By Hand: The looms that can lead India

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How is cotton cloth made? How is the amazing cotton fibre, lighter than air, converted into fabric that even today is the stuff of half the fabric in the world? [If bread is the staff of life, cotton is the stuff of life!] From its original state of a ‘boll’ on the plant, the cotton is picked and the seeds removed. The remaining lint – around 30% of the content of the boll – is freed from trash, aligned and drawn down in the carder, draw-frame and flyer-frame which make up the pre-spinning stages; and spun into yarn which is finally woven into fabric. Each step can be done either by hand or by machine.

Then to now: Indian cotton textiles, the prime industry for millennia, flourished peacefully, employing millions in the various stages and making huge varieties. Tome Pires, a Portuguese traveller wrote in 1515 describing ships that came from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast as “worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados, carrying cloth of thirty different sorts”. Exports are documented from India to the Roman Empire as early as in the first century BCE, so much that the Roman historian Pliny is said to have complained that India was draining Rome of her gold and to Egypt from the 9th century . Indian cotton fabrics clothed “everyone, from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman…from head to foot” as Pyrard de Laval says in the early 17th century.

In the West, however, it was the technology of the industrial revolution in the 19th century that propelled the growth of cotton textile production. The success of the western cotton textile industry was based on slave labour in the southern states of the USA to pick cotton and child labour to run the machines . When slavery and child labour became socially unacceptable they were replaced by abysmally low paid work, and as this too became socially unacceptable, the cotton textile industry in the West either closed entirely or needed heavy subsidies.

Cotton textiles in India today: We grow our own cotton and we also have all the necessary skills & technologies for textile production. We can supply not only our own vast domestic market but also many regions and segmen          of the export market.

There are 4 ‘sectors’ of the textile industry that are officially recognized by the State: mill, powerloom, handloom & khadi. Spinning mills are included in the mill sector and it is taken for granted that all weaving except Khadi use yarn that is made in mills.

Mills: Weaving mills today produce about 4% of the country’s cloth. The first mills were set up in India in the mid 19th century to export cotton cloth to England, and thrived during the American Civil War. They continued production for a hundred years, but the inherent unviability of mechanical weaving meant that they could only pay low wages to the mill workers, which led to strikes and unrest from 1928. In the 60s the advent of ‘powerlooms’4 sounded the death-knell of the mill sector.

‘Powerloom’: Has taken over about 76% of the textile production of India. Beginning with discarded machinery from mills, powerlooms now use sophisticated modern weaving machines and outprice the mills by working around industrial labour laws of the country, paying abysmally low wages. Most of the textile export from India consists of the cheapest cotton ‘grey sheeting’ made on powerlooms. Powerloom and hosiery centres such as Bhiwandi, Ichalkaranji, and Malegaon in Maharashtra, Sircilla in Andhra & Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu are notorious for the inhuman working & living conditions5 of the workers and for industrial pollution.

Handloom: The artisan weaving cotton textiles on the handloom has been unfairly relegated to a peripheral status in the textile industry. Not only does handloom still employ the largest number of people in the country after agriculture, it still makes 12-13%6 of India’s textiles and has tremendous potential in the future as a low-energy, ecological way of making a vast array of textiles for wear and household use. That there is a substantial market demand for handloom cloth is proved by the fact that most powerloom cotton fabric in the country is sold unlawfully as handloom.

Khadi: Weighed down by the Khadi & Village Industries Commission, Khadi has drifted far from the local self-sufficiency of Gandhi’s vision. Cotton lint is transported to 5 or 6 central sliver plants which process it through high energy machines and distribute the sliver to all the sansthas in the country. Khadi today produces only 0.1% of our textile output.

Escaping the technology trap: The textile machinery in use today is derived from the failed technology of the West. How do these processes fare in an ecological, energy and social audit? Does the higher productivity per unit of powerloom justify the starvation wages of workers, pollution of the environment and high energy cost?

We need to find a new direction for Indian textile technology that would buttress our valuable large scale hand-weaving skills as the basis of a cotton cloth industry relevant to today’s circumstances, with the least environmental, energy and social costs. Doing this would possibly regain for the country the prime position it held for millennia, and one which is lost – India’s textile exports today account for just 3% of world textile trade.

The future: Ecology and energy are increasingly becoming a cause for concern as the world faces global warming and ‘peak oil’. As public opinion begins to focus on these issues, ecological production processes are rapidly gaining in value. Viability is increasingly assessed not just in monetary terms but also in energy, ecological and social terms. Artisanal cloth making gets high ratings here.

India is uniquely placed in this changing world in having a substantial professional artisan textile production sector making ordinary cloth for everyday use, whereas in other countries the handloom has become a toy for the hobbyist.

Bureaucracy and the political class have long been bogged down in thinking of artisanal textile production as a relic of the past, an antithesis of their idea of ‘modernity’ and therefore something to be discarded. On the contrary policy making should be based on a rational prediction of the future, a post-industrial age in which a dispersed, entirely indigenous, low-energy, ecologically sustainable textile industry catering to both the domestic and export markets will be worth its weight in gold.


In my opinion the State makes a grave mistake in devaluing the low-energy textile process of the hand-weaving industry. The hand-weaving industry provides social stability by anchoring millions of family livelihoods to rural areas. It produces good cloth by working on renewable human energy. Rather than doling out huge subsidies to distribute the electricity consumed by powerloom, the State should bolster the physical energy of the weaver family by assuring them of decent livelihoods – through a ready supply of raw material, and access to finance & markets. Linked to new post-industrial technologies, handweaving could usher in a contemporary textile revolution.