The Whole Nine Yards & an interview with Rta Kapur Chasti

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Reading Time: 9 minutes

The traditional Indian garment for men and women is just a piece of unstitched rectangular cloth, a dhoti and a sari respectively. A simple,  woven rectangular piece of fabric six to nine yards in length. With very few accessories this piece of unstitched cloth was draped in several ingenious ways to cover the head , torso and lower body. Variety was provided through colours and different fabric types like cotton or silk.

6.radha at night

 

When we examine our Indian textile traditions it is clear that we have great strengths in spinning, natural dyeing and weaving. But to me there is not much obvious evidence of a great Indian tailoring tradition.

Perhaps this had its roots in religion where only unstitched cloth is considered appropriate for all holy occasions and to help a seeker enter a pious frame of mind when doing reaching out to god. It is fascinating to note that wearing unstitched cloth for holy occasions is a tradition that is found among Hindus, Jains and Muslims.

Over time, with several invasions notably the British, the urban Indian dress is a lot more aligned to the rest of the world and has drifted considerably from the unstitched cloth.

Was it a process of global assimilation driven by travel and media symbols?Did this decline happen just for practical reasons ? Can one go for a morning run in a sari? Can one drive a bike to work wearing a dhoti?

This poses many questions about the relevance of the traditional Indian garment.

Is it now just a symbol of culture to be unleashed during weddings or at Diwali?

Textile Scholar, Rta Kapur Chisti is India’s pioneer in reviving the Sari and keeping it relevant for folks today. She has shown 108 different ways of draping the Sari to suit different occasions. Her research shows that Women in erstwhile princely state of Jhansi draped the Sari in special ways to ride horses and even swim across rivers. In 2009, She has also started the “Sari School” , a unique workshop conducted regularly in New Delhi that introduces novices to a whole new world of this unstitched garment. Rta is also the author of a book called the Saris of India, which is a bible on the subject and is a celebration of India through its Sari traditions and now part of India’s textile canon.

Saris tradition and beyond by Rta Kapur chasti

In this interview with the Krya blog, Rta Kapur Chisthi gives us  her own crisp, pithy version of the whole nine yards.

On the relevance of the Sari in “modern” Indian woman’s wardrobe

The sari is capable of constant adaptation & recreation In fact in the Sari School Workshops we conduct, participants are encouraged to create their own level of comfort, suitable for body form & occasion. What makes the sari unique is its capability of transforming itself into a long or short dress, a pair of pantaloons or even a pair of shorts & on the other hand can become a grand gown if required.

the myriad drapes of a sari - nov 4 2014

The question of what we wear is not a moral one but we should atleast know who or what we are in the way we dress.We are blindly taking to western wear but most often what we reveal are our short comings & not our assets. In particular the upper arms, the bust, the backside, the knees which are either dimpled or knobly at best. As we imitate others, we do not see ourselves anymore!

Dress is not a question of right or wrong but something aesthetically suitable to all the aspects you have mentioned including climate, body form, comfort level & occasion. We are what we wear & unfortunately most of us are looking more like “export rejects” !

The sari is being relegated for special occasion wear but is it not as difficult if not more difficult to handle the way we sit or stand or move in a short dress especially if we are not moving within the same social circle & have to go out on the crowded street or bus or any other part of the majority of India? I often see young people on television trying to take a seat with crossed legs turning side ways to prevent the view ‘upwards’.

 Are Saris and handlooms tied together intricately? Would you explain this connection further?

The sari in concept is deeply connected to an unstitched garment with different densities created by patterning in the borders, end pieces & body at times. This is a functional necessity for the way it is to be draped as the borders & end pieces take the load of the wear & tear at the feet or the tying at the waist & the inner end piece takes the load of the sitting or squatting & the outer end piece is often used to tie over as a pouch or as a shaded head cover.

Handlooms are disappearing because those who are involved in the spinning & weaving process cannot earn enough to sustain a livelihood leave alone being at par with other professions. Hand work is naturally slower but it can produce a superior quality of fabric at its best. It should not be propped up with subsidies which lower quality & justify poor quality because it is handloom made. The hand must produce finer & superior textures that cannot be handled by machines.

In all cases handloom produced saris should not require starching or shade drying. They were our heirlooms at one stage if you recall. Handed down from generation to generation & this was not because of high maintenance but largely because of superior yarn & fabric quality.

We happen to be fortunately placed with multiple levels of production possibility by hand & machine & we should use this to our advantage rather than opt for complete mechanized production. For instance we could be the only country in the world that can make handspun handlooms in some significant quantity & quality as we have the skill, fast disappearing raw material & a work force that cannot be entirely absorbed in the mechanized sector

We are opening our markets to the world but likewise are not entering the world through what we look at as ‘slow skills’ which give us an edge even among south & east Asia. These are being relegated to the past, neglected, ignored or at best being made to produce & compete in volume & not quality of the hand.

The “Ananda Khadi” movement  & Sari School.

In 2003- 04 ,the exhibition titled ‘khadi- the fabric of freedom’ had travelled to several cities in India. Over the next 3 years we realized that hand-spinning on the Desi Charkha unfortunately, had become the most neglected & forgotten strength of Khadi whereas, the faster semi-mechanized Ambar Charkha had been in favour over the last 50 years. Therefore, a concerted effort was made to develop hand-spinning upto 115s count on the Desi Charkha & develop 115s to 500s count on the Ambar Charkha. Both had their relevance & would never compete with mill spun yarns which spin to an average of 120s count & thus hand-spinning could reassert itself in a non-competitive context.

A team provided design & quality support, appointed a local weaver’s son/ daughter with some formal education to stay back in the village & look after the production work. After the first year, it was realized that the cotton quality & availability was not reliable & therefore cultivation for the support of organic farming was provided to indigenous cottons that could become totally organic & varieties of silk that were facing adverse conditions due to lack of interest in the market.

We now encourage local farmers to cultivate short staple desi cottons both brown & white with totally organic protection & soil enrichment to produce high quality rain fed cottons that can provide a regular flow of raw material to the spinners & weavers involved in this project. These cottons are ideal for fine textured, inlay patterned & 3 shuttle weaving which is prevalent. The challenge is to combine the unique skills in spinning & weaving for contemporary usage for both stitched & unstitched garments.

The unique quality of khadi is a low twist yarn that provides a soft supple fabric absorbent in the heat of summer & fulsome & warm in winter. It can provide the widest base of home employment as atleast 10 spinners if they were adequately compensated along with atleast 5 people involved in cultivation to cleaning, combing, carding could sustain one handloom for twelve months a year.

Products made from Ananda Khadi are now available in select stores across the country.

The Sari School was set up in 2009 as the last volume of the book “Saris of India” was going in for publication & we needed to connect with another generation to show them how simple it is to re-work an unstitched garment. To make of it what they want. Also weavers conceded that the books were useful in the long run but they needed support with weaving ‘now’ not later.

rta's sari school workshop nov 4 2014

 Preethi’s notes on the sari school: I was unfortunate enough to have missed Rta’s Sari school workshop at the Kalakshetra Foundation last year, but participants at the workshop swore by Rta’s acerbic wit and passion and came away mesmerized & inspired at just how versatile the Sari is. If you live in Delhi, the Sari School is worth a visit.

 

A guide to washing and maintaining handlooms

Our series on handlooms, the fabric traditions of India and our various detours into our cultural wardobe and how you could bring in more sustainability into your clothing ends with this post today.
But a series by Krya on fabric is not complete with one of our signature guides on how to care for this fabric. All along this series we have encountered questions from curious readers about the maintenance of natural and hand woven fabric, and this, apart from the question on why it is priced a certain way, is one of the big barriers to more and more people adopting handlooms.

Our little guide on maintaining handlooms draws inspiration from art, which in turn has been inspired by washing – (see, we knew we weren’t the only ones!). Maintaining great handlooms is not difficult, and it is a myth that caring for them takes time and energy. In fact, like tending to land, with great fabric, the less you interfere with it, the better.

Handloom washing guide

An important part of your washing arsenal with handlooms is the right detergent – and this is a step you absolutely cannot afford to skip – most popular brand, synthetic detergents are unsuitable for the fine, carefully woven handloom fabric. They are over engineered and tend to fray and damage the joints of the weaves.

We hope you enjoy reading our handloom washing guide. If you have any questions on the process or on the rest of the series do write to us.

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End Notes:

We would like to thank Ms. Rta Kapur Chisti for taking the time to respond to our questions on the art of sari wearing, cultural traditions and handlooms with so much wisdom and clarity. We enjoyed reading and editing your answers! Ms. Rta Kapur Chisti’s book on the Sari traditions of India is a bible for handloom and unstitched garment enthusiasts. The book is available online.

For those living in Delhi, The Sari school offers information and draping training to those wanting to master the sari. Ananda Khadi, Ms.Chisti’s brand of fine Khadi fabric and sarees can be bought in their store in Delhi and in other stores across the country. For more information please visit their website.

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This is our concluding post  of our series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read 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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
  11. Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
  12. Our post with notes on Kalakshetra’s Natural dyeing workshop and a guest post by Kavita Rayirath of Indian by design on inspiring Handloom appreciation is here.
  13. Rashmi Vittal of Little Green Kid’s guest post on why organic cotton is so essential for everyone can be found here.
  14. Our visit to Vivek and Juli Cariappa and our interview of this Krish pandit couple and their experiments with Khadi can be found here.
  15. Our post on Tula (organic, non GM Khadi) along with a video interviewing their founder, and an interview of Tara Aslam and Nature Alley Khadi can be found here.

 

 

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Khadi after Gandhi

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On October 1st we were at the Khadi Board office in Chennai and were greeted by the sight of all officials wearing a mask on their face and tearing up mountains of old , musty files. This was PM Narendra Modi’s Swach Bharat Campaign in action. As the PM mentioned, Mahatma’s Gandhi’s legacy is not just non violence as exemplified by our unique freedom struggle. It is also characterised by the spirit of self reliance which was famously symbolised by the charka, and a fastidious vision of keeping our country clean and green.

The sight of government officials working feverishly to clean their offices a day before Gandhi Jayanthi had us thinking about the long and many hued shadow of the Mahatma’s legacy. And the fabric that the Mahatma wore in his later years and urged the people, of India to adopt stayed in our minds. The Prime minister also chose to focus on Khadi in his first speech to the nation on October 3rd. He urged every single citizen of India to use atleast one article of Khadi, whether it was a handkerchief or a bedspread in their homes in order to benefit the poor.

