The power of handwoven khadi in a fast-fashion world


The power of handwoven khadi in a fast-fashion world

As khadi undergoes a revival, we make a case for the potential and power of the fabric

By Rta Kapur Chishti  October 23rd, 2019

Today, the word ‘khadi’ is a misnomer as it is widely used to cover cotton, silk and wool fabrics that are mixed with terry and other man-made fibres to give them added strength and a smooth finish, which is an antithesis in itself. The original word is derived from ‘khaddar’ or the raw handspun fabric made on the spinning wheel after a strenuous process of cleaning, combing and carding, all done by hand. The natural fibres are first turned into slivers and then made stronger by applying rice, sago or tamarind starch with a brush in the early morning light. This process is done in a tree-covered grove so the yarn dries slowly, allowing for even shrinkage and smoothening out of the surface fibres.

Mahatma Gandhi had realised how widespread the cottage industry of hand spinning and weaving had been until the British, or more accurately, the East India Company began promoting mill-made Lancashire yarns for sale in India. It opened buying houses first in Bihar, Bengal and Odisha, and then other parts of the country to purchase the textured and patterned hand-spun yarns. In every home, hand-spinning became a part of the national movement and a symbol of active participation in it. It was Gandhiji’s way of building an army of soldiers across castes and communities, rich and poor, with an inner discipline of the heart, the hand and the head that unconsciously came together in the hand-spinning process.

An artisan working on a handloom

This gave a great impetus to handloom weavers, who could work with hand-spun yarns just like their ancestors had done till about the early nineteenth century. This coinciding with the public burning of imported cloth was not only an act of defiance but also a regenerative and energising process that unified all participants in the movement. In fact, many Indian mills were started by people such as the Maharaja of Mysore to replace the French chiffons with the zari bordered saris and fabrics made in the Mysore silk factory or the elite mills of Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Soon, these factories began producing fine patterned and plain fabrics for the privileged.

After independence, a wide network of village-based production set ups (mostly run as societies manned by knowledgeable and dedicated personnel) came into existence. These skilled people had emerged from the Gandhian movement and were able to travel and communicate with spinners and weavers. This was significant,
as before East India Company all fabrics for home or public use were hand-spun hand-woven—right from the coarsest floor coverings to cart linings to the finest muslins. It was on the basis of these existing institutions that
the Khadi & Village Industries Commission was set up in 1956. The scale of the presence of producer organisations and their widespread retail network was commendable and visibly significant till the 1980s.

Mulberry and tussar silk in the warp

However, the decline started as the older personnel imbued with the integrity of the Gandhian philosophy began to retire or passed on with old age and were replaced by younger employees who looked at it as any other
government job. The fervour and quality of hand-spun handwoven began to give way to the more mechanised Ambar charkha, a device inspired by the mill yarn producing machine. It could be hand-turned with two spindles at first, at a very slow speed to spin fine yarns of even upto 450s counts. This device had been shown to Gandhiji around 1942 and he had thought it was worth considering. Over time, the number of spindles began to increase, and today, we have Ambar charkhas with 12, 14, 16 and even 20 spindles, which obviously cannot be hand-turned
and are attached to 100hp motors. The cloth is power loom woven if electricity is available in the area. The counts they produce in most parts of India are much lower than even the hand-spun quality that was being previously produced. The only justification given by the producers for their usage is that the quantity produced in a day is much more than they would achieve by hand-spinning.

But the fact is that these multi-spindled power run charkhas produce yarns that are very close to their millmade
counterparts and therefore are not distinguished by their low twist. The uneven texture of handspun yarns allows for greater suppleness, and breathability, and gives it a fabric structure that is unmatched by mill fabrics. If we have rural employment schemes such as MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) paying `120 for a hundred days of guaranteed employment for low-skilled work such as road construction, why can’t we sustain hand-spinning paid in accordance with the counts in a range of `100-150 for higher skilled work? Perhaps, India could be the only country in the world to provide fabrics of such high quality, catapulting it to a world monopoly in the future.

Handpicking of desi cotton

We are living in an age when quantity has overpowered the question of quality, and it is time we recognise and distinguish the various qualities being produced under the broad label of khadi. The convenience of larger quantities has also pushed out more than 60 to 80 varieties of cotton that were indigenous to India and more than 40 varieties of tussar, eri and muga silks. This has also been the case with numerous varieties of wool—
from the coarsest camel wools (once handspun, indigo dyed, woven and exported to the Middle East for tent
coverings) to the finest pashmina wools, which were of varied range across Ladakh, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim.

As the semi-mechanised Ambar charkha was promoted in lieu of hand-spinning, six regional centres (Hajipur and Vaishali in Bihar, Chitradurga in Karnataka and Trichur in Tamil Nadu, among others) received all the remaining varieties of cotton that were mixed together to be machine cleaned, combed and carded to produce long slivers of yarn that could easily fit the Ambar charkha mechanism. And now only one or two of the hybrids are maintained such as ‘Suvin’ for the finest Ambar charkha spinning especially in West Bengal. Though there are seeds for at least ten to twenty varieties of desi cotton still available, they face neglect both by cultivators and the
declining number of spinners and weavers.

Sizing of yarn in early morning light under tree covered grove

At a time when we are facing both ecological disasters and climate change, and the world is looking for alternative ‘slower’ means of production, we have the advantage of strengthening the ‘slow’ and maintaining it along with the industrialised ‘fast’. We have the option before us as it not only offers an alternative world view, but can also provide the possibility of employing 10 to 15 members per loom, helping to eradicate rural displacement and distress.