Text by Akanksha Pandey
Looking at a piece of clothing made from home-grown fabric, I am reminded of the practices our ancestors followed for centuries. The same white cotton cloth that is a signifier of birth and death symbolised a movement during the fight for Independence, and khadi becomes art when woven with other natural fibers and precious when infused with gold, silver or strands of silk.
Indian handicrafts are a valuable art form and intrinsic to the fabric of our nation. Although the techniques differ as you move from north to south and east to west, their diverseness is what unites them, and they provide both an outlet for creativity and a source of income to generations of indigenous artisans. This Independence Day, which comes on the heels of Handloom Day, commit to making choices that help preserve, conserve and reinvigorate the dying weaving arts. Now is the time to go local while supporting the artisans who create handmade textiles and contributing to sustainable development.
Verve takes you on an educational trip through the genesis, evolution and future of handloom from the best in the trade.
Founder and director; ARTISANS’
Why do we celebrate Handloom Day, and what is its significance in a country where fast fashion has such a large presence?
On August 7, 1905, at the Calcutta Town Hall, in Bengal, a powerful national movement was born with the Boycott Resolution, a call to reject Manchester cotton, amongst other foreign-made goods. This Swadeshi (of one’s own country) movement, initially a protest against the partition of Bengal that was led by the Indian National Congress, fired the imagination of ordinary people. Bonfires were lit across the country to publicly burn foreign clothes. Significantly, this mass movement saw women engage in protests and picketing for the first time. A year later, Congress called for “Swaraj”, or self-rule.
When Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he built upon the Swadeshi ideology, creating a symbol of self-reliance in reclaiming khadi, India’s homespun, handwoven cloth. In 2015, National Handloom Day was established to commemorate this.
Today, we need a people’s movement to embrace Swadeshi once again, to support not only the livelihoods of millions of artisans but also the self-reliant, small-scale sustainable economy that they represent.
What was the thought behind starting ARTISANS’?
ARTISANS’ was initiated in 2011, two decades after the opening up of India’s economy. Foreign brands blazed across the Indian market and quickly changed the aspirations of generations of consumers. There was a visible homogenisation of our lifestyle and culture, and I perceived we were at risk of losing our identity, ironically at a time when the ‘local’ was being celebrated globally.
I felt an urgent need to raise the value of handmade in India. ARTISANS’ became India’s first gallery representing a seamless understanding of kala, where art, craft and design converged. The aim was simple: to transcend commercial transactions between consumers and makers. We want to create lasting value through dialogues between us and our generation of emerging artists, artisans and designers and let people experience craft through workshops, lectures and events, engaging audiences in the context and meaning of cultural objects in a way that is accessible and non-intimidating.
In so much as it is a contemporary perspective, we nurture the individual artist-artisan as the owner of the creative process rather than a producer. Through solo exhibitions, we recognize, for instance, an individual’s signature from within a vernacular form.
We hope to elevate the perception of craft – to celebrate its unparalleled richness and diversity in the world today. Artisanal livelihoods are more relevant than ever, and they are central to a value-based, human-centred model of sustainable development, which places people and planet before profits.
Founder and designer; Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan
Why is it important to work with lesser-known weaves?
Kerala’s weaves have always been the same. Classic, traditional and minimal. It is great, as long as you stay in the traditional festive space. But how are these weaves relevant in the modern lives of people today? They aren’t. How has a Kasavu sari adapted to the modern Indian wedding or perhaps to the modern woman who loves to wear a sari to work? It hasn’t. Fashion has not driven the handloom textiles of Kerala, but tradition has. Innovation hasn’t guided what needs to be done here, instead subsidies and rebates have. So the need to focus on these weaves is so important because the weavers have to be guided into making products that not only have local and global appeal but also a national and international reach.
The floods gave Chendamangalam its two seconds of fame, but that also opened up the discussion of why charity had to drive sales of craft, why not design? Kasavu is not a lesser-known weave. It is, in fact, very popular like an Assamese muga or a patan patola – it is a classic. But it has remained with lesser reach because the product has not been able to change with the needs of time and neither have the craftsmen or their ware had the opportunity to travel around and make news. Many popular designers have used the Kasavu to make their clothes, but it’s only been a surface-level change. When the product is able to create the desire, the craft will have many more takers of different kinds.
Founder and creative director, HARAGO
What inspired you to centre your menswear brand around Indian craftsmanship?