Yes Khadi can benefit a whole set of handloom weavers, whom we have written about extensively in our blog earlier. The handloom weaving sector counts nearly 44 lakh families in its fold, all of whom today face utter penury and are contemplating a move to unskilled sectors as a result of consumer and political apathy.

However, supporting a section of society, no matter how strong their case may be, is not the only reason to embrace Khadi.

Today’s post will give you many more reasons to do so and explore the offerings by two players in the segment. And in doing so, we will attempt to address the questions: Is Khadi relevant after Gandhi? Is there a reason why we should continue to embrace Khadi as modern consumers today?

But before we begin, here are the basics.

The Basics: What is Khadi?

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.

Khadi today

Khadi today is facing an acute identity crisis. Even cloth sold at government authorized Khadi Shops are not strictly khadi. Hand spinning is not the norm anymore and often mill-made power loom cloth can be sold as Khadi.

Unfortunately, there are two more 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.

Khadi by Tula

As we have written several times on the Krya blog, cotton in India today is a “dirty” fabric, right from rampant misuse of genetically modified seeds to pesticide overuse and pollution of water through chemical dyes. This is the state of more than 90% of all finished cotton fabric in India today. But all is not lost.

Like the little Gaulish village that holds against the might of the evil Roman Empire, there is a small collective called Tula that works with the magic potion called ethics to revive cotton. Their “Getafix “is also bearded, but he wears one of the lightest and cleanest cotton garments you could find anywhere in India, and also leads marches against BT farming and to help protect seed sovereignty.

5. Ananthoo & getafix

Tula is a co-operative that works directly with farmers, dyers, weavers and tailors and uses rain fed, organic, desi cotton which is hand spun, naturally dyed and hand woven and manually stitched. The buttons used in Tula’s garments are made of coconut shells and not plastic.

Given the unsustainable nature of cotton farming and the value chain of producing garments is so inherently unfair, unsustainable and polluting that no part of making a Tula garment can be taken for granted (which is why we mentioned the detailing of the buttons in their garments).

Our personal sustainable fabric journey

Our personal journey with replacing our unsustainable garments with Khadi and Tula in our wardrobes has been equally satisfying. In a different time and era, our wardrobe would be added to and not replenished. Our shopping was done in a noisy and crowded Mall where purchases would be done fast and followed by eating a lot of sweetened junk food. The garments we bought would be designed to last only a few months when washed with our unsustainable toxic detergent. The fabric which we then bought was usually woven on a powerloom and was carefully designed to keep air out and sweat in, which suited our corporate, ac always on unsustainable lifestyle.

Today our wardrobes are different. For one, they have fewer garments, and we think several times before buying something and try to ensure that we replenish and not add to our wardrobe. Where we buy from is considered with a lot of thought – we think about what we want to support, how we want to encourage fair trade, and how we want to support the crafts of India before we buy. And most importantly, we want to now wear a garment that works with us: breathes, keeps us comfortable, does not harm our body and is designed to be long lasting.

And we staunchly, happily and openly, recommend, gift and support Tula.

2. Tula garments

Ananthoo on Tula

In a sustainable wardrobe checklist like the one I’ve outlined above, Tula is a high scorer. It is a truly sustainable fabric / garment, designed thoughtfully, with great detail, and carries reverence for the soil and depth in its ideation and execution.

We are proud to share this video with Anantha Sayanan, Co-Founder of Tula, as a part of our sustainable fabric series.

1. ananthoo tula

In this video, Ananthoo shares with us Tula’s journey and also some of the many details that go into making it a truly green and fair fabric.

Tara Aslam & Nature Alley

My fascination with Tula should be obvious. Whenever I spoke to Ananthoo who is the face of Tula, I would often hear him referring to Tara Aslam. I then heard of Tara Aslam though my friend Vishala, who runs Buffalo Back, a fine organic store in Bangalore. Vishala has been invited by Tara to start an outlet of Buffalo Back at Langford town, as a part of Tara’s Khadi and fabric store called Nature Alley.

A Khadi revivalist who is a part of the Tula project, who used to work at Fab India and supports all things organic, was someone I could not afford to miss in the Krya fabric series. Here is Tara sharing her fascination with Khadi, and her journey with Nature Alley.

I am a socialist who dreams of an egalitarian society.

3. Tara Aslam Nature alley

I was born and raised in Chennai and my favorite line is “Satyameva Jayate”. I have a master’s degree in Business Economics and worked as the head of a sourcing company for Fab India in the Karnataka region. In 2012 I launched my own fashion label called “Nature Alley” which is based in Bangalore. Nature Alley is a unique label that works only with Khadi fabric.

Nature Alley is a small business enterprise involved in the promotion of Khadi and Organic clothing.  I wanted to popularize Khadi – make it a stylish product at affordable prices.  Also, with Nature Alley I want to work on sustainability and fair practices while providing a market for our artisans.

I have been involved in the craft sector for the last few years and I was heading a sourcing company for Fab India for Karnataka region.  Design always fascinated me and I have been involved with design intervention in the traditional crafts for some years now. Specifically, I took to Khadi because I believe in the Gandhian philosophy of self- reliance and community sustenance.

Khadi is so much more than just cloth.

To me, Khadi always meant more than cloth. Its coarse texture is so beautiful. It is super absorbent and is cool in summer and keeps us warm in winter.  Khadi is for all seasons!  It is the most appropriate fabric for a tropical weather like ours.

2. Gandhi spinning the Charkha

Plus, it is a cloth that links an entire community. I love the ideals behind Khadi.  I have been a socialist for long and dreamt of an egalitarian society.  So Khadi was a true symbol of equality.  As Khadi is of national importance and comes under the Central Government Ministry, this has been a very subsidized industry, but is unfortunately prone to internal issues.  I work with a Private Khadi Institution giving fair wages to the weaver. A hand woven cloth needs no subsidy but awareness of the uniqueness of the cloth.  Customers need to appreciate the work that go into making Khadi the cloth it is. I see our journey with Nature Alley as a celebration of what is considered the ordinary – and to inspire people see what is precious in the ordinary.

Further, Khadi is a handspun, hand-woven process; we may not get great volumes.  Also, as with other things made by hand, we need adequate time.  Variations are part of the allure of Khadi.

Khadi has been unfairly termed as dowdy.

This is unfortunately because of the way it is currently being sold. I decided to give Khadi a look and feel it deserves. We need to wear it with more style than it has been accorded. Along the way, I realized that many of us are looking for wearable Khadi!

4. Khadi walks the ramp

My designs are also largely for the youth – they have liked the styling.  Leading fashion Choreographer Prasad Bidappa has taken some of my garments for a Youth Fashion Show on 14 Aug 2014 at Bangalore

Look for irregularities to spot real Khadi

Khadi is a coarse cloth generally.  They are coming out with a Khadi Mark in the near future.  But Polyvastra is not Khadi!  Nowadays with the powerloom sector bringing out Khadi look fabric, it is increasingly difficult to tell.  I would say, look out for the irregularities.

Unlike popular myths, Khadi is very easy to maintain, and if maintained well can outlast any mill made cloth. If we use a mild detergent and hand-wash, a Khadi garment will outlast any of the mill made cloth!  In fact our natural dyed Khadi clothing leaves the lightest carbon footprint.

I’m committed to leaving our children with a better tomorrow.

I want to work with the organic movement.  I am learning about desi cotton varieties.  If we have to give our children a better tomorrow we have to do something today to stop this excessive consumption and lead a gentler life.

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Krya Supports Tula & Nature Alley – and we ask you to too..

Tula and Nature Alley’s garments are a great way to start building your very own sustainable wardrobe. Do explore their offerings for your and your family this festive season.

Tula:

Tula can be found in Chennai at the OFM Store and in Bangalore at Nature Alley’s store. For more details please connect with Tula on their facebook page.

reStore is organising an exhibition of Tula’s garments on October 10th, 2014 with a special presentation by Ananthoo on fabric sustainability. For more details please visit their event page.

Nature Alley:

Tara’s beautiful, intimate store is at Langford Town in Bangalore. Besides their well designed Khadi garments, Nature Alley also stocks Tula’s fabric and garments and organic food products. For more information please visit Nature Alley’s facebook page.

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This post is a part of our continuing series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read 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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
  11. Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
  12. Our post with notes on Kalakshetra’s Natural dyeing workshop and a guest post by Kavita Rayirath of Indian by design on inspiring Handloom appreciation is here.
  13. Rashmi Vittal of Little Green Kid’s guest post on why organic cotton is so essential for everyone can be found here.
  14. Our visit to Vivek and Juli Cariappa and our interview of this Krish pandit couple and their experiments with Khadi can be found here.

 

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Khadi Chronicles – at Krac-a-dawna farm

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

We work only with organic plant based materials to create our formulations at Krya. So we take the process of sourcing and building relationships with our farms very seriously. Every single raw material we source is traceable. And we have a name and a face to match this source.

Traceability is important for many reasons. For one, natural materials have glorious variations depending upon the rain, soil conditions etc. Traceability helps us understand how the final Krya formulation performs.

A direct relationship with the farmers helps us practise fair trade, as we bypass middlemen and traders, and pay the farmer directly.

Because of the perishable nature of the materials we use, a direct relationship with the farm enables us to process them in a precise and timely manner to ensure optimal performance. For example, Fruit peels, especially those sourced from organic farms are extremely rich in aromatic essential oils. But if they are not shade dried carefully under low temperatures, these essential oils can evaporate removing all the aroma. And if they are not dried carefully, the peels can catch mildew and fungus before they reach our factory in Chennai.

Of course, an important, unstated reason for our farm trips is the inspiration it gives us. The beautiful environs of an organic farm or a plantation inspires us and reminds us of the reason why we do our work at Krya. To help keep these beautiful patches of land clean, and green, and perhaps lead a similar change in our crowded, not so green urban spaces.

The icing on the cake is the wonderful, like minded people we get to meet. The organic farmers we meet are committed to their vision, and have stuck to poison free farming through the lows and highs of the agricultural cycle. None of the challenges they continue to face, dampen their spirit and they continue to inspire us with their enthusiasm, positivity and reverence for the land.

