The sustainable Indian fabric primer

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

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

Cotton in India.

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

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

8. vidharbha farmer suicide

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

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

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

7. Tami canal

This is UNACCEPTABLE.

 

The Krya Sustainable Fabric Series

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

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

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

3. BT

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

 

The sustainable Indian fabric primer:

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

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

4. cotton picking in india

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

4. neolithic loom

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

9. woman spinning detailing on oenoche

1. the spinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

6.nepali charkha

 

2. spinning wheel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

How is fabric made today:

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

Cotton - Farm to Fabric - 1

 

Cotton - Farm to Fabric - 2

 

Handloom textiles

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

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

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

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

10.handloom weaving

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

 

Khadi

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

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

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

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

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

Our 68th Independence day falls tomorrow

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

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

So what flag will you hoist this independence day?

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

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

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

 

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From Arikamedu to Abercrombie – the sustainable fabric series

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m not sure if my fascination with fabric is more or less than my fascination for washing fabric. But I have always loved Indian fabric and traditional textile crafts.

In school, I learned about the spice trade of India and how it helped many regions within India grow rich as they traded flavourful and hard to find nutmeg, pepper and cardamom which then found their way to kitchens across the world. Romila Thapar’s book on Early India, details this fascinating trade. Muziri located near Kodanganallur Village near Kochi was linked to the pepper, spices and beryl trade. A second century Ad Greek papyrus documents a contract between an Alexandrian merchant importer and a cargo financier of pepper and spices from Muziri, giving us an idea of the large volume of this trade.

6. Arikamedu

Excavations at Arikamedu tell us about a large settlement that used to be in trade contact with ships and merchants from the eastern Mediterranean. Apart from shipping locally available goods, Arikamedu has also been a place where certain kinds of textiles were manufactured locally to roman specifications and then shipped there.

5. Shakuntala

The Roman historian Pliny complained that trade with the East caused a serious drain on Roman income of which atleast 110 million sesterces went to India’s luxury goods. Roman records indicate that the Roman Senate actually banned the import of Indian Muslin for some time to stop the roman gold drain.

Apart from Rome, Indian textiles found their way to Egypt – scraps of Indigo dyed cotton Ikat textiles were found in a Pharaoh’s tomb. Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro unearthed scraps of Rose madder cloth along with spindles.Herodotus, the ancient greek historian, described India’s cotton as “a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep”

Nothing symbolises the freedom and Swadeshi movement as much as the charkha does, and as does Khadi, the quintessentially Indian fabric.Khadi is not just a piece of fabric – it represents an ideology and the beginning of a movement that was founded on self reliance. This said that India could spin her own fabric and clothe herself, thus helping her own economy grow forward.

2. Gandhi spinning the Charkha

Khadi was promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as a fabric that would help promote rural self employment and self reliance, and made it an integral part of the freedom movement. But the Swadeshi movement then did not come cheap. Khadi was much more expensive compared to British made fabric. So when people started to complain to Gandhi about the cost of Khadi, he stopped wearing an upper garment and started wearing only a Khadi dhoti as a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle message: that it was better to wear as much or as little Khadi as possible instead of clothing yourself with something that was not made in India by an Indian.

 

Our choices today are multifold. We are a much more global economy, and we have free movement of products, and fabrics from different parts of the world into our country. Globalisation comes with its own unique sets of opportunities. And perhaps we have come back full circle to our days of yore, when enterprising merchants and financiers helped ensure the spread of Indian textiles.

 

With one key difference. The merchants of Arikamedu in ancient times, continued to grow, spin and wear their own cloth, and continued to hold onto their cultural and craft traditions. In fact they grew better and better at it until they had so much to offer, that they could not just make products for themselves but for everyone else as well. The textile crafts and traditions of India are fast disappearing today. They have morphed fast, have taken on several unwholesome aspects and are no longer bountiful or available in plenty.

3.sambalpuri ikat weaving loom
There are many reasons for this. And many hidden reasons when you start examining this. There are also several unhealthy consequences to this.

 

In this month when we celebrate the 67th year of our Independence, won by an extremely unique civil disobedience and non violent movement, we will focus on the equally unique Fabrics of India. This month, on the Krya blog, We will examine in great depth the history of Indian textiles while focussing on certain textile crafts. We will examine their environmental sustainability, explore how well they work for us in our tropical weather & speak to practitioners of the craft and designers who work with traditional fabrics.

1. Girl in pochampally

We will also explore Khadi in depth and study in detail the current issues we grapple with in textiles namely the spread of Bt cotton, the cotton farmer suicides, the environmental issues presented by the textile dyeing industry and the nascent but growing organic cotton industry. All along we will interview and present to you the works of young entrepreneurs and designers who have firmly waded into the fabric tradition of India and are working hard to provide us access again to our famed textile past rooted in the principle of being indigenous, local and environmentally sustainable.

 

Our previous series on reusable menstrual products was an eye opener to us and provided us with a lot of perspective and inspiration. We have no doubt this series on the fabrics of India will be even better. We look forward to bringing you lots of depth, fresh perspective and inspiring reasons to choose a more sustainable and earth friendly wardrobe. Keep reading this blog.

 

 

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