Rethinking handloom


THE cotton handloom industry of India is one of the great manufacturing institutions of the world. Beginning with fragments of woven cotton material found in the ruins of Mohenjodaro, going on to supply the world with cotton fabrics from at least the time of the Roman Empire, and from then up to the end of the 18th century, there are testaments to the quantity, quality and variety of Indian cotton fabrics scattered through written records. Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century AD calculates the value of the cotton fabric trade between India and Rome at 100 million sesterces (equal then to 15 million rupees) every year, and complains that India is draining Rome of her gold.

Suleiman, an Arab trader who visited Calicut in 851 AD writes in his diary ‘…garments are made in so extraordinary a manner that nowhere else are the like to be seen. These garments are …wove to that degree of fineness that they may be drawn through a ring of middling size.’ The trade in cotton cloth was the main source of India’s fabled wealth. Tome Pires, a Portuguese traveller of the 16th century writes in 1515 from Malacca describing the ships that came there from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast, ‘…worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados, carrying cloth of thirty different sorts…’ Pyrard de Laval in the early 17th century says Indian cotton fabrics clothed ‘everyone from Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman …from head to foot.’

It seems important to remember this history of quality and quantity when today Indian fabrics hold a mere 2.5% of world textile trade, behind China, Pakistan and Turkey, and the main item of export is the cheapest ‘grey sheeting’, made on powerlooms, and in which we are competitive only on account of the low wages we pay. And since textiles still provide about a third of our exports, in order to maintain even this undistinguished presence in the world, we now need to import textile machinery from Japan and Switzerland. Is this really the best that we can do; is this the direction that we have chosen in the 21st century for the once-famed cotton textile industry of this country?



There can be an alternative to this dismal prospect, based on the recognition and encouragement of the handloom industry. Today we have the only substantial household-based cotton textile industry in the world, and as part of that we have a huge skill-bank in the millions of people capable of weaving and of making the looms and accessories. We grow our own cotton and make our own yarn. These circumstances can be the foundation of a large and sustainable textile industry in the 21st century, an industry that can supply both domestic and foreign markets, without dependence on imports for knowledge, machinery or raw material.

The handloom industry is dispersed in villages and towns, avoiding the pollution and ghettoization of concentrated production that we see in powerloom centres. Many of the producer regions are closely linked to their local markets, others such as Chirala in Andhra supply distant but specific markets through complex trade and credit linkages. If this combination of factors can be seen as the tremendous asset that it is, and if policies can be framed to encourage and support the strengths of the handloom industry, we have an unparalleled opportunity to develop a textile industry of which we can justifiably be proud.

Cotton is a fibre that, of all the textile raw materials in use – wool, silk, linen, or synthetics – requires the largest number of operations to convert it from its raw state to fabric. At the same time, in a temperate climate it can be grown with the least amount of energy. Our indigenous technology, closely adapted to the nature of the fibre, produced in the past cotton fabric of a staggering diversity that was durable, strong, light in weight, absorbent, washable, and that held colour permanently. This industry at one time employed millions of people at each stage, from the growing of the plant through the ginning, carding and spinning, the warping, sizing and weaving up to the dyeing, bleaching, printing, finishing and finally the trading of the cloth.



Today, to begin with ground realities, at the dawn of the 21st century, handloom production is still the largest employer in the country after agriculture, employing twelve and a half million weaving families, not including the loom and reed makers, dyers, warp-winders, sizers and other specialists who supply ancillary support. Weaving is not confined solely to traditional weaving castes: when the industry thrives in one region, many other non-weaving castes take it up. In Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh for example, where weaving was introduced for income generation in the aftermath of natural calamity in the 1950s, it is practiced today by traditional fisher and toddy-tapper castes and by Muslims.