Our farm and plantation trail had us exploring sources of organic cotton fabric and medicinal herbs. And took us to Krac-a-dawna farm, started by its custodians, Juli and Vivek Cariappa.

Krack-a-dawna Farm

Vivek and Juli met as students at the Delhi University. Juli tells me that she always wanted to be a farmer, and so in 1986 the two of them at ages 20, and 21, decided to live off the land in their own piece of land just off Mysore.

3. juli cariappa krac a dawna

A loan helped them purchase a barren piece of land with four trees, a cow, a dilapidated hut and a stream. Today this humble beginning has grown into a beautiful, verdant, 30 acre farm which produces 30 kinds of crops including organic cotton and the farm produce includes value added products like organic cotton garments which have been designed by the family, and dyed in house using natural plant based dyes, organic food products like jams jellies, butters, marmalades and pickles and personal care products like soap and bathing aids.

1. dyeing shed at krac a dawna

Vivek is a Krishi Pandit awardee, and Juli has played a central role in the initial years in drafting the Organic standards document to help certify farms for the OFAI.

Sathya Khadi

Krac-a-dawna’s organic cotton is especially relevant to our continuing series on sustainable fabric. Juli and Vivek grow their own cotton which is a hybrid of Indian and Caribbean cotton which is grown because it is long stapled, soft cotton.

2. Non Gmo Organic cotton at Krac a dawna

The feel of this fabric is outstanding, and Juli and Vivek get this cotton woven into many finishes including honeycomb waffle for towels and airy, light voile that gets made into flowing skirts.

 

The mechanised handloom & the master weaver

A conversation with Vivek and Juli leaves us feeling edgy and unsettled when we discuss the state of textiles and organic food produce in India. Krac-a-dawna’s organic cotton is sent to weavers to be woven in a powered handloom, which is a modified, “slightly mechanised” version of a handloom. This is easier on the weaver compared to a pure handloom, and allows each weaver to run 2 – 3 looms at a time, improving their wage earning capacity and productivity. Most importantly for the Cariappas, this frees the weaver from the master weaver, who is the first middleman we encounter in the textile world. Typically, a master weaver controls the output of several weaver families and often pays them a fixed wage and controls their output.

In many villages, master weavers are moneylenders, into whose debt weavers are trapped in exchange for funds to procure raw material or improve their looms. As a result, their output is forever tied to the moneylender who in this case acts as the master weaver, sourcing fabric at low rates from the indebted craftsmen.

We have spoken about the problems around powerloom and availability of hank yarn at length in India. Our conversation with Juli reveals another unknown fact about powerloom weaving.

Beef tallow and yarn sizing

Handloom weavers strengthen the yarn by dipping it into a mixture of starch derived from plant material like arrowroot and tapioca. This process, called sizing, helps give a protective coating to the yarn as it is woven, and helps keep in place during the weaving process.

The speed of powerloom weaving is so high that sizing the fabric is not enough. Instead, mutton fat or beef tallow is used to grease the machine and sizing is done using imported starch, typically from GM corn.

Powerloom sizing of fabric is not an organic process, as it is in handloom weaving. In handloom weaving, sizing is done from left over starch which comes from the rice or tubers that the weavers eat. In contrast, powerloom sizing uses nearly 1.6 Kg of firewood to heat and prepare the starch for every kilo of cotton.

Juli and Vivek call this whole value chain of conventional textile fabric, “violent”. It is harmful to our environment and eco system, and robs us of our seed sovereignty.

5.satyakhadi

Say NO to GMO

The war against GMOs is active and all over Krac-a-dawna. The labels which I help Juli stick onto the jam bottles reminds us to “say no to GMOs”. Vivek and Juli’s bookshelves and work apart from stewarding their farm include monitoring and being a part of several action committees to recommend next steps in suicide belts like Vidharba.

This activism is not restricted to GMOs alone. Juli is a licensed homeopath, and has eschewed vaccinations for her children. The farm animals are treated by Juli and her second son Azad using only gentle homeopathic medicines. Her bookshelves are filled with treatises on nutrition, making bread ,tofu and soaps, and have helped the residents of Krac a dawna stay completely self sufficient.

As we sit down to eat a fresh nutritious lunch made from scratch from the produce grown on the farm, Vivek proudly tells us that everything except the salt in our meal was grown and prepared on their farm.

The quest for self sufficiency

In a strange way, our series on sustainable fabric mirrors our quest for self sufficiency as well. Our nation once clothed the world, and was responsible for providing fabric for the entire world, exquisitely made, tailored and dyed. Our weavers were master craftsmen who occupied an important place in society. The sophistication of our textile produce was vast. The germplasm of our cotton was vast and varied and different parts of India produced different types of cotton. The linkages in our textile world were strong and every part of the textile producing chain was linked to both upstream and downstream. We used every single resource available to us from the dung produced by our cattle to the leaves, fruits and seeds to colour, strengthen and polish our fabric.

2. natural dye colour palette

And yet here we are today. 93% of India’s cotton is now genetically modified BT cotton. Vivek and Juli Cariappa maintain that the cotton germplasm across our country has been contaminated by BT, so much of the balance 7% cotton is also suspect. They tell us that UAS –Dharwad is the only source for uncontaminated cotton germplasm today. The path of Bt Cotton is violent and unsustainable. The cotton belt in India is marked in red by waves of farmer suicides. The handloom industry which would weave this cotton into fine fabric is languishing, underpaid and under supported. The dyeing industry has morphed into a chemically derived industry polluting our water, soil and air.

Krac-a-dawna’s model is a beacon of hope for us as we walk along the cotton trail. It tells us that it is possible to wear sustainable fabric. And that there is passion, joy and science in its production, as much there is in its wearing.

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End notes:

Krac-a-dawna’s sustainable cotton garments & farm produce can be bought from Elements, Cochin and Casablanca, Pondicherry. Vivek and Juli also sell directly to groups of families who can guarantee a bulk order of atleast Rs.10,000 and above – in this case, you could also buy their organic rice, pulses, jaggery and fresh produce. Juli Cariappa also makes a great range of jams, jellies, marmalades, pickles and soaps.

The minimum bulk purchase quoted above depends upon where you stay in relation to their farm. The farm is in a remote location off Mysore, with little connectivity, so sending small parcels is not an option for Krac-a-dawna.

Vivek and Juli Cariappa may be contacted at krac_a_dawna@yahoo.com .

This post is a part of our continuing series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read 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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
  11. Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
  12. Our post with notes on Kalakshetra’s Natural dyeing workshop and a guest post by Kavita Rayirath of Indian by design on inspiring Handloom appreciation is here.
  13. Rashmi Vittal of Little Green Kid’s guest post on why organic cotton is so essential for everyone can be found here.
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Green Bazaar update and conversations on sustainable fabric & menstruation

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Reading Time: 9 minutes

If it is too good to be true, then it probably is. Krya was conducting a workshop and showcasing skin care products at the Alternative’s Green Bazaar yesterday. We commissioned a commercial artist to hand paint a cloth banner for us for our stall. We wanted to avoid the regular plastic flex banners with digital prints. We e-mailed our artwork to the artist, who assured us a perfect reproduction of the design by his own hand, using cloth and paint.

We were getting the banner printed in a rush , just the day before the bazaar. The night before the event we hopped into the artist’s studio to check out the progress on our banner. We arrived in time to discover that he digitally printed our design on a piece of flex and was using that as a stencil to create a “hand-painted” sign.

So after all the fuss, we printed a plastic banner in order to create a sustainable, hand-painted cloth banner. Had we known this, we could stopped our artist right at the plastic stage.

So we took our resource heavy cloth banner to the Green Bazaar on Sunday morning, along with the Krya detergent and Dishwash and the preview packs of the soon to be launched Krya hair wash and Krya face wash.

6.Krya at the green bazaar

Conversations on Sustainable Menstruation

We were thrilled to meet the team from Eco Femme, which is doing great work in sustainable menstruation. Kathy of Eco-Femme introduced me to Vijay and his work in menstrual activism. Vijay’s work is in a very specific field in menstruation: the right to sun-dry your undergarments and menstrual cloth. Before you think that this is a little too specific, Vijay shared a study by the Adyar cancer Institute which found that one of the causes of cervical cancer was the lack of sun drying of undergarments and menstrual cloth. The subsequent dampness, moisture and folding away of these garments were somehow able to create favourable conditions for the entry and spread of the Human Papilloma virus, which is associated with several medical conditions including cervical cancer.

I was struck how some people don’t have the basic to right to dry their clothes in the sun and some-how ended up with terrible consequences. This was an eye-opener.

5. eco femme

Later in the day, I was happy to share my experiences with Menstruation and how I made the switch to Eco Femme’s earth friendly cloth pads at Eco Femme’s Sustainable menstruation workshop. Kathy Walking then showed us a very powerful video that they had made at Auroville to demonstrate both current menstrual practices and the environmental effect of continuing to use disposable products. This video showed that women across India tried to dry their undergarments and menstrual cloth in cupboards, under beds, in the bathrooms, under sinks and similarly damp, possibly unhygienic places which had no air or light. This arose from a superstition that menstrual cloth was unlucky and should not be seen by Men. The point that Vijay was making resonated strongly with me as I saw this.

The second piece of research estimated the size of landfill if every single woman in India used disposable menstrual napkins every year–58 billion pads thrown away each year would occupy the land equivalent to 173 football fields every single year!

So yes, it is important to be open about Menstruation, and claim both our right to sun dry and our right to make better choices for our planet.

The Sustainable Fabric workshop

Krya and Chakra design studio jointly hosted a workshop on handlooms and naturally dyed fabric. A conversation with Ananthoo of Tula, reveals an interesting economic fact – a kilo of chemical dye costs as low as Rs 20, and a kilo of vegetable dye could cost anywhere between Rs 400 – Rs 1000 !

7. the Krya Chakra workshop on fabric

So obviously on the face of it, it makes no economic sense to even attempt to use natural dye on your fabric. Plus the colour palette of natural dyes is extremely limited. You will not obtain the “exciting” computer colours that are not abundantly present in nature like lime green or fuchsia or a bright purple.

