From Yarn to Yardage

Seventy years after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, textile designers on why khadi — his adopted fabric — needs to go beyond the barriers of subsidies, and work towards collaboration

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: January 30, 2018 12:05:18 am
Mahatma Gandhi's handmade Khadi A khadi creation by Rajesh Pratap Singh

Khadi, by definition, is an ode to the handmade. In 1921, when Mahatma Gandhi stripped himself of all excesses and adopted the cloth of the poor farmer, he pitted political will against moral force. In her book, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation, historian Lisa Trivedi writes about how khadi became a shared symbolic vocabulary that could be adopted by Indians across the country. Despite efforts by the Khadi and Villages Industries Commission and pockets of fashion designers across the country, khadi continues to fight for survival. “The process of weaving pure cotton cloth is unavailable anywhere in the world. At the scale that India had done it, we should be proud. Of course, we need to get out of the comfort of discounts and subsidies. The biggest challenge lies in standardisation, and finding ways to make it relevant to the contemporary market,” says Jaya Jaitly, founder, Dastkari Haat Samiti. We speak to textile designers for whom khadi or the handmade isn’t a fashion statement but a lifetime commitment.

Rajesh Pratap Singh, Faridabad
We have always used khadi. It’s the texture and the perfection in the imperfection which attracts me to it and ends up working its way into my collections. I work both at the fibre and yarn stage, as well as with the weavers. I help develop khadi in newer constructions and weights. We have also learnt a lot from the weavers who work in hand-spinning and handweaving across the country. In particular, I worked closely with people in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bengal. Even a super-mechanised mill like Arvind works in tiny villages to promote khadi and khadi denim, and collaborations like these are the way forward.

David Abraham,
A&T, Delhi
What interests me is the irregularity of khadi, the slubs and the bars; it has an aesthetic value you can’t get from a machine-made product. I can create texture, play with colour, and do short runs of 10 or 20 metres. It’s not mass produced, and that’s what resonates with me. I’m also aware of its political aspect. Khadi may not be a fashionable product, but it is a fashionable word. When you mention khadi as a designer or a consumer, you are saying you’re conscious of the heritage of India, and nationalism; and nationalism is a fashionable word. Khadi is labour intensive and it cannot survive on subsidies. I was told women hand-spinners in Jharkhand are now lined up to work on the highway project because it gives them more money. Weavers must get better wages. Let it function in market rates, and you will realise khadi is expensive. We also need to have our own set of quality standards in the handmade industry to take this forward.

Ravi Kiran, Metaphor Racha, Bangalore
Unlike most handwoven textiles that are geographically specific, khadi is woven in every part of our country. Hence, it is viable for any designer who wants to procure the raw material locally. Weaving khadi was a tool for protest earlier and it’s still a medium of protest today. Though the idea and the reasons have changed, khadi weaving is a vehicle to address relevant issues such as rural migration, fossil fuels, industrialisation, women’s employment, unmindful consumerism, and retaining our heritage and craft. Also, the fabric supports other local crafts such as tie and dye, hand-blockprinting and folk embroidery.

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