Apart from its formidable size, the other great strengths of the handloom industry in common with other craft industries are its low overheads and capital needs, its variety and regional specialization, its versatility and adaptability, its independence of generated power and of imports, and its smooth skill transfer mechanisms. The other side of the picture is the lack and weakness also common to artisanal industries: an absence of institutional support for credit, research, technology, management and market development. What the handloom industry has which other craft industries are struggling for, is a domestic market cutting across the social and economic spectrum and the urban/ rural divide: cotton handloom fabric is still worn and used by Indian people of all kinds and classes.

This tenacious preference accounts for the increase in handloom production over the years. Though the percentage of handloom as a part of textile production has dropped from 24% in 1980-81 to 20% in 1999-2000, the actual production has gone up from 3109 to 7352 million square metres. (By the way, during the same period, mill production has dropped from 36% to 4% and output from 4533 to 1714 million square metres. The figures are from the Compendium of Textile Statistics 2000, published by the office of the Textile Commissioner.)



In an era of globalization, where we face floods of imports of textiles from both China and the US, the regional specialization of handlooms is a critical factor that provides well-defined product identity, something sought after at great cost and effort by the modern consumer industry. Here we have an undoubted advantage, one that is conceded even by those who want to cram the huge elephant of the handloom industry into the small bottle of the niche market. Orissa Sambalpuri, Bengal jamdani, Gujarat leheria, Maharashtra Paithan, Andhra ikkat, the triple ply silks of Kanchipuram, the list is endless. New specializations appear from time to time, like Manglagiri bordered fabric that swept the country in the 1960s and is still going strong. Identities of handloom fabrics must be respected, protected, reinforced. Why does the government stand by and allow the intellectual property rights of handloom producers to be violated through the large-scale duplication of handloom products by powerloom?



Specific regional products find specific niches in foreign markets. One particular textile, the modern version of the Real Madras Handkerchief, itself a mutant of the traditional Andhra telia rumal is highly prized in Nigeria as a ceremonial fabric. In its heyday in the late 20th century up to early 1995, 15000 looms in the Chirala area wove this one fabric alone for the Nigerian market. With an average output of three metres a day and 200 working days in a year, at an ex-loom price of Rs 75 per metre, this adds up to an annual production of nine million metres of the value of Rs 675 million – or over $13 million American dollars – of just one product, for just one niche market, from just one mandal. These are substantial figures by any standard. But no effort has gone into creating transparent information flows between buyers and sellers, with the result that the weavers don’t know what the fabric is used for, or even through which channels it goes from Chirala to Nigeria, and the product is being copied by powerlooms. The number of looms has now sunk to about 2,000.

The rise and fall of the Real Madras Handkerchief carries hints of past glories and future dreams. It is also an indictment of our capacity for mismanagement, showing how we fail to build on our particular capabilities and circumstances. With a little initiative from the state, such as appointing a marketing professional for this specific product, who would find out and report back to the producer base on who are the end-users, what they want, and how they can be supplied, the weavers of Chirala could make enough RMH to wrap the moon in, solve Chandrababu Naidu’s debt problem, and have time left over to advise the academic fraternity on how to generate employment in rural areas.

A myth exists that handloom fabrics are more expensive to produce than powerloom or mill fabrics. This is the argument used by those who see handlooms as suited only for an elite niche market. True, mill-made synthetic fabrics today are sold at a fraction of the cost of cotton handlooms, but the hidden costs of this production, such as disease-causing pollution and the social cost of industrial concentration need to be factored in when calculating costs, as well as the cost of electricity generation.



Taking into account power tariffs, which are, by the way, looming factors in the current powerloom recession, the handloom is a cost-effective mode of textile production because of its low capital costs, its independence of power and of import components, and the environmental and social advantages of dispersed production. As newer and more expensive technologies are introduced in the mechanized sector, the cost of the product of the mechanized sectors will increase. In the context of globalization and liberalization, dispersed modes of production employing low-energy processes can have high viability.

