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History Of Weavers In India

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History Of Weavers In India

Harappan Civilization and weavers in India

Farmers in the Indus valley were the first to spin and weave cotton. In 1929, archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at Mohenjo-Daro, in what is now Pakistan, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE, tracing the History of weavers in India. Literary references, further point to the ancient nature of the subcontinent’s cotton industry. Empire of Cotton goes on to show how the cotton industry, which India dominated in the early 18th century, was taken over by the British, how it spurred the slave trade with the Americans and the industrial revolution, its role – a century in the independence movement and Gandhi’s spinning wheel, and how it once again returned to Asia in a big way at the end of the 20th century. It is highly likely that the development of textile crafts were a key component of the Indus civilization’s rise as well.

weavers india
Combining strands of wool with other threads the weaver patiently hand weaves mats to bring out a decorative piece for the households.

Ever since Pakistan’s independence, textile industry has been the most important manufacturing sector of Pakistan, having the longest production chain, with inherent potential for value-addition at each stage of processing, from cotton growing to ginning, spinning, fabric-making, dyeing and finishing, and production of made-up garments.

The four major woven fabrics

weaving in india
The four major woven fabrics

Cotton – Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective case, around the seeds of the cotton plants of the genus Gossypium in the mallow family Malvaceae. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. Under natural conditions, the cotton bolls will increase the dispersal of the seeds.

The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including America, Africa, Egypt and India. The greatest diversity of wild cotton species is found in Mexico, followed by Australia and Africa. Cotton was independently domesticated in the Old and New Worlds.

The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile. The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to prehistoric times; fragments of cotton fabric dated to the fifth millennium BC have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization. Although cultivated since antiquity, it was the invention of the cotton gin that lowered the cost of production that led to its widespread use, and it is the most widely used natural fiber cloth in clothing today.

KhadiKhadi or khaddar is handspun, hand-woven natural fiber cloth originating from India, Bangladesh and broadly used in Pakistan and India. This fabric is mainly made out of cotton.

The cloth is usually woven from cotton and may also include silk, or wool, which are all spun into yarn on a spinning wheel called a charkha. It is a versatile fabric, cool in summer and warm in winter. In order to improve the look, khādī/khaddar is sometimes starched to give it a stiffer feel. It is widely accepted in fashion circles. Khadi is being promoted in India by Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.

Linen – Linen /ˈlɪnən/ is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very strong, absorbent and dries faster than cotton. Garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot and humid weather. Many products are made of linen: aprons, bags, towels (swimming, bath, beach, body and wash towels), napkins, bed linens, tablecloths, runners, chair covers, and men’s and women’s wear. Textiles in a linen weave texture, even when made of cotton, hemp, or other non-flax fibers, are also loosely referred to as “linen”. Such fabrics frequently have their own specific names: for example, fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave may be called madapolam.

Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world: their history goes back many thousands of years. Fragments of straw, seeds, fibers, yarns, and various types of fabrics dating to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings. 

Silk – Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows the silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

Silk is produced by several insects; but, generally, only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing.

Condition of Weavers pre-industrialization and at present

In the late eighteenth century, when the textile industries in England began to produce cloth, need was felt for imposing import duties on foreign cloth which entered its markets. Thus, various import duties were levied on Indian cloth entering into the British markets. This hit the Indian weavers hard.

The English companies in order to sell their goods persuaded the British Government to remove all import duties on English cloth entering into India. Because these clothes were cheap, the condition of weavers in India became worse as their export market collapsed and the local market was flooded with cheap British cloth.

weavers in india
Weaving the dyed thread to craft out a stole or shawl the women meticulously uses the hand loom to create and sell apparels.

Also, many a times, weavers were not able to get raw cotton of good quality.

In contradiction to the history of weavers, at the present time, Handloom weavers are facing severe livelihood crisis because of adverse government policies, globalization and changing socio-economic conditions. The national and state governments do have several schemes pertaining to production inputs, market support and development, meant to protect the welfares of the weaving community. 