2. natural dye colour palette

 

The Krya Chakra workshop was an introduction to handlooms and natural dyes, and listening to Bindu, I was struck by other limitations of the craft. The natural dyeing process is temperamental – you are never sure of the exact shade of colour you will get at the end of the process, because the same tree across different harvest years will yield slightly different shades.

The natural dyeing process needs to be done very carefully and meticulously. For example, to ensure the cloth holds the dye, dyers use different pre-treatment methods like soaking the plain fabric in buffalo milk and Terminalia chebulia or Myrobalan before applying the mordant. And this varies from region to region and the natural resources that are available to each dyeing community.

Natural dyeing is also a very water intensive process, compared to chemical dyeing. Chemical dyes come in easy to use forms which can then be straight away applied to the cloth, and have been designed to be colour fast.

But applying natural colours follows a linear process: each colour has to be applied, fixed, the excess washed off and sun dried before the next colour can make its way into the fabric. The process is therefore very time-consuming compared to using chemical dyes.

With so many apparent disadvantages in using natural dyes, why then are we supporting this craft?

While the water consumed by natural dyeing is large, it is important to remember that all of this water can be happily used for agriculture or other purposes. Bindu shares that in her dyeing village, the craftsmen swim in the irrigation canal, and stand of either side of it allowing the flowing water to wash away any excess dye. The farmers who use this water are happy to share it as they believe this water is good for the crops and does not harm in any way.

We must remember that before our centralised factory based models came into being, our lives were more intertwined and symbiotic. Treatises on the fabric traditions of India reveal a system of barter used to exist: cotton farmers would exchange their cotton with spinners for finished yarn which they could then hand weave themselves. Spinners would also barter yarn with weavers for finished fabric.

Chemical dyeing today has its roots in natural plant based dyeing, and the craftsmen are drawn from the communities of vegetable dyers. And they carry along with them practices of vegetable dyeing. So while chemical dyeing does not require the extensive rinsing and drying and liner processing that vegetable dyeing entails, it still requires water as a last rinse. And both small chemical dyers and large dyeing factories dip their textiles into running water and rivers to rinse off the excess dye.

The aftermath of chemical dyeing

We already shared the story of the Noyyal River in Tiruppur. Historically, the Noyyal River was called the “Kanchinadi” and considered a sacred river. The river itself is said to contain minerals which are health giving and considered “antibiotic” in nature.

The Chalukya Chola Kings built an interconnected tank and canal system to this river which helped drain away the excess water from the river into an intricate system of tanks preventing flooding along the banks. And the tanks themselves helped replenish groundwater by percolating the sub soil (in this we must understand that these tanks were not the impermeable cement graves that we dig today in the name of water storage, but tanks where the bottom was mud allowing water to percolate the sub soil).

Today, the Noyyal River has been kindly described as a sewer. The Tamilnadu Pollution control board estimates conservatively that 883,000 tonnes of toxic waste is dumped into the Noyyal River every year by the textile mills around Tiruppur.

2.noyyal runs black

Farmers have abandoned cultivation as digging below 6 feet releases a black, toxic sludge. Any produce grown absorbs chemical content and changes colour – coconuts for instance were found to have red insides as against their regular white insides.

8. Bindu and I at the workshop final

Chemical dyeing related illnesses

A video from Craft mark which documents the process of hand dyeing using chemical dyes, reveals a horrific basket of chemicals which the dyers dip their hands into every month – to set the dyes, the dyers have to dip their hands and the fabric into caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, sodium nitrate and soda ash, and acetic acid. The dye stains their skin almost indelibly and they find eating difficult as the dye colours and odorises the food they eat. They explain that they need to take a 2 day holiday to recover for every 10 day chemical dyeing work they do.

As we shared this with the audience at the Sustainable fabric workshop, we saw several people look at their shirts and garments with undisguised horror – imagine the effect these very same chemicals will have as they sit malignantly close to your skin and continue to be slowly absorbed by your skin every day.

Krya Talk

Of course, apart from the conversations with different people and the workshops at the Bazaar, it is a very edifying experience to stand in your own stall and greet visitors with information about what you do. I found a lot of interest around the Krya hair wash, and our small batch at the Bazaar was sold out. Apparently even my threats of greenish residue left behind in the hair was not enough to deter people who wanted to try out a safer product on themselves. The question I was asked most about was whether the Hair wash would reverse hair fall.

9. How does this work final

I am particularly wary about marketing claims, coming as I do from a background in Consumer Product Marketing. Most research and statistics can be interpreted in any way to obtain favourable results for the product you are marketing.

I particularly dislike product claims – it is my belief that is almost impossible to isolate external, environmental and internal causes from the workings of a product. So if I told you the Krya hair wash would reduce hair fall, and when you bought the product, you also decided to detox your life and started eating organic food that was wholegrain and maybe vegan, with a lot of greens in your diet, it would stand to reason that your health indices would dramatically improve. This meant that your hair fall, if you had any would also slow down. Now should I attribute it to the Krya hairwash you were using at the time? Knowing what goes into the product and how it works, I could say yes. But I would be incorrect if I discounted the dramatic effect of eating clean healthy food on your system.

So to the questions on hair loss, I simply said that the hair wash would do what it was supposed to do really well – it would clean your scalp and hair without loading your system with toxins, and leave your scalp to function in a regular healthy manner without irritating it or stripping it of serum.

I was pleased to find that my underplayed response resonated with my audience. And we quickly sold out. To add to this, 2 of my consumers who had bought the hair wash two weeks back when we launched, came to the stall to tell me how well the product was working for them. And this feedback, as you know, makes my heart sing. If you too would like to try our limited range of skin and hair care goodies please click here.

The Green Bazaar also showcased some interesting food stalls, including a food stall by SHARAN which showcased vegan food and also showcased the vegan creations of a young Mum who is a wholegrain baker. I noticed several participants carrying SHARAN’s leaflets, and was thrilled at people’s interest and curiosity around this very pertinent subject.

3.team sharan

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. lavender at bazaar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you missed it, the Alternative’s Green Bazaar is a bi-monthly event – so do ensure you are there the next time around.
If you too would like to know about Menstruation and why it is not environmentally sustainable at the moment and explore your options, start here.

In the meantime, our series on sustainable fabric continues. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
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To Bt or not to Bt – we think not

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

India is now the top exporter of cotton and the second largest producer of cotton in the world. The agriculture ministry estimates that in 2010-11, there were 111.42 lakh hectares under cotton cultivation, and of those, nearly 90% were growing Bt cotton. Bt cotton is a genetically modified (GM) variety of cotton sold by seed companies that buy this “Bt gene” from Monsanto and was introduced in 2002 to India.

India is an ancient centre of cotton cultivation dating back to 5000 BC. Cotton cultivation was well developed during the Indus valley civilization. In just over a decade Bt cotton has grown exponentially and has wiped out roughly 90% of all land under desi varieties of cotton, disturbing an ecosystem that has thrived since ancient times.

Was it worth it for India and her cotton farmers to embrace Bt cotton in such staggering numbers? Consider this, the growth of Bt cotton in India also coincides with a period of mass farmer suicides by the cotton farmers. Since 2005, over 2.5 lakh Indian farmers have committed suicide; most of them were cotton farmers.

Apart from our farmers, we have also lost biodiversity in this mad rush for Bt. we have lost much of our cotton biodiversity. Before Bt cotton, farmers used to use about 40% hybrid seeds and 60% native cotton seeds. After the introduction of Bt Cotton, farmers began to use mostly hybrid seeds (over 90%) abandoning the indigenous cotton seeds.

India’s cotton crisis is a matter of grave and immediate concern to all of us.

If you thought that Bt cotton was an isolated crisis, remember that there are dark forces that are trying to inject the “Bt gene” into other crops, starting with Bt Brinjal. To paraphrase Martin Luther King,” To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it”.

What exactly is Genetically Modified (GM) cotton?

The chief engineer behind Bt cotton is Monsanto. It “creates” the Bt Cotton seed by inserting the gene coding for the Bt toxin of the Bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton seed. This is a family of over 200 different types of proteins that produce chemicals that are harmful to certain insects, specifically the larvae of moths, butterflies, cotton bollworms, and flies.  When this gene sequence is inserted into a cotton seed the cotton crop produces this Bt toxin in its tissue. When the insect larvae that are affected by this Bt toxin eat this “infected” cotton, they are killed.

The evolution of Monsanto:

Monsanto was founded in 1902 and by the 1940s was a major plastics company creating synthetic fibres and plastic derivatives like polystyrene which is used in take away coffee cups which remain cool despite the hot liquid in them. Monsanto is infamous for the development and production of Agent Orange for the U.S Army’s operations in Vietnam in 1970. Agent orange was a chemical herbicide that was sprayed by air US Helicopters over large tracts of agricultural land in Vietnam. It killed the trees and forests, depriving the locals of food and cover.

Agent-Orange-dioxin-skin-damage-Vietnam

Major Tu Duc Phang holding his pre-Agent Orange photograph

In effect it is estimated that 3 million Vietnamese citizens were severely harmed by Agent Orange

In 1983, the direction that Monsanto worked in began to change. The scientists at Monsanto were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell. As of 2012, Monsanto has 2 lines of businesses: herbicides and a line of seed “products”. Many of Monsanto’s seeds are genetically modified to work only with their herbicide range. So they force a package deal on the farmer who has to buy a system of seeds plus the herbicides to keep pest away.

In this article we will examine the dark agricultural crisis engineered by Monsanto, starting with Bt cotton.

Bt Cotton is not the “Final Solution” against pests

“Die Endlösung der Judenfrage” or the Final Solution to the Jewish question was the euphemistic and innocent sounding term given by the Nazis to the Holocaust, that massacred 6 million Jewish people.

Heydrich-Endlosung

A letter from Reinhard Heydrich (a high ranking Nazi official and one of the main architects of the Holocaust) to diplomat Martin Luther in Feb , 1942 asking for administrative assistance in the implementation of the “Final Solution”.

 

India’s cotton farmer crisis, that has intensified since the 2002 introduction of Bt cotton , is another  Holocaust. Bt cotton was sold as the “final solution” against cotton pests and promised a glorious economic future with bountiful cotton harvests.

On the contrary, In 2010, Monsanto reported to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) that the pink bollworm (a cotton pest) had developed resistance to its genetically modified cotton variety Bollgard1 in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Rajkot & Junagarh districts in Gujarat.

