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A movement need to be initiated by India to bring awareness globally and also in India about the need to shift to natural fibers.
India is home to more than 136 unique weaves, mostly in the form of sarees. Traditionally woven in cotton and silk, sarees are the backbone of Indian Handloom sector that is rapidly being replaced by machines and synthetic fibers.
The current generation of skilled weavers could be the last ones engaged in the handloom sector with the younger generation having moved on to newer industries.
The techniques of cultivating organic cotton, preparatory processes for weaving, the intricacy of weaving styles, use of natural dyes in dyeing fabric and printing techniques are all inspired by culture and region. This art form needs to be preserved so that the traditional knowledge is not lost. Traditionally, these sustainable methods have created their own ecosystems for empowerment of local communities, especially women.
Global Consumption of synthetic fiber clothing is a huge concern today, impacting not only the environment but also people’s health.
For a century during 1680-1780, Indian cloth was the most sought-after fabric in Europe, surging past even spices as the biggest export commodity. The English and Dutch imported a million pieces of cloth a year, and the French about 300,000.
Before the British Raj, weavers as a community commanded considerable bargaining power with merchants. The East India Company passed laws that forbade weavers from buying raw material and enforced selling finished products only to the Company. The Indian weaving industry was systematically dismantled. In 1834, the Governor General reported: “The bones of hand-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
The value of textile exports from India fell by 98% between 1800 and 1860 and the value of textile Imports increased by 6300% in the same period.
The Indian Textile Industry Today
Textiles are the biggest employment generator in India after agriculture. While this is reflected in the GDP and export figures, it has not effectively led to bettering the lives of the farmers, the hand spinners and handloom weavers.
India is home to over 136 unique weaves and scores of hand-dyeing and printing techniques. Of these, around 55 weaves are on the verge of extinction. Although India has a large share in world trade of cotton yarn, its trade in garments is only 4% of the world’s total. Handloom contributes nearly 15% of cloth production in the country, and India accounts for 95% of the world’s hand-woven fabrics.
Although the share of handloom in textile production is small in terms of percentage and revenue at present, it provides employment to 4.4 million weaver families including women in rural areas. If the handmade textile market is expanded globally and nationally, it has the capacity to provide employment to millions more and become an active participant in the $900 billion global textile/garment industry.
Textiles are divided into clothes made from natural and manmade fibers. Natural fibers include cotton, jute, wool, silk, flax, bamboo and hemp. Synthetic fibers include polyesters, nylons, rayon’s etc.
Today, polyesters have a 55% share in Global Fiber Market. Estimates suggest that more than 98% of future fiber production will be synthetics, and 95% of that synthetic fiber will be polyester.
Environmental Impact: 50 million tons of polyester was produced in 2015. Polyester sheds plastic filaments – possibly from daily wear and tear, but also in the wash. The filaments can make it into sewer systems and eventually into waterways.
Researchers found plastic fibers in samples from 29 tributaries of the Great Lakes in the US, in a 2016 study. These fibers make up 70% of all the plastic collected. They are absorbed by wildlife and work their way up the food chain.
Health Impact: Polyester was created in the 1950s, not by a textile mill, but by an American chemical company, DuPont. Chemicals present in clothes can enter the human body via dermal absorption. They can also enter via evaporation, or release due to wear and tear, resulting in inhalation and ingestion.
Being petroleum-based, polyester is also flammable. Many polyester fabrics are coated with flame-retardant chemicals, especially in children’s clothing. These chemicals have been associated with thyroid dysfunction in pregnant women, and interfering with neurological development in infants and children.
Organic cotton is being increasingly recognized as the safest, non-toxic, eco-friendly textile option. India, being the largest producer of organic cotton in the world, offers tremendous scope for organic textiles production and exports. The bulk of organic fibers and textiles produced in India are being consumed by prestigious companies in Europe and the US at premium rates. The global organic clothing industry represents just approximately 1% of global consumption. Out of this, India alone accounts for almost 74% of the production. As of now the use of organic cotton is still a niche market but there is tremendous potential for its growth in an increasingly environmentally and health conscious world.
One of the main goals of DMZ International is to bring awareness and traction for low impact textile creations: natural textiles and dyes.
Our fabrics are selected on the basis of the uniqueness of the weave, low carbon imprint and sustainability from across the weaving traditions of India. Handwoven Khadi, Silk, Hand printed Fabrics, Natural Dyed Matka, Natural Dyed Khadi, Kalamkari and Lehariya will be added to our collection soon. Also export these handspun handmade handloom products abroad.
It would be constructive if the Government of India runs a campaign (on the lines and scale of Swachch Bharat) to bring nation-wide awareness about the many fine aspects of our natural handmade textiles and their health benefits.
As a part of the campaign, influencers and celebrities should be urged to commit to organic-handloom textiles in a way that at least 25% of their wardrobe consists of such fabrics.
Government school uniforms could be mandatorily cotton (preferably handloom or even khadi). Private schools should also be inspired and encouraged to adopt this as a policy. These initiatives would make an immediate impact on the demand for these fabrics and send a lot of out-of-work weavers back to their looms.
Government employees, especially in the civil services and hospitality sectors, could be encouraged to use organic handloom and khadi apparel at least on certain days of the week which can be mandated as Organic Clothing Day. If other corporate companies could be motivated to adopt such a policy within their companies it would be highly impactful. Wherever possible, unique textiles and weaves of each state can be incorporated into the design or uniform (particularly in industries such as airlines and hospitality).
Each state can rope in well-known designers and design houses to take on the role of ‘Textile Ambassadors’. Through their design ranges, they could play a significant part in showcasing some of the most quintessential fabrics of that state. These ambassadors can represent the state at various national and international events and prestigious avenues for exposure.
Every state in India is blessed with its own age-old traditional systems of weaves, prints and dyes. Until now, the onus of creating a market for these has been on state-run developmental agencies such as State-level Handloom Development Corporations and Apex Cooperatives with a handful of retail emporiums. These were successful in part but were unable to muster adequate business acumen and focus to sustain against the rigors of a market economy. Apart from this, scattered individual businesses like ours have been operating in a largely unorganized sector. Procurement and retail sales have been on largely ad-hoc systems. Handloom fairs and exhibitions are the only regular platform for Indian weaves to get nation-wide exposure. In the past few decades, a few large businesses (FabIndia, Anokhi and Good Earth for example) have made an attempt to make textiles from various states available across the nation. But the sheer mind-boggling variety of styles and techniques available make stocking and retailing a major issue for these individual-backed businesses like ours.
To address this gap in the supply chain, one recommendation is to develop state-wise enterprises based on the Public–Private model. Each state-wise enterprise is then committed to creating a lively market for its own textiles/garments on a national and international scale. This enterprise should be entirely committed to natural textiles and therefore it is of utmost importance to create awareness and demand in the fashion circles of the world.
Apart from active involvement from the government, individual designers, corporations and experts from the textile industry can make a meaningful contribution through the following initiatives:
Adopt a Weave
Natural Dyeing Infrastructure
Organic Cotton Farming
DMZ International stands with the Weavers & Artisans across India for Protecting their age-old Handmade Crafts!
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