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When Khadi becomes a sculpture, pants and an emotion

Three designers share how they are reinventing the handspun textile through their designs

Khadi T-Shirt by Shradha Kochhar.
Khadi T-Shirt by Shradha Kochhar. (Courtesy Shradha Kochhar/Instagram)

Khadi, the handspun and handwoven textile of resistance and austerity, has had a long and crucial history in India. But it has often run the risk of being viewed as antiquated and detached from contemporary fashion trends, despite it offering infinite design possibilities.

Some designers are now experimenting with the material to make it more globally relevant. 

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For instance, meet Shradha Kochhar, the New York-based Indian origin textile designer and founder of LOTA. Her relationship with Khadi began long before she started working with it. While growing up, she used to help her grandmother make clothes from seed to stitch. Today, the designer spins her own Khadi on a peti charkha (a modular spinning wheel that folds into a small briefcase) for her reinterpretations of the textile. “Traditionally Khadi is a handspun and handwoven textile. I contextualise it using knitting and crochet; these techniques are often overlooked as merely ‘household crafts’. The knit is easy, stretchy and breathable to lounge or slip on instantly,” says Kochhar. 

The designer’s two-year long project is a sculptural exploration using Khadi. Called Of Memory And Matter, it is “an autobiographical fictional essay where I try to blur time through objects made from referencing intergenerational narratives in an attempt to rewrite history. These objects exist as family portraits, alternate tools and future heirlooms. I wanted the pieces to take up space, be very physical, be documented unlike the stories passed on through families and lost over time.” Her fibre works were exhibited few months ago at Tory Burch and Urban Zen by Donna Karan in New York. 

A common notion about Khadi is that its coarse texture makes it uncomfortable to wear, something that design house Amita Gupta Sustainable is trying to debunk. The brand’s Khadi denim, silk and Jamdani pieces present the fabric in a new light. Gupta uses Khadi sourced from Phulia and Islampur from West Bengal, rendered with different styles of surface embroidery, natural dyes and traditional prints but in relaxed, contemporary silhouettes. Gupta says, “We take Khadi not just like a handspun and woven natural fibre but also as a definition of comfort in fashion, a new way to see the conjunction of the traditional and the modern world. It provides a way to follow a sustainable path while also allowing simplicity and comfort.”

Leh Studios’ Himi, who uses only one name, meanwhile, likes to stay close to the real essence of Khadi. Through his designs, he wishes to go back to the true nature of the textile. 

“We use a variety of Khadi textiles. Our vision is to respect the sentiment it carries, and also show its new facets that we resonate with. We predominantly work with the fabric based on how it functions and falls. For us, it works best for outerwear and trousers as the fit and comfort make Khadi a suitable fabric for both categories,” says the designer. He adds: “Khadi, through the years, has made a name of its own. This often makes people see Khadi as just a symbol of freedom or just a textile, but the true essence of Khadi is in the community and stories the craft carries with it.” 

This is a sentiment that Kochhar shares as her practice also extends to a public performance wherein she spins Khadi in public spaces in New York and New Delhi “hoping to bridge the disconnect we have to the actual process of making textiles.” 

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