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Until the early 19th century, besides having enough for its own population, India produced enough cotton cloth to clothe the world. Cotton of fine quality, the Dhaka muslin was exported to the Roman Empire to dress the wealthy while the thicker, coarser variant draped the ordinary folk. Do today’s industry trends signal a sad end to the saga of Indian textiles?
Yet, looking at the textile industry in our country today, its glory days are hard to imagine. Bad debts particularly in spinning, suicides of cotton farmers, weavers leaving their looms; the gloom is deep.
Uzramma, the director of Malkha has some interesting answers. to my questions on this dramatic turn of events. Uzramma has been involved since 1989 with the indigenous handloom cotton industry of India. She was the initiator of non-profit research centre, Dastkar Andhra and following her retirement from the centre, she founded Decentralized Cotton Yarn Trust and the Malkha Marketing Trust.
The big mills keep on turning
“Cotton has been grown in India for the past 5000 years. Before agricultural mechanisation in the 19th century, we boasted of many diverse regional varieties of cotton. When rainfed and grown alongside food crops, cotton helped keep pests away and replenished the soil,” says Uzramma. The yarn was spun in small scattered locations generally close to cotton fields using hand powered wooden equipment.
The whole system helped create a self-sufficient village based economy with every family closely linked to the final product. But with the arrival of East India Company and with the invention of new spinning machinery in England, things changed.
“The machinery was huge, made of steel and concentrated in a few locations. Now, cotton had to be aggregated and collected centrally. So it had to be all of one kind, and that kind had to be one that could stand up to the harsh action of these new steel machines. Indian varieties were too soft and their fibres too short,” she says.
A strange logic
“American cotton varieties like Hirsutum suited to the new English technology were gradually introduced into Indian cotton farms by the East India Company. Its longer, stronger filaments took the strain better, though they didn’t produce better cloth.” What slowly came to be known as ‘the best cotton’ rendered all our traditional varieties virtually extinct, but it did not produce the best cloth.
“Instead of inventing technology to suit the cotton, the East India Company, altered the cotton plant to suit the technology”, laments Uzramma.
Growing this kind of cotton is risky for farmers, and if the crop, unsuited to Indian conditions fails, the farmer family is driven to distress, fuelling a scourge similar to the one sweeping the nation today.
Supplying to a single consumer market
The spinning mills still have only one kind of machinery, the kind that demands longer and stronger staples. “Thus, cotton species suitable for the machinery are grown. This means we get the same yarn all over the country. Second, the availability of yarn is dependent on the whims of the big spinning mills. Large-scale spinning broke up the close relation of weaving cotton with growing cotton, between the weavers and farmers” says Uzramma.
This was one of the core problems that Malkha tried to address.
Malkha – Breathing life into fabrics
Malkha was founded in 2003 in Andhra Pradesh and it stands for a decentralised, sustainable, field-to-fabric cotton textile chain, collectively owned and managed by the primary producers – the village level farmer and weaver families.
“The whole process of textile production from the plant to the cloth should be in the hands of the people who actually do the work – the farmers, the ginners, the spinners, the dyers and the weavers. So we are trying to do everything on a small, village-based scale so that it can all be handled by the farmer and weaver cooperatives themselves. They should reap the benefit of their work,” says Uzramma.
Malkha products are all pure cotton. In order to retain the springiness of the cotton fibres and keep fabrics soft and breathable, Malkha’s yarn is not subjected to a baling process. It is woven on hand operated looms and the yarn and fabric are treated with non-toxic dyes. What’s more, their products preserve the intrinsic properties of cotton. They are softer and more comfortable with each wash, retaining colour and shape and allowing for a beautiful drape. Currently sarees, dupattas, and handspun yardage are on their product list.
The fabric for a small footprint
Besides being damaging to the cotton, the baling and unbaling processes consume a lot of energy. As the yarn making is on a small scale, it can be located close to cotton fields and weaving centres, saving the energy consumed to transport raw cotton to processing centres. The yarn produced is specifically meant for handlooms. “All the different stages of processing of the cotton take place at low speeds, avoiding the heat and stress created by electrically-powered weaving,” says Uzramma. Further, all Malkha’s dyes are of safe, vegetable origin (except for red that is derived from coal tar and is also non-toxic). Thus the natural, non-polluting qualities of the cotton retained during yarn-making are also preserved in the cloth and in its processing.
India’s greatest advantage is its ability to grow different kinds of cotton in different regions. “What we need is a flexible yarn technology that can be adapted to different varieties of cotton and to the handloom. We hope to take on this kind of research to create spinning processes specifically designed for Indian cottons,” says Uzramma.
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