A recent conversation with a friend made us wonder just how old handloom and cotton weaving are in India. Is it a few hundred years ago or older? Intrigued by this question and line of thought, we did some research, spoke to some eminent people, and some more research. We discovered that cotton and handloom weaving are older than we originally thought.

Interested to know more? Here are some interesting historical and political developments we unearthed!

Indus Valley Civilization: An excavation undertaken at Harappa (the ancient seats of the Indus Valley Civilization) in 1921 found spindles and spindle whorls. This shows that handloom and spinning of cotton were prevalent in those days.

Vedic Period:Vedic literature (Rigveda, Mahabharata, and Ramayana) reference weaving and spinning materials. From the accounts in these literature, we can conclude that spinning and weaving were highly advanced occupations (a woolen thread called “Varna Sutra” is mentioned in the later Samhitus and Brahmanas). It also indicated that the embroidery and dyeing were started in this period.

Mauryan Period:Before the advent of Christianity in India, Indian printed cotton had become popular all over the world.

  • Block printed and resist-dyed fabric from Gujarat were found in the tombs of Fostat, Egypt.
  • Large quantities of Indian cotton and silk were traded through the silk route in China to the West. These materials were mostly exchanged in barter for spices.

Moghul Period:The moghul invaders who came to India in 711 AD were surprised by the variety and grandeur of Indian painted and printed cotton fabrics. In addition to the world famous muslin, they found Jamdani, Banarasi brocade, Dhup-chhaon, Mapchar, Morgala, Chaddar, Rumal, and other fabrics. While Moghul poets have described enthused about the muslin and brocades, historians like Bernier, Tarvenier, Valtaire and Daniel Defoe have detailed the beauty, magnificence and uses of Indian handlooms. Across the world, Indian muslins and chintz were the fashion rage with women in Dacca, Rome, and Paitan.

British Period:The unfair trade policy by the British ensured India imported fabric made in Britain between 1813 to 1830. In addition, they also levied heavy duty on Indian fabrics. However, Indian cotton was a large export item during the late 17th and 18th century to the West to meet the need of the European industries during industrial revolution.

Independence Movement:The famous Swadeshi movement headed by the Aurobindo Ghosh was all about Indian garments and hand woven handlooms. This is essentially a call against the enforced fabric import policies by the British. Mahatma Gandhi’s used the Charkha, the spinning wheel, as a symbol of national regeneration. This set the focus on the handloom weavers during the freedom movement; the combined efforts paid off; India’s freedom movement gained momentum and ultimately led to the country’s freedom.

The past 50 years:At the time of India’s Independence, there were about three million handlooms. These handlooms were of low quality mainly because of the inferior raw material and inept marketing support.

  • In 1952, the textile market faced a slump, leading to heavy accumulation of handloom stock. To help this situation, the Khadi and Other Handloom Industries Development Act was passed in 1953. This body focused on both raising funds and providing marketing support to handloom cooperatives.
  • Subsequently, the All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Cooperative Society was set up in 1955 as a national apex body. Thereafter, Weavers’ Service Centres and the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology were also set up to provide research, service and training support.
  • In 1958, recognizing the importance of handloom exports, the Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation of India Ltd (HHEC) was set up to promote export of handlooms.
  • In 1983, the National Handloom Development Corporation (NHDC) was set up to ensure a steady supply of raw materials such as yarn, dyes and chemicals to the State handloom organisations.
  • In addition, the government also set up the Office of Development Commissioner (Handlooms), in 1976 to ensure a scientific growth of the handloom industry. IT is under this office that the government has been offering various welfare schemes for the benefit of the handloom weavers.

Today:The handloom industry now provides livelihood to over 90 million people in the country. The industry as a whole faces many issues be it related to designs, processing, marketing, or technology usage.

And it is in this space that organizations like Masterweaver play an important role in not only reviving, but also in promoting handlooms and handmade fabrics.