This post was last updated on August 12, 2021 by Preethi Sukumaran
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
- Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
- On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
- On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
- The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
- 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.