Ramesh Menon does not want people to buy handloom from Kerala as charity, but for the superior hand workmanship of the skilled artisans. This has always been the bottom line of the endeavours of his social impact agency, Save The Loom, which is committed to rebuilding the lives of the state’s craft clusters.
“We are not comfortable with the idea of ‘cause or charity buying’. The premise of our work is to upscale handmade to the luxury that it is,” he says.
A fashion industry veteran, Menon began his work at the grassroot level following the 2018 floods that destroyed handloom clusters near Kochi. “This belt had close to 6,000 weavers until a few years ago. Less than 400 (96% of whom are women) are practising the craft today,” he explains.
To help them, Menon decided to move the consumption of artisanal work from seasonal wear to "constant wear" through Save The Loom.
In its latest collection of saris and fabrics, called Vidhi, the agency pays tribute to India's female lawyers. We spoke with Menon about the inspiration behind the collection, the craft clusters of Kerala and how the conditions of artisans can be improved. Edited excerpts:
Two consecutive years of floods in Kerala, and the scare of Nipah virus a year before that burdened the artisan sector. We wanted to devise a plan for improvement. The very first responders to our call to action were Justice K. Sukumaran and his wife Justice K.K. Usha, our founding patrons. Justice Usha, who we lost last October, was a patron of handloom saris herself. We had shared many ideas on developing handwoven textiles to appeal to young lawyers. Moreover, Kerala has been home to legendary legal luminaries including India’s first woman advocate Justice Anna Chandy, first woman justice in Supreme Court Fathima Beevi, and the first Malayali chief justice in Kerala High Court K.K. Usha. It seemed apt we do the project here.
Tell us about the collection.
We spent six months researching possibilities and guidelines, and getting feedback from lawyers across age groups. The dress code includes multiple layers—sari, jacket, ankle length gown, collar and neckband (with the onset of pandemic and virtual proceedings, judges and lawyers are exempted from wearing the jacket and gown currently). India is hot and humid country, many courts aren’t air conditioned, and lawyers spend 14-15 hours at work. So we wanted to create something that is easy to wear, maintain, and care for.
Our primary focus quickly became utility. Being hand-dyed, we ensured that the colours didn’t bleed. Care has been taken that the fabric falls well without much starching, and is quick to dry. The 11 designs are variants in white, blacks and grey. Weaving black yarn is tricky as most looms are dimly lit, and it’s painstaking for the weaver to spot errors of breakage of the yarn. So, weaving one sari took up to three days.
What all challenges do Kerala's craft clusters face?
We work with multiple clusters like Chendamangalam, Kuthampully and Palakkad. Ernakulam district has 11 handloom weaver cooperative societies, the largest boasting 165 active weavers. Most artisans in Kerala continue to produce conventional product lines—mundum neriyathum (twopiece sari), mundu (dhotis) and saris for the local market. It’s a fight for survival and constant competition with cheaper power loom products. Weavers are paid per product and the wages were as low as ₹150 a day when we started in 2018. We are committed to a minimum wage of ₹600 a day. About 90% of sales tend to come from two major festivals, Vishu and Onam, so we are also focusing on year-round product lines.
Another challenge is dealing with the aged workforce, with the average age being 45. While they are generational weavers with decades of experience, their skills are not being fully utilised, and the younger generation is turning away from the profession. There is a need to build social dignity for the artisans, improve working conditions for the mostly female workforce, and make weaving aspirational so that craft can be passed on to the next generation.
How severe has been the impact of the second covid-19 wave on the communities?
The struggle hasn’t died down in the past four years. The floods played havoc for two years. Just when we were slowly heading to normalcy, the pandemic pushed back all our plans. Stockpile that was ready for April’s Vishu festival last year and the bleak sales during Onam in August only added to the concerns. The second wave which, once again, came in during the Vishu festival has worsened the crisis. The continuing lockdowns, containments and interstate issues have derailed the supply chain. Scarcity of raw materials have led to the shutting of many cooperatives, with most weavers sitting idle. Our self-group is allowing weavers to come in on alternate days to keep the cluster active.
Weavers are testing positive for covid-19, and we are extending support where required. Kerala has a robust health system, and so far, we have been able to cope. But the larger concern remains financial support in every way. I don’t see the scenario any different across India. I get about seven to 10 calls on an average per week about artisans in distress all over India, and seeking support and aid.