Besides Bt Cotton being ineffective against its main pest, the cotton bollworm, its introduction has led to the growth of hitherto weaker pests like sucking pests leading to significant economic losses. Cotton productivity has continued to fall in Bt cotton cultivation areas and pesticide expenditure has shot up despite the promised reduction as pesticides need to be employed both against new pests and against resistant pests like the resistant bollworm.

GV Ramajaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture states that data related to consumption of pesticides and micro studies indicates that there is initially a reduction in the use of pesticides especially those against boll worms when switching over to Bt Cotton. This reduction in bollworm is countered by a corresponding increase in aphids and sucking pests which means that a cocktail of pesticides are used to combat the new threat. Also, official data on pesticide consumption in India reflects no major change in use of pesticides after having adopted Bt cotton.

Seeds are no longer free, they are a product.

One of the biggest changes to the farming system with the introduction of genetically engineered seeds is the new system of economics that has come to plague agriculture, which depended only on nature and soil. For generations, farmers have saved native seeds and carefully bred select strains to produce indigenous varieties with regional variations. These seeds would be saved from the previous crop and would be swapped with another variety that would perhaps grow on a neighbouring farm.

Hybrid and genetically modified seeds on the other hand are expensive and take a lot of research to create.  Hybrid and GM seeds cannot be reused as they are sterile. This means a farmer has to buy seeds every time he plants the crop, making the very act of farming (which used to be living off the land) an expensive commercial production. Bt Cotton seeds are between 4 – 10 times more expensive than hybrid seeds.

The protests against GM crop also points to a more fundamental question: should seeds and therefore food production be corporatized? Because when seeds, which are the fundamental unit of food is declared as a private product and needs to be purchased, food, and the lives of the farmers who produce this food is controlled.

By patenting their GM seeds, Monsanto is able to charge money from farmers every time they produce food for us. Seeds which used to be freely shared by farmers and selectively bred have now become the intellectual property of companies like Monsanto. Every seed packet that is sold by Monsanto also charges a percentage of the fee as royalty from the farmer. After locking in the farmers to this system, Monsanto is free to increase their prices at will. At point when the price of a 450 pack of Bt cotton seeds went up Rs 1950/- , the Andhra Pradesh State government had to step in and limit the price to a ceiling of Rs 750/- and also enact the Andhra Pradesh Cotton Seeds Act 2007 to regulate prices. A farmer is forced to purchase 5 packets of Bt seed per acre of cultivation and the related pesticide. This cash outflow season after season is a huge financial blow to the small holding farmers.

When food is corporatized, then farmers who buy the seeds are treated much like consumers buying the latest electronic gadget are. When pink bollworms developed resistance to Bollgard 1 seeds, Monsanto urged farmers to “upgrade” to Bollgard 2, which it claimed offers better resistance to Bollworms!

Bt Cotton is not a law abiding citizen

In 1998, Monsanto started field trials of Bt cotton without approval from the GEAC. By the time the Indian government gave permission to plant Bt cotton in 2002, use of Bt cotton seeds had spread illegally in the major producer states. Again in 2013 , the next generation of Bt seeds were found to be sold illegally by the Maharashtra government well before the GEAC approval.

Bt Cotton is like an infestation: it spreads

In early 2010, the German edition of the Financial Times published a report stating that global brands like H&M were selling clothes made of Bt contaminated organic cotton. And this organic cotton was being sourced from India. Nearly 30% of the organic cotton sourced from India was contaminated with traces of Bt cotton.

A report released by the centre for Sustainable Agriculture studied the cotton seed production in India along the complete supply chain and found that were no standards to protect the indigenous cotton varieties from contamination by Bt cotton. The biologically and physical contamination possibility of cotton seeds range from 5 – 30%. The standard regulations ask farmers to maintain a 30 – 50 metre distance from nearest Bt farms. In practice given India’s landholding pattern and the presence of many many small farmers, this isolation is difficult to implement – this makes the infestation faster and easier to spread.

GM cotton is less profitable to a farmer compared to a non GM variety

A Feb. 2008 study published in the Agronomy journal had researchers from the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environment Science analyse and compare the produce of GM and non GM plants.

The general belief driven by marketing around GM crops is that GM crops help plants fight pests better saving farmers’ management time and money. Because the plants are supposed to be pest resistant, a farmer can farm the land more intensively without hiring more people as the plant is supposed to be able to take care of itself.

The Georgia University study actually showed that Bt cotton is less profitable than a non Bt variety in any location or any year.

Bt cotton in India performs only in well irrigated fields. For example in Vidharba, which is a cotton belt in India, the climate is dry and almost drought like. Here adoption of Bt cotton has seen reducing yields from the crop which has been linked to the huge number of farmer suicides in the region.

Here the State Government alarmed at the huge human losses has stepped in to find more sustainable ways of making cotton cultivation feasible. This initiative has been aided by the Central Institute for Cotton research which has put together a package helping farmers with desi cotton varieties of cotton seeds which required less water and was traditionally suited to that arid region.Documentary_Cotton_for_my_Shroud' depicts_ the livesofcottonfarmersof_Vidarbha

Vidharba Cotton farmer – Image courtesy ‘The Hindu’

Apart from switching from Bt cotton to desi indigenous cotton, this project also aims to decrease cotton cultivation cost. And promoting desi seeds means less labour as there is a lower amount of weeding required, hardier crop that requires less input and also seeds which can flower twice and produce crop twice a year unlike Bt cotton which gives only one harvest per year.

There are 3 kinds of lies

There are 3 kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies & statistics.

There are many government reports, newspaper op-ed pieces, Monsanto case studies that conclude that yields of cotton ( & therefore the lives of farmers) have improved since the launch of Bt cotton.

We would like to ask some questions to those reports

1)      Can these so called success stores guarantee that yields of Bt cotton will continue to grow in the future? What if the yield collapses in the next 10 years?

2)      The cotton yields may have improved temporarily, but the farmer also had to spend Lakhs of rupees on seeds and herbicides (& loan interests). So after the Bt harvest , does have less money in the bank than before ?

3)      Have the yields improved in every single farm in every state of India ? For those families who lost their bread-winners in Vidharba, this national yield statistic will not bring any comfort.

 

What next ?

Our aim when we wrote this article was to write an informative and educative piece which simply presented rational facts. However when focussing on the rational, it is difficult to ignore the human life consequences of having switched to Bt Cotton.

We lose a farmer every 30 minutes in India as he proceeds to drink the insecticide or pesticide he has been forced to buy to protect his weak, Bt cotton crop. From 1995, there have been more than 2.5 lakh farmer suicides in India. And this suicide rate has peaked within 3 – 4 years of the introduction of Bt cotton as farmers find themselves chained to the higher costs of seeds, and inputs that are increasingly required when they allow the Bt crop to infect their soil.

Cotton cultivation has already been termed dirty. According to the Organic Trade Association:

Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidophos, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.

Aldicarb, cotton’s second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater 

When you add Bt cotton to this already dirty cocktail, you get a crop that is not just dirty but is also toxic.

 At the end of this article, the answer to the question posed by our title should be obvious: Unlike Hamlet, there are no grey areas to consider when asking yourself whether or not to Bt. But if you would like to know what your non Bt options please come back and read us over the next few days.

We hope that our series on sustainable fabric is inspiring you to take a closer look at your wardrobe. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
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The warped state of Handlooms in India

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

I was surprised to read a few days back that Flipkart has signed an MoU with the Indian Textile Ministry to provide an online marketing platform to handloom weavers and their products. Through online marketing platform, Flipkart is also supposed to provide support in data analytics, market intelligence, guidance on how products should be priced, brand building & packaging to the weavers.

Someone reading this report may well question why the government continues to spend money on this Handloom sector. And if so much money, schemes, man hours and support has been already given to boost the handloom sector, is it undeserving of all this aid, as it still hasn’t improved or really turned around?

Handloom Numbers:

When we speak of the handloom sector, we first need to understand its scale through some important numbers. 95% of the world’s hand-woven fabric comes from India and this sector also contributes to India’s export earnings. The Handloom census of 2009 – 10 tells us that that this sector provides employment to 4.33 Million people.  This number has reduced significantly from 1995-96, when the number of people employed by this sector was close to 6.5 Million people in either weaving or allied activities.  But only 15% of the total fabric produced in our country comes from the handloom sector.  Compare this to power loom fabric which in 1956 contributed to only 2.3% of India’s total fabric and today occupies 85% of our fabric market.

In 2011-12, the handloom industry wove 6900 million square metres of cloth. The Government since Independence has (at least on paper) poured thousands of crores of money, and resources down this sector. As of last year, The Textile Ministry’s annual report cites several schemes to rejuvenate the handloom sector. Some of this include:

  • Subsidized rates on hank yarn (of 10% on yarn price) under the Mill Gate Price scheme
  • Marketing events and promotional activities to help weavers exhibit their wares (about 700 were done last year), A ministry sponsored Handloom week event every year,
  • An integrated handloom development scheme with a budget in 2011-12 of 236.5 Crores to provide financial assistance , training in weaving and dyeing, design and management and construction of new handloom sheds
  • Institutional Credit scheme – which provides margin money assistance, an interest subsidy for the first 3 years of loan repayment, a credit guarantee trust fund,  and promotional activities and camps by banks disbursing the loan to help make weavers aware of the scheme.
  • Comprehensive health insurance and health care facilities,
  • A scholarship scheme and life coverage under the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana
  • Diversified Handloom development scheme which is to upgrade weaver skills through workshops, exhibitions, design development, documentation of traditional designs, setting up of Weavers service centres, R&D facilities and Institutes like IIHT, NCTD, etc.

Despite all these measures, people in handloom sector have high levels of poverty, extremely variable incomes and sometime abject penury.

Our discussions with companies like Exind Corporation, which is the company behind Kalpadruma in Chennai, tell us about eerie ghost towns where the handlooms are draped with cobwebs.

Older weavers want their children to have nothing to do with the crafts and handloom weaving appears to be largely the occupation of senior citizens with several 70 year old handloom weavers (as seen in the picture below) continuing with the craft with no younger apprentices in sight to continue the tradition.

10.handloom weaving

 

Did you know about the Handloom Reservation Act ?

