The sustainable Indian fabric primer

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The Indian textile sector is the second largest employment generator after agriculture. According to a crafts council of India report, there are 4.3 million people employed directly or indirectly by the handloom sector, of which 77.9% are women. Handicrafts make up another major sector and with handlooms, the Indian hand-made sector provides employment to 11.2 million people. On top of this is the vast industrial textile sector, which includes the machine driven spinning and weaving mills, bleaching & dyeing industry and finally the tailoring / garment segment. Around 35 million people are directly employed by the textile industry.

But to feed the textile industry (hand or machine), the raw material required is cotton.

Cotton in India.

In 2013, India had the world’s largest area under cotton cultivation, 11 million hectares, which is nearly one-third of world’s total area growing cotton

India is also facing one of the most pressing human rights crises, with one farmer committing suicide every 30 minutes.

8. vidharbha farmer suicide

One of the greatest human rights and environmental issues we now face in the textile sector is the invasion of genetically modified (GM) cotton, which is further compounding the damage done by decades of pesticide based farming. Farmers are getting trapped in a vicious debt circle, borrowing money to buy GM seeds & pesticides. In a few years the pests become resistant to GM crops & then the farmers are forced to go back and buy expensive pesticides, again borrowing money. At the same time, their harvest is destroyed by the very same GM seeds and pesticides, leading to an endless debt cycle and then suicide comes as the end. Our research tells us that since 1995, 2.5 lakh Indian farmers have committed suicide, a majority of them being cotton farmers.

Some experts tell us that farmer suicides happen because they are unable to repay loans in the range of just 5,000 – 25,000.

A famous NYU study (http://www.chrgj.org/publications/docs/every30min.pdf) came to the conclusion, that in 2009, every 30 minutes, one Indian farmer committed suicide. Suicide often happens by drinking the very pesticide, since they cannot afford to buy anything else.

7. Tami canal

This is UNACCEPTABLE.

 

The Krya Sustainable Fabric Series

The difficulty in presenting this series on sustainable fabric is simply this: some of our issues and questions have no immediate answers. And it will take a great deal of will power and concerted effort to reach a holistic, sustainable solution. It will also involve a major overhaul of our consumption choices, developed over many years.

But as always, our effort at Krya is to recognise your individual effort. And tell you that every action and decision you make matters. And that your one person Satyagraha can make a difference.

Every time you decide to buy a handloom garment, or take that extra effort to buy an organic cotton t shirt or a khadi outfit, support a traditional textile craft or gift your dear one a hand block printed naturally dyed shirt, you are making a impact.

3. BT

All this month of August, we are going to be writing in greater detail and feature interviews of people in the vast field of sustainable textiles.

 

The sustainable Indian fabric primer:

Before we commence, a quick primer on how raw cotton is converted to final finished garment is crucial. Textiles have morphed from a local village industry to a global and complex value chain, with significant human and environmental costs attached to each step in the chain.

Cotton cultivation, which is nearly 8000 years old, needs plenty of sunshine, a long frost free period, moderate rainfall and heavy, nutrient rich soil. Cotton is not just white. Naturally coloured cotton also exists in shades of red, green and brown. These colours do not fade after washing but are rare today as they has been bred out in favour of the white cotton.

4. cotton picking in india

In earlier times, the entire process of spinning and weaving fabric was done by each  Individual household across the world. Many archeological excavations confirm that weaving was present even in Neolithic times.

4. neolithic loom

Spinning of cotton was done by hand , primarily by young girls and unmarried women, so much so that the term ‘spinster’ came to mean an unmarried woman who would be at home spinning cotton.

9. woman spinning detailing on oenoche

1. the spinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first spinning wheel was constructed in china and then slowly spread through medieval Europe. Our very own Charkha is a version of this spinning wheel.

6.nepali charkha

 

2. spinning wheel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The invention of spinning machinery and the powerloom during the Industrial revolution slowly put an end to the local, independent nature of textile craft. It began to recede from homes and then started to become more and more centralised.

 

How is fabric made today:

The four key steps to convert a boll of white cotton from the farm to a coloured fabric are illustrated in the graphic below.

Cotton - Farm to Fabric - 1

 

Cotton - Farm to Fabric - 2

 

Handloom textiles

This blog has attempted to chronicle India’s rich textile past by describing the detailed archaeological findings, and amphorae of roman coins that have been excavated in various port towns across India, including Arikamedu. The extensive commercial documentation of India’s trading with the world indicates a level of proficiency and sophistication in textiles that we used to possess that is unparalleled even today.

