked to charka (spinning wheel), suggesting an importance of spinning and weaving for maintaining balance. Tantra, a philosophy which took root in India, signifies weaving and uses it as a metaphor for the interaction of male and female energies (the warp and weft, which come together to create fabric). Weaving engages the entire body in precise, rapid and repetitive gestures that can be like meditation.
Despite the cheerful atmosphere of weavers' centres, it must be kept in mind that these women are, on the whole, grossly underpaid. Government-employed weavers earn roughly 100 dollars per month. This is not a bad salary for menial labour (minimum wage is around 60 dollars per month) - it is only curious that handloom weaving is considered as labour, not as art. The artistic value is rarely brought to light, in spite of prizes awarded to master artisans thanks to efforts of Weavers' Service Centers.
Mahatma Gandhi is a sort of 'patron saint' for weavers. The charka, or spinning wheel, figures in the center of the Indian flag, and Gandhi himself is often pictured working on one. The charka survives as a proud symbol of Indian independence from British rule. For example, a recent advertisement pictures a charka-like wind-generator with the caption 'leading India towards energy independence'. The ecology and economy of the charka is considered wholly compatible with a progressive and prosperous India.
Making one's own textiles was a revolutionary gesture for Indians. Under British rule, raw materials had been exported from India and processed into textiles using machines in Britain, then sold back to Indians at a high price. Khadi was an immediate alternative to this snare of colonial exploitation.
Are handlooms better quality?
Many say they are, citing a higher thread count, more comfort and coolness. The look of handspun thread woven by hand is difficult to reproduce by machine. Ironically, while industrial fabric designers try to replicate this appealing texture, many handloom weavers still think - or their local markets dictate - that a uniform product is best (thus as close as possible to looking like factory-woven cloth). The beauty of handloom cloth is readily seen by those who do not crave such 'perfection', and one can usually tell right away by the uneven border when a machine was not involved.
The Indian government offers important subsidies to promote handloom weaving, notably to weavers' cooperatives. These grassroots structures provide raw materials to weavers and commercialise their creations. They often provide other services, and favour children's education and women's rights. Though there is much corruption and misuse of the system, particularly from bureaucrats who act as middlemen, there are also many sincere and effective initiatives. Protection from middlemen is one of the stated goals of cooperatives in many regions where intermediaries would take nearly all profits, pitting weavers - who had no access to other markets - against each other to get the lowest price.
Cooperatives guarantee a fixed price; whether it is a fair price depends largely on the individuals in charge. Hand-weaving allows many women to work from home while taking care of children and elders. Weavers also speak of gaining independence from unreliable husbands who spend their own earnings not on the household budget, but on gambling and alcohol.
Recognising that weaving women's workload is unequally heavy, many cooperatives, such as the Sunderbans Khadi Village Industrial Society (SKVIS) work for women's rights, for example through protesting against the dowry system, child marriages, and promoting education for girls. SKVIS was founded thirty years ago by six young village women who wanted an alternative future to the traditional path of marriage, oppression and poverty. They asked for help from a local philanthropist, who gave them advice on how to help themselves. They began with almost nothing, and today help thousands of village women to support themselves and their families.
There are thousands of varieties of 'wild silks' - that is, those that are not made from the mulberry-leaf silkworm (as is most of the silk we wear in the West). Wild silks are generally spun silks, where the process begins with a pile of fibre, just like for cotton or wool. Mulberry silk, on the other hand, is a reeled silk: the cocoon is unwound, thus the same thread exuded by the silkworm is used. This process requires unwinding the cocoon before the silk-moth can emerge (thus killing it through boiling the cocoons); otherwise it will break the thread by chewing through it. Wild silks are of tremendous ecological interest, because they allow the silkworms to live out their natural cycle, and use only what they leave behind. Ahimsa (non-violence) is a major tenant of Hinduism.
The diversity of fabrics - particularly silks - is astonishing, and little known outside of India or even of particular regions. There is the naturally gold muga silk of Assam (the silkworms feed on golden leaves of a tree which only grows in this rainy state), paper-like tussar silk, eri silk of Meghalaya, which has the properties of wool and the light, soft feel of cotton. The traditions used to embellish fabrics are even more localised, and particularly fascinating are the different styles and motifs of embroidery, passed on from mother to daughter.
Converting our plants into clothes like our earliest ancestors - and even some of our European great-grandparents - may be a good way to keep going for rural India. There is nothing more exhilarating for a fabric-lover to enter a village for the first time and hear the vibrant sound of looms clicking away into the 21st century.
Katherine Joseph is a freelance journalist
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