These activities are over and above the Handloom Reservation Act which was passed in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. This act is still supposed to be under enforcement and regulates 22 types of garments for the exclusive production of the Handloom sector.

When this act was passed, it was criticised as being draconian and unfairly skewed towards the handloom sector. The act was also criticised as being sweeping and including generic categories of garments into the reserved status.

The Handloom Reservation act has defined a handloom to be any loom other than a power loom, and its reach extends to the whole of India. It also gives sweeping powers to the Ministry to include any garments it may seem fit outside of these 22 reserved garments to be included in the Act whenever they feel the need.

Many of the textile products we use every day are regulated by this act. For example, the Handloom reservation act includes almost all cotton and silk saris for the exclusive production of handloom mills or weavers. Similarly Dhotis, Angavastrams, lungis , dress materials, kambals and shawls with a few exceptions are included in this act.

Certain kinds of fabrics and weaves are exempt from this act. For example, synthetic saris made from polyester, nylon, etc and saris made from chiffon, georgette, crepe, and cotton voile are completely exempt and can be made in a power loom.  Saris made with blends that use material other than silk and cotton, or where 45% or more of the weight of the yarn is made from synthetic or manufactured yarn like viscose are exempt from this act.

Perhaps because of the protests and lobbying of the powerful textile and power loom lobby from the time this act was passed, till date, this Act remains powerful only in paper. If you leave aside the huge sweep of this act and how it seeks to protect a large part of what we wear and ensure that what we wear remains Handloom, which may be called draconian, the fact is that while the Act remains powerful, its execution has been lackadaisical at best.

In January 1995, out of 72,553 power looms inspected for possible violations 656 cases were booked – this is despite the fact that violation of this act by power looms is more the norm rather than the exception. ( as per some government reports)

So what ails the handloom sector and why are such a large number of weavers struggling in utter penury today? Is the only reason the financial might and concentrated power of the power loom industry? Is the government to blame? Are we also responsible?

Conundrum : Is what I buy even handloom?

The Weaver communities talked about in the ancient Sangam period and even upto the 17th century were integrated entrepreneurs. They had close associations with the cotton cultivators who were generally close by. The cotton bales would reach the villages where they would be hand spun by the women in the weaver families. The yarn would then be woven into fabric. Textile dyeing done either at the yarn stage or after the fabric was printed was either done in-house or by a close association of dyeing craftsmen who would typically be located close to a water body. The dye would be produced from plant based material and then transferred onto the yarn or the fabric. The entire process of textile making was integrated more or less within a geographical location. This meant the weaver had to go nowhere for his raw material or textile accessories.

Resources have now become more and more centralised. Today’s handloom weaver cannot find hank yarn or dyes within his geographical location. As weaving today is done in rural and semi rural areas, weavers have to travel far to obtain their raw materials.

The availability of hank yarn for handlooms is also a serious issue. A hank is a coiled unit of yarn or twine.  Handlooms need yarn in this format compared to power looms which need yarn in the cone format.

2. hank yarn

Under the Handloom reservation act, a spinning mill is supposed to produce 50% of their total marketable output as hank yarn for handlooms. Hank yarn is tax free and has other subsidies. A garment is classified as handloom by the government if the raw material purchased is Hank Yarn. This classification based on raw material is merely for convenience as authorities would find it very difficult to physically monitor the output and then classify it as handloom or powerloom. Further, the supposed output of hank yarn, which is handloom ,is also exempt from excise duty.

So some power looms use this subsidy illegally as follows. They purchase hank at the lower rates, re-wind it in cones to fit their machines and create textiles. Since they purchased hank yarn, they then claim that their output is “handloom” and further avail excise duty exemption. This diversion of the hank yarn to power looms reduces raw material availability for the handloom sector. As a result handloom weavers face a year round shortage of yarn for their fabric. This excise evasion not only diverts yarn from a weaver to a mill, it also mis-classifies power loom output as handloom output! So the power loom owner buys yarn at a subsidized rate, weaves it in his mill & sells it as handloom (again at a lower excise rate) – in this process the handloom weaver loses hank yarn, the government loses excise money and consumers like us don’t get to wear a genuine handloom product even though the label may say “handloom”.

Myth : Handloom garments are expensive & old fashioned

Hank yarn and dye are the raw material used to produce a handloom garment. We have already seen how hank yarn can be diverted from handlooms by the loopholes of subsidies and excise exemption. The basic price of the yarn itself that weavers have to pay in a centralised system of yarn production is much more than what they would have paid in the past, when yarn was available in their villages. High cost machine produced yarn available in large towns or cities is what they have access to today. When weavers who are small scale entrepreneurs buy this high cost raw material, it stands to reason that the garments they produce will also have a correspondingly high price.

Consumers used to low cost, mass produced powerloom fabric are often unable to accept this high cost. The question of design innovation is caught in a classic chicken and egg situation: weavers may be willing to innovate if their market risk is reduced by the investor. Investors are of course willing to have innovation if they are sure their fabric will be sold.

In the meantime no one is addressing us the consumers as we sail forth, shopping in Malls and buying powerloom fabric. We do not know their ramifications of our choices. We do not understand what we are losing as we continue to push our traditional fabric and garments out of our wardrobe.

The biggest strength of a decentralised, village based, weaver system of the past was that regional designs and identities were preserved.

For example, in our earlier post written by Richa Dubey, she spoke about the Leheriya design which was created by artisans in a desert longing for the rain. This longing was immortalised in the flow of rain drops on their garments through their dyeing craft. Similarly, a Baluchari sari from West Bengal had motifs like animals, plants, marriage processions, horse riders of vignettes from the Ramayana outlined in white.

4. paisley

The Kanjeevaram saree which was believed to have been woven 400 years ago have peacocks, parrots, swans, mangoes and leaves as common motifs. The borders have triangular pinnacle like marks which represent the temples in and around this town, which gives this town the sobriquet of the “Temple town”.

3.handloom inspiration

With globalisation of fashion, our regional identities and where we come from becomes blurred. And the weaver who continues to craft his fabric taking cues from his environment becomes obsolete and old fashioned.

Myth : Handloom garments are difficult to maintain

Our pieces earlier by handloom and textile enthusiasts talk about the differences wearing a handloom fabric give to its wearer. We have experienced this for ourselves when we wear our Tula rain fed organic cotton handloom shirts, or our Kalakshetra handloom vegetable dyed saris or our Kalpadruma vegetable dyed organic cotton handloom towels.

Handloom garments are extremely breathable and absorbent. So you do not feel sweaty or hot as the fabric allows air to pass through. They also feel very cool and comfortable and soft, especially after they are washed many times. However, they need to be maintained with care – you cannot simply toss them into a machine thoughtlessly like you would with your knits, t-shirts and other powerloom fabric. But this care can reap rich rewards for you as your handlooms will last much much longer.

We are going to write a more detailed post on why there is this difference in handloom garments and how they should be maintained well, and can actually be made to last for decades if not years when done so.

But this post will simply carry a small note on what makes handloom garments different. Natural fibres like cotton and silk require more careful handling compared to synthetics. They are also generally less elastic compared to synthetics which mean that they can shrink or tear under stress unless treated. In large processing plants like those which create cotton knits or t shirts, natural fabrics are specially treated using techniques like mercerisation, or superwashing to enhance the fibre’s properties.

But native handloom weavers have always used local, indigenous methods to enhance the fibre’s strength and ensure that the fibre can withstand the rigours of handloom weaving. Weavers from different states have slightly different ways of tearing yarn. In many places in South India where rice is freely available, rice paste or rice starch is used on the yarn. It is soaked in this paste and then dried before being woven on the loom. In our research we have seen different natural pastes being added to this basic mix including onion paste in some cases.

This natural starch and plant combination along with the handling of the yarn by hand keeps the handloom fabric in better shape compared to powerloom fabric. And as the cotton is gently treated from the beginning it feels soft and comfortable when worn. In order to retain the properties of the handloom garment, it needs to be treated with a similar amount of care from the wearer’s end. But with this care, your handloom saree, skirt or dupatta can retain its colour and be worn just as proudly by you even twenty years down the line.

This post has been able to cover only a few of the issues that assail the handloom sector. We have not even begun to cover the important aspect of fair trade when it comes to this industry which is a point worth pondering about or the question of working in a hazardous occupation, which is a problem associated with chemical dyes. Our upcoming posts will cover all of these and as promised introduce you to some companies and organisations which are worth supporting and are doing sincere and stellar work in this field.

We hope you are enjoying reading our sustainable fabric series and also hope that our series is inspiring you to take a closer look at your wardrobe. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interveiwing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.

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

 

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The Sutra of Thread – Part 2

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

One of the reasons the Indian handloom and handicraft sector is so much in the doldrums is because as consumers, we lack knowledge. We do not know our sustainable fabric basics which is why we sometimes easily forego our traditional textile crafts.

The incident that happened to us a few days back, illustrates this lack of knowledge.

An advertisement in the newspaper about a State government run handloom and handicraft exhibition had me visit an event. When asked where their advertised vegetable dyed handloom sarees were, I was shown a pile of sarees of which apart form a few, the rest were clearly dyed using synthetic shades. After some questioning, the salesman took out 4 – 5 sarees from his large pile – these were dyed in shades of green, brown, red and black, and he confirmed that only these were “pure vegetable dyes’ and that the rest were vegetable dyes that were mixed with synthetic dyes.

I felt the texture of the sarees and their weight and asked him if they were indeed handloom sarees. The manager at the billing counter told me that they were all power loom sarees, and that handlooms would be coarser and bulkier in comparison. I had to contest this statement. He replied that they did not have any cotton handlooms in the expo as they were much more expensive compared to the power loom saree. But the event was advertised as a “handloom” exhibition. And the sarees were sold at the counter as “handloom “.

Ignorance, in this case is not bliss. Our ignorance is costing us our water, soil, air and is putting an entire generation of weavers at risk as we no longer appreciate or even know anything about what they create. Here is the second part of Richa’s informative post detailing how the textile crafts of India follow our seasons. Here are the textile crafts that suit monsoon and winter.

Following hard on the heels of the scorching summer, are the cooling rainclouds. The country revives with the cooling drops of life-giving rain – (barkha in urdu). And the rejoicing that marks the season finds its way into the patterns and designs of Indian fabric.

