The importance of handcrafted textiles: conversations with our community

Handcrafted textiles have the potential to create a fashion industry that is more supportive of craft communities as well as less harmful to our environment. Within India, there has always been a deep love for them where, although the art did face a decline due to British rule and industrialisation, these textiles are facing a resurgence in popularity now that we hope continues on so that we both are able revive and treasure handicraft techniques, and make our planet a greener place.

Sui’s tryst with handlooms began in 2018 and ever since, we most often find ourselves in discussions with our community asking 2 key questions:

-How do we create more awareness around the versatility and uniqueness of handloom fabrics for young & old customers? 

-How do we create more access for handloom fabrics?

In the search for answers and to hear from those who work closely with handloom fabrics - today, we share some conversations we had with a few from our conscious community - those who support handcrafted textiles and engage with them, and those who directly work with craft communities. While we chat with them, we explore how handcrafted textiles benefit us all, especially how the handloom can cater to contemporary audiences. Modernising the handloom doesn’t necessarily mean pushing it to adapt to modern times, but rather finding a way to merge the traditions of handloom, the beauty and impact of the creation with the trends and the identity of the industry today.

Through doing this, it would connect clothing with more conscious values, something that’s highlighted as being intrinsically important within these chats we are be sharing with you.

A FEW FACTS ON HANDLOOM FABRICS BEFORE WE BEGIN:

-As of 2021, handlooms are the second largest industry in India - coupled with our clothing industry.

-Handlooms give access to jobs, encourage community building and women empowerment.

-They’re better for the climate due to their low carbon footprint.

-The fabric is one of a kind and so special to own.

-They help keep traditions alive.

-Even though we see a revival in the use of handlooms, we have a long way to go and one of the key aspects which will help boost this industry further is by educating others on these points.

A conversation with Radhika, co-founder of Raaha

To begin, we speak with Radhika Gupta, who shares her knowledge and experience working with various artisan communities.

SUI: What is Raaha and what do they do - aims and mission?

RADHIKA: We are a women-led company powering growth in the artisan economy by creating access to handmade digitally for today’s conscious global consumers. We work together with social enterprises and artisan communities to bring beautiful, environmentally positive gifts and immersive cultural experiences to you. 

We are two Indian women [Radhika & Amrita] who want to reimagine a future by inspiring you to make conscious choices. A shared passion for equity, climate action, sustainable development together with our experience in fashion, travel, education and working with artisans got us here. After six months of consulting with artisan-led social enterprises and curating digital learning experiences, a conversation about receiving wasteful corporate gifts that lack intent got us thinking. And we knew high-quality handmade products were the answer. 

We are committed to working alongside with social entrepreneurs in a new world for handmade that brings consumers and makers together with an integrated approach.

SUI: Why should we look to modernizing the handloom per se, as in bringing more exposure to the art while teaching communities to evolve?

RADHIKA: Modernizing handloom = creating more access. Even though 95% of global handlooms are supplied by India, the Handloom industry at large remains unexplored because of a notion that the product it delivers is restrictive, this results in many fashion brands not exploring this as an alternative option for sustainable raw materials for clothing. Breaking this misconception and showing how a few changes and innovation can make handlooms a great sustainable alternative for the garment industry is critical to undo the years of low or no business and global exposure and inclusiveness the sector has faced.

 

 

SUI: What challenges do you and other organisations like yours face in trying to revitalise the handloom and its communities?

RADHIKA: I think the biggest challenge is competition from machine made replicas that are being sold by retail giants like Amazons and Myntra’s labelled as ‘handmade’ or ‘artisan made’. Everyone wants to cash in on the trends and retain consumers by offering them cheaper, more affordable alternatives to meet their demands creating an unending cycle of greenwashing. There is only one outcome to this- the artisans suffer! Instead if the amazon karigars of the world can come together and use their tools, influence, reach, financial and human resources to equip and mobilize artisan clusters, we can genuinely create change from the ground up. 

SUI: What would be your advice to any business trying to incorporate craft into their value chain, how should they approach the task?

RADHIKA: YOU NEED TO WORK AS A TEAM!

The biggest lesson we have learnt is that artisans are not manufacturers, they are skilled craftspeople and we need to accept and include that in our value chains. We need them because what they can offer we don’t. Building trust and a mutually respectful relationship with artisans is key. Incorporating craft is easy, the difficult task is maintaining transparency for consumers about who made the products, how the products were made, where the artisans are based, how much they get paid etc. 