Isn’t the craftsmanship in itself the core inspiration? Well, in my case it definitely has been. I like to play with the beautiful handwoven fabrics made across rural India. It is a wonderful art created by the rural craftspeople, including men and women both. Women are spinning the yarn, making bobbin for the weft, and men are setting up the warp and weaving the fabric. The craftspeople, their craft and their dedication, have been major inspirations throughout my HARAGO journey. My process starts by meeting them and seeing their craft. That inspires me to think of what I can do with it, how I can make clothing out of it and what kind of design will work. I love it. I have worked with cotton, linen, silk and cotton silk so far. We visit weavers’ homes, embroiderers’ homes, sit with them, eat with them, spend the full day with them seeing their homes and how they have organized them, what works of craft have they developed so far, and talk to them about their generational experiences. They share their minuscule technique-specific knowledge with us and then we share with them how we see a certain fabric becoming into a garment that will have a certain value in the global market. It is all a collaborative process. The craftspeople are equally the ‘designers’.
We use the complex of craftsmanship techniques like tie-dye, extra weft weaving and so on and incorporate them into menswear in the most minimal and simplest way possible so we can make the clothes for a wider audience.
The cultural value that’s embedded in these techniques is also something that matters a lot for us – they hold generational skills, talent, artistry, accountability and an identity. We wanted to take the craftsmanship a step further by combining all these elements and translating them into a line of menswear. This way we are able to create a wider market for the handlooms and other craftsmanship. Ultimately it brings in more respect for these craftspeople and supports the growth of the rural economy.
Founder and designer, ASA
How do you define the vision for your brand?
To begin with, we develop our own textiles that are used to create the clothes. With time, our vision has evolved and so has the meaning of sustainability. We believe that moving forward, only projects that are collaborative at the grassroots level and work that caters to broader interests will be relevant. We create clothing out of natural fabrics using vegetable dyes which are meant to last for a long time and be worn in more than one way. Our future goal is to create season-less collections of wardrobe essentials with a touch of our signature hand block prints and dyeing techniques. Every piece brings to surface the exclusivity of handmade, and sensibilities that cater to comfort, function and contemporary chic.
How do you seek to empower artisans?
One of our key ways to empower the artisans is to give them employment opportunities with consistency. We strive to create collections that are not based on trends, and hence the same cluster of artisans practising one unique technique can be employed for the job season after season. We try to use two to three craft techniques and build our collections on them. It’s very important to pay fair wages to the artisans and create more transparency in our supply chain for the customers we cater to so they understand what they are paying for. At the end of the day, we are not just creating beautiful clothes but also making sure that the work that we are doing is ethical and environmentally sustainable. One of the most important ways to empower artisans is to make them believe in their skills and learn from them about the ways they have sustained their craft for many generations.
Strategist, Fashion Revolution India
Why aren’t weavers the main talking point in the conversation around weaves?
Weaver clusters share many common issues but also face diverse and unique challenges specific to who they are and where they are, which limits the stability and growth of their community. We believe that the first step is to gather data and map the needs of the weaver communities across the nation. There is a clear need that has been expressed by the fashion designer community for the development of methods to preserve and carry forth the traditional knowledge of the art form of handloom weaving, which also happens to be a sustainable method of producing textiles. The common goal for all of us is to grow and stabilise the demand and supply for handloom weaves. We want to ensure that future generations feel that being a skilled weaver is a profession to be proud of and will earn you a comfortable living.
There are government policies that will prove to be useful if grown out – the issuance of Weaver ID Cards, the Hastkala Sahyog Shivirs or handloom camps where knowledge and a marketplace are brought together, and there have also been past talks about the creation of Special Economics Zones for artisans. Our focus at Fashion Revolution India is to bring everyone together to identify weaver cluster issues and share possible solutions, debate them out, distribute the findings and determine the action which we can then take together.
Can you share how handloom is seeing the light of innovation?
I see that contemporary handloom is getting re-contextualised now. Handloom has always been about community, craft and partnerships that work in symphony to uplift and empower everyone involved. The pockets of new developments and innovations in handloom, as I see it, are about going back to the ethos that makes handloom special and irreplaceable.
What are the new developments?
First, a new wave of designers are putting community back into the craft. They are reconfiguring their business models and driving a more long-term, sustainable approach to build a thriving community where artisans feel empowered and supported to practise their traditional crafts. I love brands like Kalki – a womenswear brand based in this little South Indian village called Mettupalayam, which is driven to empower, uplift, and up-skill the community it operates in.
Second, handloom is shaping what the good in fashion looks like. To be slow and considered with a focus on craft, community, meaningful partnerships and sustainability has never been more important as it is today to both the consumer and designer. While designers and brands like Damini Mittai, and Story Mfg are investing and reimagining how to make the good in fashion viable through interventions at various stages of production, there is also an increased consumer consciousness aided by organizations like the Business of Fashion that constantly question the status quo, and, finally, government priorities are also changing to create more unique partnership opportunities for both the handloom weavers and the designers who work in textiles. In my own textile practice, I work with avocado food waste from neighbourhood restaurants for natural dyeing, and I’m finding ways to streamline a unique partnership model to make natural dyeing more local, and in-context to the culture that I live and work in.