Lahariya – the very name suggests its wave-like fluidity is a tie & dye technique that can be seen all year round in Rajasthan – on pagdis (turbans) and odhnas (versatile wraps). However there is no season when it comes as alive as during the monsoons in the rainy months. This technique of resist wrapping and dyeing is typical of Rajasthan. The pattern of diagonal lines is said to be inspired by the direction of rain drops – of special significance in the desert state.

2. leheriya printed saree

 

A variation on the plain lahariya involves a second overlay of diagonal stripes, creating a grid. The pattern is named mothra because of the grid’s resemblance to the motth – a lentil grown in Rajasthan. These wrap resist tie-dyed patterns were traditionally done on fine mulmul as it enabled tight folds which meant a finer patterning.

In times gone by, the Leheriya style was worn exclusively by the Marwari community in Rajasthan. The Royal class wore Leheriya in blue.

However, today the lahariya technique has made its way across communities and onto other materials like georgette and chiffon which lend themselves to this technique. Interestingly, Lahariya is so much a part of the collective consciousness of Rajasthan, that it is one of the most popular mehendi designs applied by women on Teej , a north India festival that celebrates the monsoon.

1. teej celebrations

 

As the frenzied beats of the monsoon wind quieten, the evenings become cooler and it is time for the all-too-brief Indian Autumn. The Sharad Ritu has arrived, heralded by a host of festivals and celebrations. And how can the festive season be complete without new clothes?

The season of festivals naturally entails a series of rites which involve ritual purity. Most Indian rituals involve a deeper meaning than mere symbolism and this extends to textiles as well. It is for this reason that in the strictest adherence to ritual, silk is not worn at havans or pujas because of the inherent violence committed during the production of silk, where the silk worms are boiled alive to yield the filament that then becomes yarn.

So, adherents of the old school still prefer the thicker khadi, which through its slight coarseness, creates a sophisticated, slubby texture that bespeaks honesty. In its thinner avatar, khadi lends itself to upcycling through the kantha technique of Bengal, just as the year freshens up after the monsoons.

Sujani Kantha or simply kantha was initially a quilting technique applied to rags and tatters to recycle them as bags, covers and wraps which were exchanged as gifts between friends and family. It was based on the principle of giving new life to things that have outlived their usefulness. This cycle of life is also manifested in two popular deities Cinidiyadro, the Lord of Tatters and Chithariya Bhairavi “Our Lady of the Tatters” who are believed to give a new whole cloth if a rag is offered to them.

4. nakshi kantha

 

When the lights of Deepawali have dimmed, North India starts to get cold – very cold. By the time the month of Paush comes around, chill winds are howling through the valleys and plains. It is the season to stay warm at home, think of the past and tell stories.  One tale comes to mind – the story of the paisley.

Once upon a time, long long ago, a teardrop from Babylon made its way to India. There it caught the imagination of the weavers of Kashmir. They stylized it in the shape of the raw mango – the kairi or ambi and began weaving this into the exquisite pashmina shawls they made.

These shawls were highly prized and went by the trade name of Jaamevar or “that which is woven in the length of a garment or jama”. They took upto 3-4 years to weave and were prized by royalty, who were about the only people who could afford it. History also states that The Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, had a Kanni Shawl or a Jaamevar in her marriage trousseau. At the time, a Jaamevar shawl would take upto a year to weave!

empress josephine

Then, in the 18th century the officers of the English East India Company discovered the Jaamevar shawl which they took back to England as gifts. Their sweethearts and sisters were so taken with this that it soon became all the rage in fashionable circles. So coveted were these shawls that they formed a prized part of Josephine’s dowry during her marriage to Napoleon.

Over the years, the fashion burgeoned and the weavers were no longer able to keep pace with the demand even embroidering designs instead of weaving them. In the 19th century, the mechanized jacquard loom was introduced in Europe and used and inferior quality of wool to reproduce a semblance of the hand-woven shawl. Several of these looms were set up at a weaving town called Paisley in Scotland. For a while the looms of Paisley brought abundant prosperity to the town and gave their name to the shawls, as well as the stylised ambi motif typical of the Jaamevar. But fashions are fickle – the bustle came into fashion and the Paisley shawls became outmoded. The town became a ghost of itself but the name that it had given to the ambi stayed.

3. kanni shawl

While the finesse of the original Jaamevars is lost in the mists of Kashmir, there has been a revival in the village of Kannihama, a little way away from Gulmarg, and select wool still finds its way into Indian shawls today. And Pashmina wool remains popular option for Indian women today. (thankfully, toosh and shahtoosh varieties of wool have been outlawed for their brutality.

As the winter fog lifts to give way to spring, the cycle of seasons is complete, and the timeless saga of Indian textiles comes a full circle as well.

We would like to thank Richa Dubey, for taking the time to educate us through this wonderful, lyrical 2 part series on the textile traditions of India.

 

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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here

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

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The Sutra of thread – part 1

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ignorance, in the case of Indian textile crafts is certainly not bliss. As I put together this series on textile crafts and the sustainable fabric tradition of India, I am continually amazed at how rich, varied and wonderful our textile traditions are.

I am also angry at the myopic school system that I studied in: none of this made its way into our curriculum, and was only offered at an advanced level in college or as a part of a Masters Programme. This compounded ignorance led me, in my early working days to mass produced clothing which I found in Malls. This clothing was not really cheap, but it was easily available, and seemed to be the norm around me.

Today, when I see power loom fabric being passed off as handloom, and synthetic dyes and screen printed fabric ruling the roost, I remember my time as a young working adult, making financial choices, and realise my choices have created the word I see today.

As I reached out to textile enthusiasts and people passionate about handlooms and crafts, I found a world of information, environmental sustainability and beauty just around the corner. And I’m happy to see the Krya blog hosting this information.

We are happy to share this guest post written by Richa Dubey on the textile traditions of India and how different types of weaves and fabrics exist for the different seasons in India.

Richa wears many many interesting hats. She conceptualised and runs a gender activism campaign ( see www.bitly.com/GurgaonGirlcott ); leads public affairs for a prospective national innovation university; built an advocacy strategy for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s India office; anchors a breakfast show on national television and manages an international world music festival.She also leads the marketing practice at niiti consulting a for-profit social enterprise consulting firm. She is a passionate believer in environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability (which is why she works at niiti). Her life is currently ruled by her children (one each, canine and human) her work and her passions (and all of them intersect, so it’s fine)

We are especially proud that Richa is a passionate Krya consumer, and that is how we came to meet her and know of her work.

 Here is Richa Dubey’s lyrical, eloquent piece on how Indian textile crafts offer different fabrics for the different seasons of India.

How often have we heard of the diversity in India? Its climate, food, culture, philosophy (in the 6th century BC there were at least 200 different schools of philosophy that co-existed). One example of this rich diversity is textile. Marvellous in its variety, texture, fibre… not forgetting the textile techniques that embellish a fabric, there is possibly a traditional textile that exists for every single occasion in your life, though we shall limit ourselves to the seasons in this piece.

However, before embarking on this journey through the warp and weft of India, where a common thread of understanding runs through the land, it is important to touch upon, at least briefly, the reasons why it holds such an important place in our lives.

Right from the philosophical to the everyday, the understanding of fabric has been intrinsic to the understanding of India. The Rig Veda pictured the universe as a cloth woven by the Gods – the cosmos an infinite length of fabric with its warp and weft constructing a pattern upon which all life is painted.

Much later, Kabir, the 14th Sufi poet-saint (who was also a weaver) likened the Absolute to the divine weaver and our souls to a pristine scarf which is sullied by a life of ignorance and sin in “Jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya” (incidentally, this piece by the late Pandit Kumar Gandharv is my favourite rendition)

2. kabir

As with other facets of daily life in India, philosophy and common wisdom spills over into textiles as well. Just as Ayurveda advises the eating of fruits and vegetables in season, it makes sense to pick traditional textiles according to the season as well.

Beyond being weather-friendly, these natural weaves and techniques also reflect the changing moods of the year and incorporate festivals into their lexicon.

The essence of Spring

Beginning with the season of Spring which takes the first place in the time-honoured Indian cycle of seasons, we see it blooming in textiles as an expression of eternal rejuvenation. Vasant is the season of rejuvenation of cosmic energy. It stands for new beginnings represented by fresh blossoms. It is also the time when Kamadev releases his flower-tipped arrows of love.

The essence of Spring has been captured in the repertoire of Indian motifs known as butis, butas and bels. Different regions of India have interpreted these motifs according to their own aesthetic sensibilities. While the Bagru tradition from Bagru in Rajasthan  is famous for floral designs in dark vegetable colours, the Kalamkari tradition from Macchlipatnam interprets them differently. In North India where Mughal influence still lingers, they take on a stylized air in gracefully drooping flower-pots. From whichever region, whether painted, embroidered, hand-block printed, or more recently, screen printed, they form an integral part of the Indian design lexicon.

One of the most popular motifs which are symbolic of eternal Spring, is the Tree of Life. Although not native to India, it has been a symbol of life, fertility, livelihood, food and protection for centuries.

4. tree of life sweden

Thus, when Indian crafts persons or women at home sought to embellish textiles it was natural that the tree motif was often embroidered, woven, printed and painted on fabrics.

3. tree of life in kantha

 

Its symbolism has been shared in ancient cultures across the world and the tree motif has found expression, both in natural and stylized representations, in varied art forms. At another level the tree is a representation of the Great Mother Goddess. The physical and metaphysical source of life was considered to be manifested in the life-giving powers of the earth and the feminine body, which the Tree is said to symbolize. And there is perhaps no better a time to celebrate this form of fertility than the season of spring, when there is an abundance of blossoming life forms.

 

The summer begins

The fragrant breeze of Spring gives way to the scorching wind of the summer – the loo. People venture out only when absolutely necessary and then, clad themselves in the lightest fabrics possible. The thread of seasons weaves into fabrics like mulmul, jamdaani and kota…

The quality of the fine muslins of India was probably best described by the Sufi-poet Khusrao in the 14th century. “One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun. A hundred yards of it can pass through the eye of a needle, so fine is the texture…” So sheer was this fabric (woven in counts of 2000) that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is said to have berated his daughter for her indecency in appearing unclothed before him. The daughter responded that she was wearing seven layers of cotton mul!