Fruitless operation of the schemes and the changed context of textile industry, increasing competition from the power loom and mill sectors have been largely responsible for the crisis in the handlooms. 

Lack of information to weavers regarding various policies and schemes is no less a significant cause for the dwindling fortunes of the weaver community. Even government departments and implementing agencies related to handloom suffer from inadequate information and data.

Out of the 38 million people employed in the weaving industry 12.4 million, or close to 33%, are concentrated in this declining part of the sector. The majority of them are traditional caste and very poor as well as economically weaker sections, working along with their family members joined together in joint family units. Most of the women of all age groups are dedicatedly doing this weaving as their profession for their livelihood.

Importance of Handloom and its future in the fashion industry

The handloom industry is one of the most important industries for Indian economy which resonates the rich and diverse culture, it also showcases country’s impeccable skill, ingenuity and expertise to the world. This industry has the highest employment rate after agriculture and accounts for 4 percent of the GDP, 14 percent of industrial production and 17 percent of the country’s total export earnings.

More so, handlooms have a low carbon footprint, or none, as they consume less infrastructure, technology and power. However, what is less talked about is the importance of sustainability of handlooms in the ever-growing fashion industry of India.

weavers of india
Banarasi Suits and Sarees, being sold by the locals at markets.

Owing to the intensifying pressure for companies to become more sustainable, designers in the fashion industry, by and large, have started giving importance to the handloom sector. The handloom products play a major role in the world of fabrics. Around 45 lakh people are directly or indirectly engaged in this sector.

Experts and most of the eminent fashion designers, who attended fashion shows at the Textiles India 2017 summit, were of the view that sustainability is the way to take fashion forward. They consensually agreed to the fact that some of the dying heirloom techniques and the vibrant handloom sector need immense support from the fashion industry to sustain. One of the major initiatives taken to promote handlooms, is the launch of India Handloom brand (IHB) by PM Modi in 2015. It focuses on uses of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, and jute, and provides branding to the products for distinction.

There is a new momentum and new designers are coming up and getting involved, which is putting more focus on reviving dying heirloom techniques.

In today’s world of technological advancement, marketing is pertinent to the growth and development of handloom industry.

Challenges Faced by Indian weavers! 

working weaver
A weaver working meticulously on the hand loom.

1. Technological backwardness- The handloom weavers practice traditional methods of weaving, without any application of technology. The looms employed in the manufacture of handloom products are worn out and with modernity hitting it has become crucial for the handloom weavers to acquire new looms and maintain the old ones. 

2. The paucity of Novelty in Designs– The designs made by some of the independent weavers of India are considered outdated by today’s generation. It has become difficult for the weavers to survive in the present scenario of intense competition in the fashion industry. Efforts have been take by the fashion industry of India and the government wherein young designing students of reputed fashion institutes are employed for contemporizing the craft of the handloom weavers through skill enhancement and product development.

3. Increase in competition from Power Loom and Mill Sector- According to fashion industry sources- while the fabric produced by the power loom would cost Rs. 30 per meter, that produced on handloom would be around Rs. 500 per meter. Due to the higher prices of handloom products, a limited section of the society can afford to buy the handloom produce, and the larger sector opts for the power loom fabrics. 

4. Lack of credit availability- The major issues faced by handloom weavers is lack of access to credit and the expensive cost of credit. It’s speculated that only 14.8% of the handloom weavers had access to institutionalized sources of credit.

From the IKF Desk

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India is again standing at a place where it can command its worth, by teaching the world to live resourcefully and the world is turning towards it for the knowledge and resources. We need to conserve our resources, utilize the strength of young people and their skills, learn to respect artisans and move towards sustainable technologies and options. Myopic and short-term gains might seem lucrative now but a foresighted approach will secure our future.

We undoubtedly need technology, but we also need to understand that excessive reliance on machine-made products and complete negligence towards hand-made and sustainable products could lead us towards a doomsday of its own.

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