Another aspect of working with crafts is to consistently remind ourselves about the slow nature of production of handmade products. We have gotten used to an instant world with next day deliveries and many small businesses are expected to offer this kind of service but setting this tone and expectation for yourself when you are planning to work with artisans is critical. Plan ahead, start sooner than you would, be patient and use your brand to create this mindset shift. :)

SUI: What tips/advice would you give to anyone on how to properly support craft communities?

RADHIKA: Credit where it’s due! The biggest gap that has existed between consumers, businesses and craft communities is that there is no credit given to the makers! Start your support by talking about their expertise, their processes and this supports in sustaining their cultural knowledge through exposure. 

I do understand that businesses want to protect their resources, but we also need to be mindful of the fact that we need to bring in more business. If everyone kept their craft communities a secret, how would they grow? Some other actions we can take to support are :

  • Make sure the communities you work with are given access to basic human rights like sanitation, water, education, health. You can reach out to local no profits for assistance 
  • Build capacity - if you are working with cc. Equip them with basic financial and digital skills
  • As consumers , Amplify their work by talking about it on social media and buying handmade products for yourself and as gifts 

SUI: What do you think are the key factors in our road ahead to helping the handloom industry in India thrive?

RADHIKA:

- Access to open finance

- Access to digital tools and knowledge 

- Institutional and policy support

- Fashion industry’s genuine involvement, beyond marketing projects

- International Advocacy platforms talking about Indian Handlooms 

- Craft led businesses using their influence to create awareness and convert consumers into advocates 

- A streamlined supply chain 

- Skilled leadership for innovation and design 

A conversation with Vinita, a slow fashion advocate

Next, we spoke with slow fashion advocate, stylist, consultant and writer, Vinita Makhija.

 

SUI: What experience first inspired you to take more of an interest and see the potential in handcrafted textiles?

VINITA: There are so many stories.

On one of my very first field visits with FabIndia to Lucknow- I had this epiphany that Indian/couture fashion and brands do not get made in factories and karkhanas as much as they do get made in villages/in the homes of weavers and artisans. That is a legacy we continue to follow.

I went to the houses of embroiders in the village and saw the couture-level of threadwork being achieved in such humble surroundings. Sadly, they never wear what they ever make.

My stay at the Ahilya Fort and meeting with Prince Richard Holkar- tracing the history of Maheshwaris; seeing the Rehwa workshop. The looms are kept and worked where the daily prayers use to happen during Ahilyabai Holkar's time. These have been defining moments of my journey learning about and covering Indian textiles. 

Developing a sudden hypersensitivity to certain fabrics- especially polyester, after wearing it throughout all of my teens/20s in them, it was a strange call to action and curiosity.

Noticing and then looking further into why certain brands and designers like Pero, Indigene, Swati Kalsi would send their pieces for shoots in wrapped in mul- no plastic sheets; there would be specific instructions on how to iron and store them, and certainly on how to return them. These specific instances have helped me look further into handlooms and brands that work them.

SUI: Have you found that handcrafted textiles have found a resurgence in India’s fashion world and what other steps should we be taking to further its enrichment - on an industry and/or individual level? 

VINITA: I think it's important to recognize that handloom falls under the bracket of slow fashion. While there is a greater need for transparency, credit, fair wages; it is important to continue these practices in a slow manner. We don't need to "increase" production.  

I think there is a resurgence in conversations about sustainability and conscious living (I think I should point out that these are a lot of conversations without much quantifiable action right now), and textiles are simply one of the facets. To be honest, I am afraid it is a bit in-trend right now to discuss Indigenous Indian textiles- and you know what happens with trends…

 

 

SUI: What particular form of textile handicraft are you most fascinated with and why?

VINITA: Actually, I am most interested in learning about mindful, plant-based fabrics right now- made with mushrooms, hemp, natural fibers etc in terms of true sustainability. The ones that require minimal water and create minuscule wastage. I hope we can start calling that future of fashion instead of the spacesuit/alien inspired imagery. I am interested in handlooms as a way to sustain our history, traditions, culture, legacy and true talent. And also because handloom never broke me out in hives. I enjoy the feel of handloom on my skin.

SUI: How can the handloom benefit the fashion industry?

VINITA: Well, designs require base fabrics, and I hope brands will consider supporting clusters/villages/weavers over several seasons and not as a PR pitch to truly introduce, both, the wearers to true 'Indian fashion' and uplift weaving families. I also hope designers, the government, and organisations with power will spend money on weaving families in terms of education, introducing them to creative design thinking that help them go beyond what they first started with, and offering grants to new generation of weavers to convince the sons and daughters to continue their family (and India's) traditions. Fashion industry excels at creating luxurious experiences, I hope they will bring handloom the much needed luxury tag.

