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Is the future of textiles handmade?

A timely revival of handloom is redefining luxury, with machines stepping in to bridge the gap in production. Ultimately, it is a dialogue between the old and the new can that can weave a better future

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

To answer the question of whether the future of textiles is handmade, a possible start could be to ask: Is the “present" of textiles handmade? We have had machine-made cloth in the subcontinent since the late 19th century. At the same time, hand-techniques, to counter the machine aesthetic, have played a visible role in shaping the material, visual and social aspects of fabric in contemporary culture. There are statistics to support both sides of the spectrum.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the debate between man and machine has raged from civilizational perspectives: Mahatma Gandhi’s use of Khadi in the freedom struggle was rooted firmly in its potential to counter the forced transformation of India—from the largest manufacturer and supplier of handwoven cotton cloth to the world for centuries, to a market for British mill-made fabric. In his criticism of the machine age, he was joined by Europeans such as William Morris and others from the arts and crafts movement who had worked to revive handcrafted techniques amid concerns about the trajectory of industrial growth.

One of Gandhi’s biggest supporters—a man believed to be one of the main funders of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad—was Ambalal Sarabhai. A scion of a mill-owning family from Gujarat, he was among the Indian industrialists who had by then spotted the potential of mechanized production facilities for the spinning of yarn and the weaving of textiles. At the same time, Ambalal’s elder sister, Anusuya Sarabhai, rose to become one of India’s most renowned trade union activists, working closely with Gandhi in agitations against the very same mill owners to whose ranks her own family belonged. Interestingly, Ambalal spoke of his support for his sister’s work, even though this must have harmed his own business interests to an extent.

How do we see these dynamics of the past from today’s standpoint? As the ability of different modes of production to coexist? As swadeshi hand-manufacture and Indian factory-led capitalism working together for a people’s political freedom? Or as the careful negotiation, possibly, of the aesthetic values which the two technologies enable?

For over a century now, the inevitability of machines taking over handmade fabric has been proposed as a natural order. In this scheme, products made by hand-intensive artisanal processes are meant to increasingly cater to high-end luxury consumers. We have seen this trend almost all across the world. If the West has positioned itself here as the generator of expensive cutting-edge advances in textiles, then China is the main supplier of relatively cheap, mass-produced fabric for a variety of uses, from fashion to industrial. The first is exemplified by high-performance products such as medical textiles, nano technology, sophisticated sportswear, architectural fabrics for building dams and roads and materials used for space travel. Both are led by synthetics.

Photo: By AP.

Globally, Japan was a pioneer in its ability to negotiate the machine-made and the handmade in textiles. From the 1970s onwards, it has led efforts to invent new mechanized technologies while retaining a value for its heritage of handcrafted textiles. One result of this has been the global success of some of its biggest international brands, such as Issey Miyake, known for their constant innovation in mechanized technologies, without losing reverence for the fundamental precincts of inherited Japanese design sensibilities. Whether in form or use of materials, these are expressed in cutting-edge interpretations of the traditional and the new.

Such sentiments have defined the luxury industries of Italy and France as well, encouraged by government assistance and led by visionary private conglomerates with international ambitions. Investment in the very latest is seen as complementary to the preservation of the old.

These references arise from the aftermath of World War II, which urgently required the development of large-scale industries, infrastructural rebuilding and simply designed, affordable, functional products of everyday use produced by machines. In the Indian scenario, the post-independence trajectory has consistently favoured programmes of industrial development; however, we are yet to assess whether this has been able to adequately address India’s growing needs for employment generation, promoted as industrialization’s main mandate.

Through 2015, handloom activists in India led vocal public campaigns to prevent the removal of existing government subsidies to the handloom sector. One of the reasons for this was the threat to large-scale employment of hand-weavers.

In 1980s’ Gujarat and Maharashtra, the sudden closure of textile mills caused a similar displacement of mill workers, entirely unprecedented in modern India. In many states where the focus on industrialization was meant to create large-scale employment, we have seen that local workforces that can be recruited full-time are sometimes ignored, making way for migrant daily wage labour.

This comes with human costs.

A handwoven fabric.

From the early 1980s to the early 2000s, several moments in India have reinforced the idea that handlooms and handcraft could be of relevance in times of calamity. Two instances were the droughts that hit Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s. In the first, the wall art of Madhubani—traditionally done for domestic purposes of rituals and rites of passage—was transformed within a short span into a highly commercialized product: an art form done on paper and fabric for the interiors of urban homes and offices, offering a new source of income for drought-affected villagers. The familiar Madhubani saris and dupattas that we see in emporia and tourist shops can be traced back to a series of interventions from this time.

