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Sunday 20 August 2017
News updated at 5:11 PM IST

The feel-good fabric

Hema Vijay, Aug 13 2017, 1:25 IST

MATERIAL MAGIC

This fabric has caught the fancy of both fashionistas and sustainability activists who like to wear sustainability on their sleeves.

The likes of Nandita Das and Menaka Gandhi flaunt their malkha. Faithful cotton connoisseurs from Japan, Finland, Dubai, New York, and elsewhere order their malkha fabric online while many others go bananas when they discover malkha for the first time in a textile fair. Malkha’s patrons also include Goa-based designer Wendell Rodricks, Herms, Mayank Mansingh Kaul, New York designer Peter D’Ascoli, and Shilpa Reddy who presented malkha fabric in the J-Autumn
Fashion Show at Paris.

Meanwhile, scores of us not fitting into either of these categories have a few malkha outfits in our modest repertoire. ‘Few’ suffice, as malkha fabric retains its newness,
colour, bounce and fall for years, even after a zillion washes, and needs no ironing or any other upkeep at all. It is a magic fabric that feels cool in summer and cosy in winter. This fabric came to be called ‘malkha’ taking inspiration from India’s famous and beautiful mulmul fabric and khadi that continues to sustain the livelihood of many of our villagers even today.

Having said that, you can’t say ‘malkha’ without referring to Uzramma, founder of non-profit research centre Dastkar Andhra and the Decentralized Cotton Yarn Trust that operates small-scale units to process cotton to yarn at field locations, the key to the making of malkha.

I meet her in Chennai, one of the many places she visits to platform malkha. “I have always been interested in textiles,” says Hyderabad-based Uzramma, who arrived at malkha after a tryst with artisanal crafts, starting off by volunteering with the Andhra Pradesh Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd.

Many qualities

Grace, bounce, tenacity and innovation… in many ways, Uzramma epitomises these qualities as much as malkha. Though she doesn’t like to be synonymous with the fabric. “It was not a solitary operation.

Malkha evolved from many people’s ideas and efforts... For instance, it was a scientist called Ramakrishna who came up with the idea of leaving out the baling process altogether while spinning yarn, which has endowed malkha with many number of attributes like bounce, tenacity, fall, colour retention, not to mention letting us skip a tedious, expensive and time-consuming process altogether while making yarn,” she shares.

IIT-graduate scientists of the Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology (PPST) Foundation, who researched into indigenous cotton making, were part of the malkha story. Textile designer Sanjay Garg was also involved. Yes, malkha came to be by the efforts of many, but it is Uzramma who has made it viable and brought it into some well-deserved limelight.

The first malkha centre was set up in Chirala in Andhra Pradesh. Four malkha units are now in operation, and Uzramma hopes to establish many more, and is also hoping more people will join the party. “In the beginning, weavers were a little hesitant in taking up malkha. Now, we have a waiting list of weavers wanting to sign up with malkha, and a surplus of orders,” informs Uzramma. “Malkha weavers are paid good wages, the best of them earn Rs 15,000 a month. That’s also why malkha doesn’t come too cheap,” she shares.

Malkha uses only natural dyes. As a blog on malkha informs us, “Blue is
natural indigo dyed in traditional cold fermentation vats; the yellow is
pomegranate rind with harda; a touch of kasimi turns it grey-green. Catechu heartwood makes brown. All of the above are natural plant dyes, while red, the only exception to this rule, is non-toxic alizarin.”

Meanwhile, traditional block printers are employed to block print malkha fabric using seasoned teak wood blocks. While unstitched malkha fabric may have a count of 27-30, malkha saris are woven from finer malkha yarn with a count of 35.

Malkha uses about 15 colours, and because the warp and the weft can be manipulated minutely, a combination of these 15 colours allows a creation of a variety of designs, though the creamy off-white of un-dyed natural malkha, called the kora, remains a universal favourite. While the warp and the weft themselves go on to make the fabric’s design, malkha also uses the traditional Machalipatnam block prints for some of their fabric lines. Malkha’s artisanal production of cotton is a case study of the ‘But of course’ phenomenon: until someone has thought out of the box and chartered a successful course, we don’t see it. But then on, you wonder how we could have missed out something so obvious.

Changing norms

It was the British who brought baling into the textile-making process. They did it to facilitate transport (or rather plunder) fluffy cotton lint from India to their spinning mills in England by ships. So, they baled the cotton lint i.e., they pounded and compressed the lint to hard blocks for the transit, and again decompressed or ‘de-baled’ it before spinning them into yarn in their mills. “The baling takes away cotton’s natural springiness, while the unbaling takes away its strength and colour retention. We have been blindly following the colonial process just because our spinning mills were modelled on theirs,” explains Uzramma.

India’s economy and culture have been entwined with the brilliant fabric and varieties of cotton we spun. India was the largest cotton producer in the world even in the early 19th century and cornered over 50% of the world’s textile export market. “Now, in India, we grow only American cotton having lost sight of the incredible varieties we had been growing for centuries. For instance, the naturally red-hued Yerrapthi cotton variety was not a rare sight in the Indian countryside. I once had a Yerrapthi sari as a young girl but gave it away to a maid. I didn’t realise how precious it was,” she says.

It feels strange to know that at one point of time India cornered over 70% of the world’s GDP and that much of it came from our cotton economy. Sadly, today, we have lost sight of not just indigenous varieties of cotton, but also the localised ecosystem it supported, with textile made right near the cotton fields. Opting to go local, in many ways, malkha promises to revive some of India’s lost legacy. Yes, malkha feels good.

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