SUI: Why is it important that the fashion industry makes an effort to modernise the handloom?

VINITA: Is it? I don't think fashion ALONE needs to intervene to make handloom modern per se. What do we mean by modernity? Why does everything have to be modern? What is our collective obsession with being cool, relevant, and with the times? It bores me.

However, if you mean in terms of silhouettes of finished pieces- that is on designers- what else can they offer us with handloom fabrics besides angrakha inspired empire waists and wrap/kurta-dresses? Handlooms don't always have fluidity- how can they make this exciting for the buyers?  I am looking for that freshness.

SUI: How can we as individuals help support handcrafted textiles and the handloom? 

VINITA: I like the current route some stylists, influencers/brands are taking. I like that they describe the looks via textiles and not just colour or silhouettes. That they are open about where they are sourcing textiles from, and openly crediting the artisans. I love seeing BTS. Information (and sharing as in the case of Instagram) is power. Handloom is a unique POV- I can't say it always translates well to 'cocktail dresses' or 'going out tops'- but the stylist in me loves a good challenge.

I hope stylists, young (and old) brands, tastemakers will introduce a new visual language. We don't need to be 'cool' with handloom. We just need it to be a normal option. It's not a case of VS, your wardrobe can have Zara and Indian textiles.

I made a list of where to buy directly from weavers on Instagram a while ago- that post has over 10k saves- this gives me hope that people are truly looking to make wiser choices. India is unique- in that, no other country in the world has as much autonomy over its pret and couture wear. We can stitch our own clothes with alarming ease- can we utilise this talent and access? Let's bring back buying and gifting handloom textiles. My friends no longer get sweets from my travels, they are all gifted textiles with detailed instructions on how to care for them (+ free unsolicited styling advice)

A conversation with Nivedita, co-founder of Karghewale

And finally, last but certainly not least, we speak with Nivedita Rai who directly works with artisan communities to aid in bringing their craft to the mainstream market and who we have had the pleasure of working with for a few years now. 

 

SUI: What is Karghewale and why was it founded - its aims and intentions?

NIVEDITA: I realised after working in the craft sector for a long time that what had happened within the sector, even with reforms and initiatives put forth by the government and other NGOs, is that artisans were pushed towards the rear-end and, in the process, they lost their agency. Karghewale’s intent is to reinstate that agency by providing and enabling equal systems so that they can become entrepreneurs in their own right and won’t have to depend on other forces within their industry. We are aiming to avoid negating individual people within the value chain, what we are saying is that they don’t need to be reduced to the status of wage labourers, they can do much more if given the opportunity.

The problem in our present ecosystem is that there’s no ample opportunities like this available for the craftspeople because the previous systems have enabled the reduction of their agency, we are essentially trying to work against this, this is what Karghewale stands for. We define ourselves as an incubator for artisan-led enterprises so that they can find their own way in the world. Although there are many initiatives that exist, this is how we stand out from the rest.

SUI: For anyone who may not be familiar, explain what craft clusters/communities are within India and what state are these clusters in at the moment?

NIVEDITA: If you go back to earlier days, in every nook and corner of India, handwoven fabrics were a large part of the culture and there were lots of different techniques people used to weave, which was also dependent on the availability of yarns there, and also the weather conditions. For example, West Bengal had Jamdani fabric and Banarasi fabric was prevalent in Vanarasi. And everything was only handwoven, from the exquisite textiles to the normal cotton that was made for the common man.

Cut to present day to what we call clusters, which are the remnants of this prevalent weaving culture that existed in previous decades. Some areas have still retained popularity for their handwoven textiles while others have completely lost these crafts depending on various external factors unique to each area. Clusters are where handweaving traditions are still going on and they are quite famous, for example Kanjivaram is known for and specialises in silk and jacquard weaving techniques, so when identifying clusters, it’s a combination of the actual yarns and the techniques they use - so, like I mentioned, the jacquard and silk weaves are seen in Tamil Nadu but are also done similarly in Banaras and the distinction between the sarees will be seen within the intricate motifs.

Within these clusters, people will specialise in certain techniques using a certain kind of yarn. In India, the story is that the context is highly localised, there’s no exchange of yarns being done between the clusters which is something we’re trying to change through our Karghewale model to get young entrepreneurs to work together and share information that would hopefully help them generate new ideas for products.