Indian fabrics were considered luxury fabrics and our weavers processed the skill to weave fabric that was fine enough to pass through a slim ring. All this sophistication came from an industry which was local, used indigenous plants and fabric, that conserved natural resources, and was extremely environmentally sustainable.

This ancient industry which once comprised of wealthy, creative weavers that were powerful members of society and considered stewards of public wealth has today degenerated and its members live in penury. Their wages are often lower than unskilled labour, they are caught in a debt trap and live lives of servitude, and they do not have the resources to improve their craft or tools of trade.

Anyone who has worn handlooms can attest to the difference the fabric makes on you. The hottest Indian summer is bearable when wearing a handloom garment as it is infinitely more breathable compared to a powerloom garment. The texture of a handloom garment is softer and more delicate as it is handled lovingly by human hands and not a machine. And every handloom garment is unique and no two saris woven using the same yarn by the same weaver ever look exactly the same.

10.handloom weaving

But the handloom industry is in a state of steady decline, as both the State and consumers like ourselves fail the handloom weavers.  By valuing the handloom garment less, by failing to understand how uniquely suited they are to our climate and culture,  and by continually choosing Western wear that cannot be easily integrated into the Indian system of handloom weaving, we are rapidly losing an important part of our sustainable fabric tradition.

 

Khadi

While Khadi is also a type of handloom, it is so important to our sense of what constitutes being Indian, it deserves a separate note in itself. Khadi refers to cloth that is both hand-spun and hand-woven. Khadi is primarily made of cotton. The hand spinning of raw cotton into yarn uses implements like the Charkha. The yarn is then woven into final fabric with a loom, when done by hand, this is called a handloom.

In India, Khadi is more than a fabric; it is the symbol of the freedom movement. The Indian Khadi movement promoted total self reliance, to free Indians from the high priced fabric that was being dumped in India by the British factories. The British made fabric depended on Indian cotton which would be bought at cheap prices, sent to the textile factories, woven and then sold back to India at high prices.

The freedom struggle revolved around the use of indigenous products like Khadi and boycotting the use of non Indian made products. Khadi is a magic fabric, keeping the wearer cool in summer and warm in winter.

Unfortunately, there are two other pieces to the Khadi process, which was earlier taken for granted, but today are presenting environmental and human crises. From antiquity till the freedom movement, the cotton for the khadi was only of an Indian variety, grown organically. Today more than 90% of cotton grown in India is genetically modified variety (GM) and grown with pesticides & fertilizers.

Secondly, dyeing of the Khadi fabric is today primarily done with chemical dyes and not natural dyes. In a previous article we have covered in great depth about the environmental and therefore human hazards of chemical dyeing.

Our 68th Independence day falls tomorrow

This primer on sustainable Indian fabric aimed to test the waters and introduce you to the important concepts and issues that assail the textile industry today.

Tomorrow is Independence day. Last year, in 2013, a collective of farmers presented an organic cotton flag to the Prime Minister and urged him to hoist that instead of a flag made with Bt-cotton. Since then our Prime minister has changed, but the flag has not changed into an organic, naturally dyed flag.

So what flag will you hoist this independence day?

If you want to get a more local, and environmentally sustainable wardrobe, start reading here:

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes

And do tell us what you think of this new series here or on our Facebook page.

 

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The One Person Satyagraha

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

2001

In 2001, in the first month of my first job, after wading through knee-deep rain water and slush, I boarded a rather random, crowded bus to Motihari, in the Champaran district of Bihar and famously, the birthplace of George Orwell. As weird as that was, I found it even more surreal that the purpose of this trip was to learn the art of selling a wide variety of consumer goods for an American company. It was not that I found my situation particularly repellant or devoid of glamour compared to say my friends working in a bank in Wall Street. What bothered me was the fact that in a million years I could not have imagined myself doing this at the culmination of 21 years of formal education.

Motihari is a very small town and in my very first visit I learnt that George Orwell was born here in 1903 , courtesy of a bust and plaque in a prominent part of the local geography.

George_Orwell_press_photo

 

 

George Orwell’s Press photo above

In fact there is rather proprietary air in which the local people refer to Orwell & you could be forgiven for thinking that he wrote 1984 sitting in a tea shop in Meena Bazaar. In actual fact Orwell left Motihari as a one year old baby in 1904 and that was about it.