The variety and price range of cotton handlooms runs the gamut between the very expensive fine fabrics woven for the Indian elite and Japanese museums, and ordinary household linen and homewear for ordinary people. Like the disparity between the users, the disparity between these products is enormous – one could be easily be a hundred times the cost of the other, a towel at Rs 20 a metre and a chanderi, jamdani or gadwal sari over Rs 10,000. In between are the clothes and household textiles used and worn by urban professionals, and by the middle class, preferred for their greater absorbency and the inimitable fall and drape of handloom cloth.



Up to now, entrepreneurs in the area of cotton handloom marketing in urban areas, coming from traditional weaving (for example in Andhra and Tamil Nadu) or textile trading (for example in Bengal) backgrounds, have tended to follow one particular route, restricting their interest in cotton handlooms to the high value fabrics which would give them high returns through relatively low volumes. At the lower end of the marketing spectrum the thicker, ordinary, everyday cotton sarees that large numbers of rural working women demand, the bedsheets, towels and lungis, are made and sold through local rural networks of local master-weavers many of whom run their own production units.

The gap to some extent has been filled by cooperatives, supplying local markets as well as urban users with good quality cotton fabrics at reasonable rates. But well-working co-operatives are few, and here there are great opportunities for contemporary entrepreneurship, in devising new marketing channels to exploit the specific characteristics of contemporary handloom production of the huge volumes of medium priced, good quality cotton fabrics of medium thickness, suitable for dress materials and household linens.

There is no reason why attractive design and colour should be confined to the upper price bracket. On the contrary, it is possible and practical to have diversity and specificity also in thicker fabrics, at the lower end of the price spectrum. In fact, it is the ordinary thicker fabrics that not only supply local needs but are also the ones that cater to the foreign export markets. It is these fabrics that have potential for both domestic and foreign markets, rather than complex weaves and fine fabrics. The great advantage of these plain fabrics is that they are made by large numbers of weavers, and this production can expand with little need for costly infrastructure development. In spite of the fact that these fabrics are outpriced in the market by powerloom fabrics and by mill-made synthetics, it has been clearly demonstrated through the continuing existence of this ordinary, medium-priced handloom segment that there is a firm demand for these fabrics on account of their better durability, absorbency, comfort and ‘feel’. Most ‘powerloom’ production is sold under the name of handloom.



At the same time we need models for workable collective institutions controlled by the producers themselves, on the lines of the dairy coops and self-help groups now burgeoning in the country. With such independent groups it is possible to develop a production base that will be responsive to the preferences of the market, and to link up this production base to the market through new marketing mechanisms. These new combinations will enable fresh entrepreneurial talent to emerge at different points in the production-marketing chain.

The design aspect of production, like market access, raw material supply and finance, is today in the hands of the trader-entrepreneur. It is he who gives the yarn and finance, and also dictates the design to the producer family. Being concerned to make the best use of his investment, the entrepreneur restricts his colours and designs to the fast selling items, thus effectively strangling the infinite variety that is the greatest strength of handloom production. The current understanding of design operates to buttress the importance of the niche market, where the specialized product is the prerogative of a small elite, while the large ‘mass market’ must be supplied through mass production systems producing large numbers of undifferentiated products.



Attempts to fit household production into a mass market that is designed to deal with large quantities of mechanically produced identical goods has had the effect of characterizing the unique qualities of hand-woven cloth as ‘inferior’. When, on the other hand, handloom fabric is sold on its merits rather than as a competitor in the mass market, variation in weaving is part of the character of the fabric, and not a defect. The role of the designer in the production/marketing chain has to be restructured so that it supports and strengthens a large and dispersed producer base, rather than strengthening market forces geared to mass production.

‘He who controls cotton controls weaving,’ as an old saying goes. The true potential of handloom weaving will be realized if its decentralized mode can be supported by the decentralized production of cotton yarn. Currently, handloom production of cotton textiles is dependent for its primary raw material on spinning mills that primarily cater to the needs of machine spinning, and only incidentally to handlooms. The underlying assumption here is that there is no difference between the yarn needed for machine weaving and for the handloom. This is untrue. The greater speeds and higher warp tensions of mechanical weaving need a strong yarn that can withstand the stress, while the slower speeds and gentler operation of the handloom can use yarn with less twist, which can be made on slow speed ring-frames from local short-stapled cottons.



