There are different styles of weaving in different parts of the country, and sometimes in the same region there could be as wide a range as 20- 30 varied styles. From simple plain fabrics, Tribal motifs, geometric designs, tye and dye, to exhaustive art on muslin, our weavers had been master craftspeople. No other country can boast of such exclusive wide range of rich textile art, even today.
In earlier times, almost every village had its own weavers who made all the clothing requirements needed by the villagers: sarees, dhotis, clothing fabrics, towels, bed sheets and kerchief, scarves etc.
Some areas where it is cold in winter there were specific wool weaving centers. But everything was Hand-Spun and Hand-Woven.
Traditionally, the entire process of cloth making was self-reliant. The cotton / silk / wool came from the farmers, foresters or shepherds, and the cotton was cleaned and transformed by weavers themselves or agricultural labour community. Small handy instruments were used in the process, including the famous spinning wheel (also known as Charkha), mostly by women. This hand spun yarn was later made into cloth on the handloom by the weavers.
However, during British rule, India was turned into an exporter of raw cotton and the country was flooded with machine made imported yarn. To increase consumption of this yarn, British authorities resorted to violence and coercion. Summarily, this resulted in a complete loss of livelihoods first for the spinners, and dependence of handloom weavers on machine yarn. When yarn came from a distance and had to be bought, yarn dealers and financiers became necessary. And as the average weaver had little credit, the industry fell more and more into the grip of middlemen. thus the independence of most weavers disappeared, and a great majority of them came to work for a Trader on contract/ wage basis.
Despite this Indian handloom sustained itself, until World War 1 when imported machine made clothes flooded the Indian Market. The beginning of Powerlooms in the 1920’s, and the consolidation of the mills and the high cost of yarn, made an unfair competition that led to the decline of Handloom.
This was when Gandhiji started the Swadeshi Movement and reintroduced hand spinning in the name of Khadi which essentially means hand spun and hand woven. Every Indian was urged to spin the yarn using Charkhas and wear Khadi. This led to the closure of the Mills in Manchester and huge turning point in the Indian independence movement. People burnt imported clothes and chose to wear Khadi.
Post Independence scenario
Post Independence, textile mills and spinning mills continued to function in India. Today, there are many weaving styles that use machine spun yarn and these fabrics are referred to as Handloom/ handwoven while, fabrics made from Handspun yarn are called Khadi fabrics.
Though the textile and spinning mills continued in Independent India, handloom / khadi were given a lot of protection from unfair competition. Thus the fabric was widely used and affordable for everyone. However, since 1985, and especially post 90’s liberalisation, handloom sector had to face competition from cheap imports, and design imitations from powerlooms. In addition government funding and policy protection also declined drastically. In addition, the cost of natural fibre yarn has increased tremendously. In comparison to artificial fibre, the cost of natural fabric has gone up, making it unaffordable for the common people, even while wages of handloom weavers have remained frozen for the past more than 10 years. Unable to compete with cheaper poly-mixed fabrics, many weavers are quitting weaving and going for unskilled labour work. And many have been reduced to extreme poverty.