 

It was only in my third or fourth visit to Motihari that the very real and very important connection to Mahatma Gandhi dawned on me. While I could vaguely sense the spirit of Gandhi in street names and the memorial pillar in the town center, it was only when a distributor reminded me of the Indigo movement that I realized that this was the the Karmabhoomi of Gandhiji. In a sense after South Africa, the indigo movement and the related Satyagraha was a seminal event in Gandhi’s life helping him on the way to becoming the Mahatma. I was happy to be making monthly trips to that sacred land.

 

The First Indian Satyagraha

In 1916, Gandhi inspired the very first Indian Satyagraha, in Champaran. The local farmers were forced to grow the Indigo plant, a natural blue dye, for the British textile industry instead of food crops of their choice.

The development of a cheaper chemical substitute, lead to a crash in the prices of the natural Indigo dye. The production of natural Indigo worldwide fell from 19,000 tons in 1897 to 1,000 tons by 1914. The British planters started paying ridiculously low prices for the Indigo leading to a very desperate situation for the farmers. They also tried to recoup their losses in many ways through farmers who had leased their land from them. They increased the lease rents, seized their cattle, looted their homes and imposed several new illegal “taxes” on various aspects of life. The planters beat the peasants and put those who resisted in prison.

One of the Indigo cultivators called Rajkumar Shukla, persuaded Gandhi to travel to Motihari, to study the situation first hand and to provide a solution. On his arrival at Motihari, the local district magistrate ordered Gandhi to leave immediately. Gandhi politely refused this order and proceeded to make Champaran his home for the Satyagraha. Since the farmers had no legal recourse, Gandhi assembled a team of lawyers including Jawaharlal Nehru & Rajendra Prasad, who worked with him to build the case.

3. Champaran satyagraha

The team under Gandhi surveyed 2841 villages and recorded the statements of 8000 indigo farmers to understand the problem in depth. They also realized that apart from the economic struggles due to forced indigo cultivation, there was a deeper problem of education and health. They helped set up Schools and improved local sanitation. Gandhi and team published a detailed report to government which favored the farmers unanimously. The government was forced to accept this report and lead to the formation of the Champaran Agrarian Bill which provided the relief to the Indigo farmers.

The Champaran Satyagraha was the very first of its kind and was the first major milestone in what eventually became the grand Indian Independence movement.

Remains of the day

Natural indigo cultivation is on the decline today and is replaced in large part by synthetic Indigo. It is continues to be used in small amounts in natural textile and tie and dye art like Shibori. However , the largest use of Indigo dye is now synthetic Indigo dye, as is used in your favorite pair of mass market jeans.

5. indigo dyed shibori

Perhaps there is not much Indigo cultivation happening in Champaran despite the major historic associations. However to me what remains from that period , the philosophy of Satyagraha, is of vital importance.

Gandhi coined this term from Satya (Truth ) & Agraha ( holding firmly to) and over his life perfected the philosophy of Satyagraha as a powerful , non-violent opposition by the oppressed in any situation.

I believe that anyone finding themselves in an uncomfortable life situation can start a Satyagraha. Even if it is a one person Satyagraha.

 

So, If you are bored by globalization of fashion and find yourself and every third person wearing cookie –cutter clothes , find yourself a local handloom to suit your needs.

India is one of the largest producers of cotton worldwide. The rampant spread of genetically (GM) modified cotton, which now accounts for 93% of cotton in India, is a cause for concern. The correlation between the growth of GM cotton and farmer suicides is a debate which cannot be ignored any longer. We will write in depth about this later this month. However you can start your one person satyagraha today by choosing organic cotton.

If you are constantly bothered by reports of the Ganga turning black due to the effluents from chemical dyes meant for textile mills polluting it, you can look for textile which is naturally dyed like Malkha , or Tula or other designers like Bindu of Chakra Design.

2. effluent discharge

If you are hot and sweaty in a size 40, blue colour ,button down office shirt, go a to nearby Khadi Bhavan outlet and experience the joys of breathable fabric , that keeps cool even in an Indian summer.

Looking back at my monthly trips to Motihari in 2001, I wish I had taken the train instead of the Bus. The railway station is appropriately named “Bapudham Motihari” and rightly reminds all visitors about the man and his very important Satyagraha. George Orwell does merit a footnote in the history of the town but should not be the first thing that hits you.

So if you find yourself worrying about a 1984 like situation, don’t wait, Start your One person Satyagraha today.

 

 

 

 

 

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