Modern high speed spinning mills need cotton varieties specially grown for their staple length, and produce yarn with the high twist necessary to withstand the strains of mechanized weaving. The combination of the new hybrid cotton varieties, bred for the characteristics needed for high-speed machine processing, and the effect of that mechanical processing, destroys or lessens the particular qualities that made Indian cotton fabric so famous in earlier times: the lustre, colour-holding capacity, absorbency, softness and durability, which are preserved through the slow speed spinning and weaving of local cotton varieties. All government sponsored research into the breeding of cotton varieties since independence has followed the lead of the research initiated in this country by the East India Company in the 18th century, to produce yarn specifically suited to machine weaving. The emphasis has been on the Hirsutum or American varieties brought in by the Company, replacing the traditional desis. Now even the research is going out of our hands, with the introduction of Monsanto’s patented varieties.

It would be no great difficulty for the cotton research establishment to develop some cotton varieties specific to the needs of handloom weaving of each region. This could be done in conjunction with the development of technology for local small-scale processing from the ginning to the sliver making, which would eliminate the need for baling and the blowroom processes that are inevitable for baled cotton. Baling made sense when cotton had to be transported over the sea from India to Lancashire, but is unnecessary when cotton weaving and cotton cultivation are geographically close to each other. The baling process compresses fresh, clean, soft, naturally aligned cotton lint into a bale as hard as a block of wood, which has to be brought back to its original clean, soft condition with all its fibres parallel, through a highly energy-intensive combination of blow-room and carding processes.



The cotton used today is mostly of the Hirsutum variety or its hybrids, bred for its higher yields, shorter maturing times, and longer and stronger staple. But these varieties tend to have at maturity around 20% immature fibres. Combined with the damaging processes of baling and unbaling, the green fibres tend to clot together into tiny lumps in the yarn, called neps, which again need elaborate processing to eliminate. High speed spinning and weaving need work tensions that make the yarn and resulting cloth stiffer and less elastic. Cotton varieties on the contrary bred for high levels of maturity combined with slow speed spinning and hand-weaving would give us cotton cloth with excellent dye-holding, absorbency, elasticity and durability.

The issue of technology is often raised at the mention of the relevance of the handloom industry in a contemporary context: isn’t the handloom an outdated technology, and wouldn’t weavers be better off without the drudgery of loom operation? The technology of the loom has the advantage of being affordable by and accessible to large numbers of people who have no other work options. In the year 2000 the number of looms in the Yemmiganur mandal of Kurnool district in Andhra rose sharply. The reason was that in that year four local businesses – the oil mill, the transport company, the spinning mill and the leather industry closed down, throwing thousands out of work. Four thousand of the newly unemployed set up their own looms to weave a popular textile – the Gadwal saree. The 21st century has seen no growth in employment in the Indian industrial sector, and for millions, particularly in villages, handlooms continue to provide the only possible livelihood.

New technological improvements constantly take place in handloom weaving. In the 19th century the fly-shuttle was introduced replacing the traditional throw-shuttle, and in the 20th century the warping wheel has been invented, which can lay 20 warps in the time it takes to lay one. Roller beams on which longer warps can be wound, and gears to ease the take-up motion are now used in some weaving centres. These technologies are manageable by weaving clusters, weaving organizations, and individual weavers. Enthusiasts of new technologies often forget that technology management is a critical aspect that should be within the capability of the user.