In Andhra Pradesh’s Chirala district, the revitalization of handloom production steered a drought-hit region in urgent need of livelihood for its people. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, there was a similar revival of handcraft in Kutch. The buoyancy we see today in the crafts sector in this region can be attributed partly to rehabilitation efforts—low-cost technologies for hand production were the need of the hour. As much as we might already be in the prophesied utopian age of the fastest revolutions of the machine, robots and Artificial Intelligence, it is difficult to be entirely pessimistic about the role of hand-manufacture in a complex manufacturing ecology like India’s.

The reality of Indian processes can then fundamentally be seen to lie between the two extremes, in the infinite permutations and combinations of machine-hand interfaces: hand assemblage of machine-made elements, flexible uses of machines to suit large or small quantities of production, mechanized equipment requiring hand-operation skills and an overwhelming variety of handcrafted techniques which can be accessed within a small network of raw materials-to-finished product chains.

Design experiments over the last decade in Mumbai’s Dharavi, long seen as little more than one of the largest slums in the world, have begun to reveal it as one of the most prolific and improvisational manufacturing hubs in the country. Many of the production activities here employ a mix of hand-skills for the organization of industrially made components, and a range of value additions to final products which emerge from such processes. The access and convenience of vertical integration—say, of machine embroidery in the case of fabric embellishment and hand embroidery, at a certain scale—have the makings of a radically flexible resource that is unparalleled in the world.

From a collection by Abraham & Thakore.
From a collection by Abraham & Thakore.

This is further illustrated by a perspective that fashion designer David Abraham once offered to me. As an India-based design studio which supplies products for Indian and international markets, we were speaking of a collection that his company, Abraham & Thakore, had presented at the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW) in March. Using Jamdani, a highly intensive handwoven technique associated largely with Bengal, a fairly successful network of master-weavers and entrepreneurs in the state has created a system where a small batch of designs can be produced as cost-effectively as a large one. This offers designers in India a pool of creative opportunities for experimentation, sampling and production that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Malkha, a path-breaking method of producing cotton cloth, is another example of the transitional technologies peculiar to the subcontinent.

Around the early 2000s, the handloom sector started facing a massive crisis of yarn availability in Andhra Pradesh. It affected a large number of weaving families; one way out of their dependence on mill-made yarn was considered to be the development of self-reliant units for making yarn. A team led by Uzramma, a specialist in the region’s cotton histories, and L. Kannan, a scientist working at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, invented a new process. In this, the cultivation of traditional varieties of local cotton was linked to mechanized processing which retained the material qualities that large machines otherwise erode. If this is connected with a semi-mechanized spinning stage, yarn could be made available to hand-weavers within the same village.

Traditionally, cotton grown in Andhra Pradesh has been transported to spinning mills in Tamil Nadu. Yarn from there is sent to weaving facilities in other states. The customer pays not just for the finished fabric, but for transportation, which adds up to a substantial portion of the final cost. By creating local linkages between the hand and the machine, a Malkha unit can cut down such costs and enable spinners and weavers to earn more.

The fabric, which tasted immediate success, has maintained its position as a highly coveted product by designers and consumers alike. Over the long term, the Malkha vision aims at developing such production centres across many villages in Andhra Pradesh, while keeping prices on a par with those of mill-made cotton textiles. But due to ongoing fluctuations in raw cotton prices around the world, as well as fuel prices for transportation, such independent formats seem futuristic.

Given that in many parts of India—both rural and urban—electricity availability is limited, the low-energy and minimal capital investment requirements of handlooms could be adapted into a low-cost futuristic technology.

In the ultimate analysis, however, India remains the world’s last resource of the most laborious, painstaking and time-consuming techniques of hand-spinning, dyeing, weaving and textile embellishment. They support—in varying degrees—high levels of artistic excellence. Equally, they underpin, according to government estimates over several decades, the role of hand-manufacture to provide the second largest source of income after agriculture—a means, then, of mass income and manufacture.

It is difficult to predict whether the future lies entirely in handmade or machine made, but we can be sure that one may no longer be seen as the antithesis of the other. It remains to be seen, however, how the two can create a mutually beneficial dialogue.

Mayank Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi-based writer and curator with a focus on contemporary histories of textiles and design.

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