Weaving: An Endangered Occupation

Bharat Dogra

Despite increasing realisation that handlooms have a very important role in the textile sector, many promises made for protection and promotion of handlooms have been broken time and again. Even laws and rules already enacted to help handloom weavers have been violated with impunity for several years. The result is that handloom weavers have been forced to give up their intricate skills to pull rickshaws or become migrant workers in informal sector.

However, the fact remains that handlooms helped by helpful policies can still regain their important place in the textile sector. In an expanding market of cloth production, higher production by the mechanised sector can co-exist with higher production by khadi and handlooms. What is important to emphasise is that handloom and khadi have some inherent strengths and some types of cloth is best woven only on handlooms.

Handloom cloth is cloth woven by hand, or cloth woven on manually operated looms (as distinct from electricity operated looms or powerlooms). Khadi is cloth which is on the one hand hand-woven (handloom) and in addition the yarn for weaving this cloth is also obtained by hand-spinning (for example on charkha or manually operated spinning wheel). Thus khadi is hand-woven plus hand-spun cloth.

Khadi has a very special significance in India as during the freedom movement Mahatma Gandhi gave great importance to Khadi as a symbol of India's liberation (earlier India's weavers had been ruined by unjust promotion of British mill-made cloth by colonial rulers).

In a review of the inherent strengths of handlooms, B K Sinha, former Development Commissioner, Handlooms pointed out that due to manual operations several combinations are possible in handlooms with intricate designs. "The functional properties like drape, texture, strength, wrinkle resistance, dominant stability etc. can be ingeniously manipulated through appropriate designs, exclusive types of fabrics used, counts and twists of warps and yarns, thick density, type of weave, type of fashion and process employed in printing."

This review goes on to detail many kinds of clothes which are best woven on handlooms, "The clothes made from extremely fine material i.e. yarn count with 100s and above which are delicate, can be woven more safely on the handloom owing to comparative lightness of jerks. The polish of the clothes interwoven with gold or silver thread, can be taken out by extremely frictional action of powerlooms. On the contrary, handlooms are ideally suited for such work. Clothes with multi-coloured designs in which the weft is to be changed very frequently are most suited to handlooms. Clothes with embellishment in the border and heading and entire body with delicate designs in various colours which calls for individual schemes can be ideally woven on handlooms.

Many people who have been using khadi cloth for years say emphatically that it is very healthy for skin, providing comfort in summer as well as in winter. With growing health consciousness, this can help to increase the demand for khadi in India as well as abroad. Also the undisputed fact that handloom and even more so khadi generate the most employment per metre of cloth can also be used to promote this cloth.

The consciousness for energy-conservation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasing. From this point of view hand-woven cloth has an obvious edge particularly when it is also hand-spun. The eco-worth of these products can be increased further by the increasing use of vegetable colours.

With the increasing emphasis on reducing GHG emissions, the case for protecting handlooms and hand-spinning becomes stronger as protection of precious human skills which do not involve the use of any commercial energy, fossil fuel use or the related GHG emissions has acquired a new strength, it can get more support than before. A fairtrade clothing company People Tree (Dhaka, Bangladesh) says in its promotional campaign that the handloom saves one tonne of CO2 from being emitted each year and creates nine times as many jobs as the powerloom.

Despite these assets, in recent years so many difficulties have piled up for weavers that now it appears that even in India handloom weaving is fast becoming an endangered occupation. The handloom weavers have been passing through extremely difficult times, culminating in several cases of starvation deaths reported from Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere.

Vol. 48, No. 12, Sep 27 - Oct 3, 2015