The state of clusters today is that most have been wiped out and now, you can classify them into two kinds: the ones that are still famous and the others that are not and are dwindling slowly - some weavers for them do still exist but they often take up another vocation. The latter is who we choose to work with, the undersubscribed, as we call them, clusters - they’re not perceived as opulent, they’re not famous, most people don’t know about them or visit them. We will go identify these clusters and try to understand and revive the techniques. For example, right now, we’re working in the Nadia district in West Bengal with an undersubscribed cluster that operates near Phulia, an well-known cluster. The cluster, like many, hardly find work and make meagre wages but we hope to help revive it.

 

 

SUI: Can you give us a brief overview of the value chain for the Jamdani & Kala cotton fabric SUI has worked with?

NIVEDITA: Kala cotton, is an indigenous cotton native to Gujarat, it’s a rain-fed crop meaning it doesn’t require modern irrigation, it is organic and the growth of it is not dependent on fertilisers, pesticides or insecticides - so, in many ways, it’s a sustainable fibre. Moreover, due to Gujarat’s climate being arid, the texture of the fibre is not that smooth, it has a slight roughness to it. The crop is grown only in Gujarat, plucked by farmers, spun and woven there ensuring that the value chain mainly remains in that region, meaning that logistically, we’re able to keep our carbon footprint quite low in the process - it’s probably one of the most sustainable fibres I have come across.

When it comes to the Jamdani fabric, it’s widely available in Bengal where the climate is very humid so it’s possible to use a very fine yarn in it’s creation - we use a 92 count cotton yarn for the warp and weft, a highly translucent weave. And what makes it even more unique is we use an extra weft that merges well with the base weft and is implemented using a one-by-one insertion, it’s highly labour intensive work if you look at the fabric. In terms of the fibres, there are a lot of spinners and retailers of yarn who are near the clusters in Bengal and we only source our cotton yarns from there, they source the fibres from locations in south India such as Maharashtra. Once we buy them from the spinners and retailers, the Jamdani fabric is woven by female artisans in Shantipur.

SUI: Why is it important that we revitalize craft methods like the handloom and specific weaves like Jamdani?

NIVEDITA: For us, it’s the whole basis of everything we do. We want to revitalise crafts for several reasons. 

One is definitely because it’s sustainable and environmentally friendly and we should as a whole, as a planet, we should move towards sustainability because of climate change and immense pollution - there’s no Planet B right, so we have to move towards this concept of sustainability within every sector especially the textiles sector which is highly polluting.

Secondly, there’s a lot of heritage and history in our craft that should be carried on otherwise it will be forgotten and lost.

Thirdly, and most importantly for us at Karghewale, it’s about enriching the livelihoods of so many in the rural areas of India. And since we have such a huge population in India, we need a sector that is labour intensive like how our sector is - a lot of people in villages can be provided employment where they already are rather than having to migrate, which would help solve that issue that we have in our country too. So, this means it would help solve quite a few problems within our society, especially for women - it can be a much better source of employment where instead of working in the fields where they often compromise their health, they can weave and spin and earn a decent income in the comfort of their own homes. By choosing the handloom, we are able to support so many livelihoods due to how labour intensive it is as it often involves 14 to 16 people in the whole chain of the fabric weaving. In this way, it certainly promotes rural life.

The last thing is that It’s a conscious choice that if people make then the whole chain becomes more fruitful, more sustainable, more mindful. It’s a better choice for our planet and nature.

And now, when it comes to techniques like Jamdani, these are very special crafts that are full of indigenous knowledge which we have already lost so much of and so, what remains, we should definitely try to conserve. And the world will turn towards India because of this unique selling point. Only a few countries including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Laos, are among the last that still work with handlooms where most others use power looms and so our craft has become more and more niche.

SUI: What are the challenges businesses face while working with artisans? And how can nonprofits and artisan organizations fix that? 

NIVEDITA: A lot of the challenges we have faced have been due to the unprofessionalism and lack of regulation that’s prevalent within the handwoven sector. And because of that, it is something we are trying to change through our own Karghewale model. This is a sector that’s highly unpredictable because of the craft, the handweaving especially causes delays in orders often, so we are trying to bring in a more professional mindset but it also requires patience and understanding from clients - by working together we can mitigate this challenge.

