Handloom revival: It's in their hands

Handloom revival: It's in their hands

An exhibition at The Registry of Sarees

Cotton was handspun and handwoven on the loom to fabricate a breathable cloth that could maintain form when worn. It ensured sustainable fashion.

But today, with the increased production capacity of the power looms that can produce even the most stunning fabrics, it's essential that the relevance of our own classical textiles be prompted out to the masses.

There are people who work towards reviving the interest in the essence of handloom. A Bengaluru-based organisation, The Registry of Sarees (TRS), enables publishing curatorial and design projects on handmade Indian textiles.

The centre is equipped with a study space and a growing library. It is home to several heritage saris and textiles that are studied in depth — their technical aspects, the skills employed in creating them, the designs they showcase, and their geographical history.

The TRS also provides adequate environmental conditions needed to preserve fragile works of art. 

It conducts regular in-house workshops in weaving modules. The process of setting up a loom involves two basic factors — warping (length-wise) and wefting (width-wise) — to turn thread or yarn into fabric.

The centre also owns a khadi catalogue, which has samples ranging from the finest (300 count) to the thickest (0-1 count) variety.

The TRS has acquired a major part of the eminent historic collection – ‘Khadi – The Fabric of Freedom’, curated by the late Martand Singh and developed by renowned textile experts.

The sarees in this collection are sourced from across the country, and when presented to the public through exhibitions, aid in triggering a wave of enthusiasm in the handwoven texture.

"We have some sarees that are priceless," said Ahalya Matthan, the founder of TRS.

Be it the jamdani of Persian origin that thrived in the Mughal era, or the tri-shuttle, which refers to the third path of the weave, apart from warp and weft, every saree in the collection is splendid.

Besides cottons, in their trousseau are some handmade silk sarees. Through a multidisciplinary approach, the TRS aspires to popularise them among young people.

Indigenous cotton

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the short staple cotton, which is unique to the Indian subcontinent, was widely cultivated. Varieties of cotton cloths were produced with simple equipment using lesser energy, thereby reducing the heat emitted in the process.

Indian cotton was much sought-after in the global market then. While the Manchester Mills was set up, the British used Indian lands to grow raw cotton and promoted the long staple varieties to suit their mills.

Mechanisation of spinning demanded uniformity in raw material, so the diversity of the short staple variety was abolished. This resulted in huge agrarian distress and a lack of pride in the indigenous cotton.

It was a boon of nature that small farmers were able to nurture through centuries. The cloth was produced in an environmental-friendly way that eliminated the energy-consuming stages unavoidable with long staple cotton. Even after independence, we were unable to build on the strengths of our cotton.

Matthan says, "It's unfortunate that nobody talks about it." But over a period of time, with the onset of climate change and global warming, realisation dawned.

Currently, the short staple variety is grown in some areas of North Karnataka although it makes up to less than 3% of the total cotton grown in our state. "Seeds are not available. We are working on the seeds that we want to produce more. It’s still in initial stages," claimed Matthan.

"In the midst of the technological advancement, we have stopped looking back at how our ancestors lived. It is important to document traditional crafts before they are long gone. It is important that we create awareness about the cost of consumerism and the sustainable alternative we had. This is a documentation which will be history for the future," says Aleena Sajeev, design researcher at the TRS.

Cotton predominantly comes in white/off-white color. Certain regions in the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh belt yield natural-coloured red cotton, rare and treasured. "Red cotton yarn has to be utilised judiciously to make it economical. It is used for wefting and the regular white yarn is introduced in warping, thus sparing half of the material so that additional fabric can be made," suggests Akash Agarwal, textile designer, TRS.

Plight in the state

The scenario here is not any different from the rest of India. With the inception of power looms and textile mills, the handloom sector has lost its base. Nevertheless, the skill persists and the ability to combine cotton and silk, with color and texture in a design is significant as it has arrived over years of experience.

This wisdom cannot to be overlooked for any future textile development in the region as it emphasises the need to maintain contact with the tactile skills that have created and nurtured designs. Working closely with the weavers, TRS has recreated the traditional cotton towel (gamcha) into a sari with North Karnataka's patteda anchu weave. Also, it has endorsed the molakalumuru saris by connecting the urban and rural communities.

Path ahead

Despite the myriad fabrics used and the styles of draping, there is a unifying feature that makes saree a hallmark of our cultures. Moreover, the contrast renders a regional character. Skilled weavers can create the most elegant handmade pieces.

Devaraja is a fifth-generation weaver who owns a manufacturing unit in Bengaluru where various silk and cotton merchandises are weaved exclusively on the handloom. "All the raw materials used, whether it's gold or silver for zari work, or the silk or cotton yarn, have to be pure," he stresses.

By collaborating with distinct academicians, textile designers and developers, the TRS strives to keep alive the exquisite legacy of the craftsmen who are capable of giving us a glimpse of their best inherited skills.

The team consistently experiments and innovates to make handmade sarees appealing and affordable. Cotton growing is ensured at the grass root level.

In order to survive, the handloom sector needs extensive support, still.