Since the 18th century, technology has most often served the mercantile interest, geared to increasing productivity, which does not necessarily benefit either the worker or the user. Powerlooms for example are often quoted as a better alternative to handlooms. The output of a powerloom is certainly several times greater than that of the handloom. But studies show the life of a powerloom operator to be a wretched one:

‘Is the life of a powerloom operator an attractive one? Working and living conditions are wretched… The workers derive no security at all from their employment... their monthly income is dependent on the degree of self-exploitation that they achieve during a twelve-hour day or night shift... They are all debarred from allowances and fringe benefits that secure the lives of workers in the formal sector. As single migrants, the majority of men are separated from wives and children who stay in the villages and to whom they send a maximal part of earnings whenever possible. In 1984 this averaged less than 100 rupees per month... three-quarters of them live in accommodation of less than 49 square feet; a quarter even has to make do with nine square feet... I have visited a number of these billets, so small that the eight, ten or even more inhabitants could not all be present at the same time. They sleep in turn…’ (Footloose Labour by Jan Breman, 1996)



Increased unit productivity mainly benefits the trader, often at costs which are not immediately obvious, to society and the environment. Handlooms can give us huge overall volumes of production, from a dispersed production base. New technologies should serve the interests of the producer, as well as of the user of the product. A new direction for technology could be charted that serves the interests of stable and sustainable production and of society as a whole. In support of handloom weaving, technical research to develop decentralized cotton processing could be taken up. Development of local varieties of cotton and local processing into yarn would further accentuate the regional identities of handloom fabrics.

And finally, in the era of globalization, implying both transparency and participation, the policy-making exercise of government relating to handlooms should involve responsible producer organizations, and be based on detailed field studies. Handloom weaving is as diverse in its operations, in its relations of production, as its products, and this is often not taken into consideration in making recommendations: We speak of the handloom weaver, we use aggregate data to compare and contrast the handloom industry with mills and powerlooms.

Aggregate data does not reflect the radical diversity of handlooms in forms of organization, production patterns, or types of product, in each state, region and district. Past policies have fallen into this error and have proceeded to establish and strengthen institutions based on it. As a result these institutions are seriously flawed, and have suppressed constructive initiatives attempted by primary producers themselves, as field experiences show. By looking only at these flawed institutions, we tend to see a picture of starvation and gloom.



On the contrary, there has been growth and innovation both within and outside the cooperative sector that gives us clues regarding the potential of the handloom industry in the 21st century. It is in the context of a new role for the state in the liberalized economy that we need to look more closely at the positive aspects. In some weaving regions in recent times, phenomenal growth has taken place, where new technologies have been taken up, innovative marketing has been developed, or cooperatives have been successful. The role of the state in the new dispensation should be to encourage and support existing success stories as well as the efforts of primary producers to form their own organizations, through promotion of direct access to credit and market for these groups, and through active, detailed, specific and serious research undertaken on their behalf.

The mistake the state has made is to look at the handloom industry as a basket case, in need of welfare, with state commissioned reports harping on the theme of the ‘poor weaver’. It is true that the condition of the weavers is pitiable, but we need to examine in depth the reasons for the marginalization of the skilled production force of a vibrant industry. The primary producer in the handloom industry is the greatest asset not only of the handloom, but also of the other branches, both ‘powerloom’ and mill, of the textile industry of the country. It is his and her skills that have provided the bank from which the labour capital of all branches of the textile industry has been drawn. The household mode of production is the cradle of these skills and needs to be supported and nurtured as such. With a fraction of the support that the state extends to other branches of industry, the handloom weaving industry can be the powerhouse of rural revitalization in the 21st century.



The experience and research on which these claims for the household cotton textile industry of India are based are located in the following groups:

The PPST (Patriotic & People-oriented Science & Technology) Foundation, AU-PPST Centre, Anna University, Chennai 600 025: an independent body that undertakes research into indigenous knowledge and indigenous production systems.

Dastkar Andhra: a funded NGO that is actively involved in promoting sustainable rural livelihoods.

Independent Handloom Research Group: an informal association of academics and others, based in Hyderabad.

Contacts are maintained and these groups undertake joint research with weaver organizations based in Andhra (particularly the Rashtriya Cheynetha Karmika Samakhya), Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, and with individuals who have taken up historical and technical research in related subjects.