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The handloom sector is the second largest employer in rural India, serving as a dependable source of income in times of agricultural distress. However, half-hearted efforts at reviving the handloom sector have resulted in the malaise of low incomes, poor market linkages, and the slow fading away of traditional motifs and weaving techniques.
When Sudha Rani, CEO of Chenetha Color Weaves (CCW) talks about the organisation’s work to empower handloom weavers with sustainable livelihoods, better market access, and awareness of their rights, her passion for the sector is immediately evident. Over the past decade, CCW has made significant impacts on the lives of 150 traditional Ikat handloom weaver communities in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh and is looking to expand to the Gadwal region of Telangana.
A weaver owned solution for change
The increasing number of starvation deaths and suicides of cotton farmers and weavers in 2004 prompted Oxfam India to commission studies to understand the causes of this mass despair. “As part of this team, I realized that the real benefits never reached the weavers due to the number of intermediaries in the value chain. If we could reduce these middle men, then the weavers would stand to profit,” Sudha says.
As a solution to India’s handloom crisis, CCW was established in 2005 as a weaver owned and managed social enterprise with the support of Oxfam. The core aim of the enterprise was to create sustainable livelihoods through ethical business opportunities for handloom weaver communities, especially women, by linking them with profitable markets, thereby ensuring better incomes, ownership, knowledge, and skills. It also aimed to support the revival of traditional Indian weaving techniques, beginning with Ikat.
When Oxfam support ended in 2011, Sudha Rani took charge as the CEO of CCW. Describing the collectively owned model, Sudha says,
“The board of directors, the shareholders and the owners of the cooperative are all weavers. The weavers themselves take decisions and reap all the benefits of the work they are doing.”
Establishing weaver autonomy
Over the last 10 to 15 years, the weaving community wove only for the master weavers whom they depended on for work and to sell their produce. Once the pre-loom preparation of the yarn was completed in centralised locations, it was passed on to the weavers. who “To prevent their unfair treatment, we have helped them organise themselves and put in place fair wage practices to free them from the clutches of the master weavers,” she says.
Handlooms get a contemporary twist
Oxfam and Chenetha teamed up to upskill weavers and make them eligible for higher wages with capacity building activities, market awareness, and design development to enable weavers to adapt their designs to contemporary markets. They have also been helped with training on quality control to make their creations more appealing to international audiences. Now, weavers work independently and their collective produce, including handloom fabric, saris, home furnishings, kurtas, stoles and kids’ traditional wear is sold under the brand ‘Karghaa’.
Striving for gender equity
Strict gender norms in the handloom sector require women to be involved in pre-loom activities while men sat at the loom, dealt with financial transactions and took the cloth to market. “But with this model, bank accounts have been opened in women’s names where they are able to directly access their pay, conduct financial transactions and decide how to spend the money, which is very empowering. Women are also encouraged to sit at the looms and are trained in Ikat weaving that help them earn more money,” she says. The board of directors also has more women members than men.
Going the extra mile to sustain handlooms
“It takes a great deal of patience and time to change the attitude of the weavers who hitherto functioned as a homogenous community cut off from the main stream society”, says Sudha. Another challenge to the handloom market is posed by imitation products produced in mills and power looms being sold as handlooms for a lower rate.
“To ensure that Karghaa’s products are authentic handloom and to stay ahead of competition, we adopt weft Ikat and double Ikat designs that cannot be produced in power looms as they require skilled human intervention at frequent intervals”, confirms Sudha.
The handloom sector is also hit by the lack of adequate working capital that prevents it from working to its full potential to meet the existing demand. “We are interested in scaling up, weavers are waiting for the work, and we have helped 102 weavers access loans. But, schemes like subsidies and pensions really do not help develop handlooms on a sustained basis”, affirms Sudha. Although CCW has organised more than 200 weavers in 20 villages into handloom production groups, working capital constraints allows it to provide work only to 80 weaver families on a continuous basis. The rest of the weaver families get work only when orders peak during festivals.
Reversing weaver stagnation
Talking about the impact of their model Sudha says, “The income of the weaver families has doubled in the last three years. Wages of CCW weavers are 20-30% higher than the local wages given by the master weavers, forcing the masters to increase the income by 10-15%. This is the kind of positive pressure we have created in the areas of Nalgonda and the adjoining areas of Telangana.” CCW is also changing the face of Ikat to be able to reach out to a younger, fashion conscious consumer base. “We are educating youth about the value of handlooms as a fashionable choice.”
“The transition from regular Naphtol based dyes to natural dyes is a slow one. Right now only 10% of our products are dyed with eco-friendly dyes made from natural products like Indigo, Pomegranate, and Marigold”, she says. CCW seeks to turn at least 30-40% of its range into completely organic, khadi, naturally dyed, and eco-friendly fabrics and yarn, thereby closing the loop on a supply chain that is socially and environmentally sustainable.
All images courtesy Chenetha Colour Weaves.
The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative.
The Hub is supported by , India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com