According to Laila Tyabji of Dastkar, What is unique about India is that it transformed cotton from being a kind of a village fabric in to something that kings and emperors and queens… not just in India but all over the world used.

The most prized muslins were woven in Dhaka and were so coveted since ancient times that Roman texts blamed the vanity of Roman women for emptying Roman coffers of gold for Indian cottons. Some of these were especially reserved for the use of royalty. In fact it was these same muslins that drew the British to Bengal . The picture below is a depiction of a Bengali girl clothed in layers of fine Dhaka Muslin.

1.Muslin girl by renaldi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bengal was also home to a special muslin weave – this was the jaamdani – the ethereal weave which uses an extra weft and gives the motifs the appearance of floating on the ground. Jaamdaani lives even today as the fabric of choice for the humid summers of Bengal. UNESCO has declared the art of Jaamdani weaving as an Intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

5. richa in jaamdani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But despite the historic and near cult status of the Jamdaani weave, the Jamdaani weaver has no financial motivation to continue creating this textile art. A senior taanti or “ostad” earns about Tk 2,500 to Tk 3,000 per month. Junior weavers get much less, around Tk 1,600. As a result many weavers do not want their children to come to this profession. For many, the Bangladeshi garments industry, despite its several dubious practices and poor working conditions, is a better alternative to this craft.

 

Summer in West India

Beyond the East, the western part of the country also devised its own textile strategies to cope with the heat. A charming, but probably apocryphal story tells of the development of Kota. Kota which is now known for its coaching centres devoted to getting students into IIT also has a special place in India’s fabric tradition.

 

The story goes that a hill princess married into the royal family of Kota. But much as she tried to bear up under the fierce heat of the Thar Desert, she wilted under the heavy, coarse fabrics that formed the traditional garb of the region. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, she commissioned the local weavers to create a light fabric for her. The weavers wove the lightest, airiest fabric that they could – the princess was still not satisfied. Then they pulled out the threads from the warp and the woof at regular intervals to create a lacy chequered fabric. This grid-like ethereal fabric took the eponymous name of Kota.

5.richa in kota

Initially these were woven only in the seven shades of white prescribed in the Vishnu Purana: – light white, tooth white, pure sandal white, autumn cloud white, autumn or sharad moon white, conch shell white and motia or pearl white.The texturing of the fabric was done by the simple expedient of varying the number of threads and the shades of white in the warp and weft of the grid giving it a subtle sophistication.

Today, however, Kotas are available in various colours (and regretfully, synthetic yarn too) and remain a popular summer option.

This post continues tomorrow with Richa describing the fabrics that were woven for Monsoon and winter.

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
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here

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

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Dye another day

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

It almost always comes back to water. On the Krya blog we focus on sustainable urban living. We explore the many different ways in which urban living is stressing the environment and equally the many interesting ways in which we can return to a holistic, sustainable way of living.

 

And we are constantly amazed by the myriad ways in which water gets polluted. Ground water and water on the surface of the earth (both fresh and saline). While 70% of the planet is water, there is no good reason to go around trashing this precious resource. This is simply because it takes only a moment to pollute water but an eternity (and a ton of money) to clean it again and make it fit for consumption – by humans, plants and animals. This seems obvious yet the daily massacre of water that takes place compels me to point it out here.

 

The textile industry is a leading source of water pollution. World Bank estimates that 20% of all industrial water pollution comes from the dyeing of textiles. The textile mills release millions of gallons of wastewater containing pollutants like chlorine, formaldehyde, lead & mercury into our freshwater bodies. Some 72 toxic chemicals had been have linked to textile dyeing. A single T-shirt made from regular cotton requires 2700 litres of water and uses 150 grams of chemicals in the production process.

How did the textile industry sink to this state of affairs?

Dye

Dyeing is an ancient art, as old as humanity.

6. cuneiform tablet

The original dyes were mostly plant derived, from roots, berries, fruits and bark. They used simple methods like crushing or boiling to dye fabric. Dyeing was in fact a secretive subject and only a select few could access it, wearing dyed clothes as status symbol.

5. charlemagne's coronation

The medieval depiction above of Emperor Charlemagne’s coronation by the Pope, shows the Emperor wearing am indigo robe and the Pope wearing a  white robe. Indigo and purple in ancient times were worn only by royals. Similarly, in Indonesia, the batik process of dyeing used several symbols and certain symbols could only be worn by royals. People could be placed in the pecking order just by looking at the symbols on their batik clothes.

Some of the most famous ancient dyes were red madder, extracted from the roots of the Rubia Tinctorum and the blue indigo from the leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria.

Indigo, the original king of dyes

Apart from the glorious deep blue colour that the Indigo plant delivers, it was the king of dyes from ancient times for a number of reasons. Most dyes require a mordant like alum, common salt or salts of aluminum, chromium etc, to fix the dye to the fabric and ensure colour fastness. Indigo is unique in that it uses a fermentation process to release the coloring molecules and fabric can be directly dipped into the indigo and dried to get the desired blue colour.

7. dyeing wool

In ancient times, many households would mix the ingredients required into a vat, let the mix ferment for a week to get the dye and then dip the fabric into the vat to colour it. This indigo vat then can be maintained for many years on a continuous basis, adding some indigo as and when the dye dilutes. Some Indigo vats have been known to be used for over a hundred years continuously. It was common for many households to have their own indigo vat. This was a very local, DIY, contained process and very environmentally friendly.

4.badshahmiyan indigo

The picture above, shows Master Dyer Badshah Miyan of Jaipur following this traditional Indigo dyeing process today in Jaipur. Of course we cannot all wear Indigo and other colours are needed. The fundamental unit of living has also changed and we cannot all have an ancestral indigo vat running to meet our clothing needs. Further with the growth in demand for the dye, indigo cultivation started replacing other food crops which made it a precious commodity.

Around 1850 several organic chemists began research into synthesis of indigo from chemical sources. By 1897, BASF had developed a commercially viable chemical synthesis that eliminated the need for the leaves of the Indigo plant. In due course in the 20th century all natural dyes were replaced by their synthetic equivalents. Unfortunately what started off as an innocent quest to replace natural indigo with a cheaper chemically synthesized alternative ended up in an global industry that freshwater with toxic chemicals inexorably.

The T-Shirt Town in Tatters

Tirupur in Tamil Nadu is a leading textile center accounting for 80% of India’s knitwear exports. Tirupur textiles accounted for over $ 4 billion in revenues per year in recent times. It provides employment to over 6 lakh people.

This is really commendable from the economic point of view.

But the environmental costs of the past few decades have been terrible too.

According to one Tamil Nadu pollution control board report, each year the Tirupur textile industry generates 833,000 tonnes of toxic waste including bleach and sulfonic dyes, much of it directly dumped into the nearby Noyyal river. This untreated chemical effluent drains into the Kaveri river and then finally washes up in the Bay of Bengal. The textile industry in the past few decades has contaminated around 80,000 acres of cropland in this area ,mostly rice fields. The locals have in the past found that the red chemical dye from the Noyyal river water was absorbed by the coconut trees on the banks, dyeing the coconuts a deep red colour.

2.noyyal runs black

 

The Audubon magazine has this to say about the state of affairs in Tirupur

“The Noyyal is now essentially an open sewer. At Kasipalayam, where the river slows down and effluent accumulates, the water runs brown and smells unbearably of human waste. The banks are strewn with plastic bags, aluminum cans, and other garbage. Close inspection sometimes reveals a splash of unnatural green or purple from the upstream dye factories.”

The environmental risks are similarly severe at other Indian textile hubs like Tirupur.

The pollution is not new news

Since the 1990’s several groups have taken legal action against the polluting units near Noyyal  and a lot of legal back and forth has happened through supreme court orders. In the meantime effluent treatment technology has also improved. To manage the high costs of effluent treatment, common effluent treatment plants ( CETP) have been in vogue for some time now. In Tirupur some 18 CETPs handle the liquid waste of 350 dyeing units. However these CETPs still discharge varying levels of harmful matter into the rivers. With the further development of Zero liquid Discharge ( ZLD ) technology , it is possible to reuse all the waste water from the dyeing units.

Picture1

Treated  & Untreated Samples from Tirupur ZLD plant

 

This prompted the Supreme Court in January 2011 to order the Tamil Nadu government to close all polluting units that did not comply with zero liquid discharge norms. While the Tirupur exporters association claimed in December 2012 that they had achieved 100% ZLD levels, a February 2014 report in The Hindu states that pollution of the Noyyal river continues unabated.

 

What next?

At the start of this piece I noted that it takes only an instant to pollute water but an eternity ( and a ton of money) to undo the damage, which is why each act of pollution must be avoided.

So a number of questions arise.

Can the entire clothing of the planet be met through sustainable textiles, right now ? this year ? How do I know if my brand of clothing uses sustainable practices ?

I checked out the sustainability report of the first brand that popped into my head, Fabindia.

Now this is the information on the Fabindia website

“We use both vegetable dyes and commercial dyes with the goal of minimizing our impact on the environment while striving for the best color properties. For our bleaching process we use only hydrogen peroxide which is totally biodegradable.”

This information gives me 2 concerns straight away

  1. I am not comfortable with the vague term “commercial dyes”. So the next time we hit Fabindia , I need to ask the store staff for only the vegetable dyed items
  2. Hydrogen Peroxide is not inspiring me at all. I have many concerns about the biodegradability of hydrogen peroxide. My simple test is as follows : Can I pour a glass of peroxide into my plants ? I have serious doubts. While I still cannot rule out the safe use of hydrogen peroxide in bleaching textiles, I at least know that fabindia does not use Chlorine bleach in its process, which is considered to be far more toxic as an effluent.

However the more I try and find details about brands with global supply chains with extremely opaque information flows, I realize that it is easier to discover local brands that have clear picture of the entire process. It is my one person satyagraha.

For example, as I type this , I am wearing a shirt from Tula, a brand that creates clothes from rain fed organic cotton, which is hand dyed with vegetable dyes and hand woven.

3. Tula

The entire supply chain is contained within a 500 km radius of my home. It cannot not get more sustainable than this. I cannot get everything that I need from Tula, but I can certainly get a few fantastic shirts, which is a good start.

So how sustainable is the garment that you are wearing right now?

 

To read more about sustainable fabric start here:

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha

 

 

 

 

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