And in this way, it’s also about educating each other. Artisans are creators meaning there are particular creative processes that take time and may not match the rhythm of business but we can definitely find a way to meet in the middle. We are especially trying to teach the young generation of weavers and entrepreneurs a more professional mindset to be adaptable, to be flexible, to think out of the box. We’re teaching them skills like how to create a bill, how to claim taxes, all these little things take up a whole of our curriculum at Karghewale.

A lot of issues businesses face with the sector is, first, due to the legal regulations because most artisans are small, single business people who do not have GST or do not have legal compliances so companies lose out on working with them. Secondly, deadlines are also an issue. Many artisans are not aware of how these businesses work so don’t stick to deadlines due to various factors. Businesses also don’t know how these artisans work which creates a gap between them that we are trying to bridge. The third main issue is to do with the quality of the product. The quality parameters for artisans and businesses are starkly different. Handwoven crafts can have deviations to the initial design which businesses need to understand happens, whereas weavers need to understand that businesses will not want a lot of deviation from what they had initially ordered. Moreover, just generally, timelines are always a challenge. In the world of fast fashion, designs are churned out every 2 months or so and that’s just not possible or sustainable in the world of slow fashion.

These are the main issues but it’s something we can all work together to solve. Closing those gaps has to be an effort on both sides. 

SUI: Can we move beyond the west’s fixation with certifications? Our understanding of it is that they are expensive and most weavers can’t afford them which means they lose business and work to those who can.

NIVEDITA: Regarding certifications, it is entirely true that single weavers definitely can’t afford certifications. It’s a process that they are not even aware of how they can go about it. Most haven’t even ventured out of their villages, they would have no idea where to start. And this is something we need to brainstorm to figure out what alternative we can do instead. 

What could happen is that organisations like ours could instead acquire a certification that would be extended to whoever we work with - we would essentially take care of it on behalf of the weavers. Another way is to invite people to see the processes themselves to understand it and build trust with those who visit. Building trust would be key and, yes, It would be a slow, time intensive process but it would be a great way to bypass certifications. 

SUI: How can intermediary organisations like Karghewale create stronger processes for sampling in a virtual world?

NIVEDITA: Karghewale and organizations like Karghewale definitely can do a lot when it comes to bridging the gap and ensuring that we have smoother processes for enabling the ease of doing business with artisans. Even when it comes to sampling, what we're trying to do is we're trying to talk to artisans so that they're more flexible in carrying out their tasks, they’ll be flexible when it comes to using different yarns and techniques and being adaptable to the needs of the business and consumers. We're also trying to have smaller looms installed with the artisans so that it's easier for them to make samples quickly and give it to the client so that they can approve it. These are the small measures that we're taking. There’s a long way to go, but I'm hopeful that if Karghewale becomes a big enterprise and gets to work with more and more viewers in the near future, we can change others’ mindsets.

SUI: What do you see as the opportunities for the industry?

NIVEDITA: We definitely see many opportunities and that’s why we’re in this sector. One is a point I brought up earlier, that is the value handwoven products have in the world and the future potential India has as a country when it comes to being able to provide unique handwoven products. Regarding our environment, carbon footprint, the conservation of nature, handwoven textiles have a huge potential in being a better alternative to incredibly polluting fabrics that are used commonly in fast fashion. There’s the capacity handwoven textiles have in supporting rural livelihoods, those in villages, as well as decreasing migration which would have a big impact due to how it would reduce the imbalance of populations around the country.

I see a huge potential in this collaboration, I see merit in partnerships between those in rural areas and businesses. So, to end, I wanted to mention a quote by Dr. Verghese Kurien that I think sums up these thoughts well, "India's place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural peopleand skill of its professionals."

 

Handwoven crafts have such incredible potential to help benefit small communities as well as our planet and we hope the insight from these women puts into perspective just how that is. A big thank you to Radhika, Vinita and Nivedita for taking the time to answer our questions and share their knowledge.

And here’s how you can help support this wonderful industry: 

- Be curious about where your clothes come from.

- If you haven’t already, introduce handloom garments to your wardrobe. Start with a few staple items like like our Endless Summer scarf or unisex shirt.

- If you’re a buyer of handloom, spread the love over to friends & family, be sure to share a little bit about where you bought your handloom pieces.

- While buying pieces for your home, look out for communities within your area or within India which create similar products - invest in those pieces to add uniqueness to your homes.

- Most importantly, educate yourself about fabrics - the more you know, the better quality fabrics you introduce into your wardrobe and the safer they are for your skin.

And with that, until next time green heart-ers!