Pretty sarees, poor weavers: The fight to revive India's looms

Women Weave is a charity organisation started with an aim to revive age-old tradition of handloom weaving and making Khadi fashionable again. Sallly Holkar founded the organisation to help the weavers earn a livelihood using their skills and to creat Photograph:( WION )

WION Delhi, India Apr 12, 2017, 10.29 AM (IST) Zeba Khan

Sally Holkar can easily pass off as a regular fashionable lady of foreign descent but chat with her about textiles and her eyes glint with enthusiasm and passionate love. 

Clad in matching separates of blouse, pants and overall jacket in the hues of blue and indigo, Sally Holkar paints a picture of a lady who loves her job and is serious about it. I interview her at The Lodhi in Delhi, where she returns every year with an annual exhibition-cum-sale of handwoven Khadi products from Women Weave. 

Women Weave is a charitable trust founded in 2003 by Sally which promises of “exquisite product, women empowerment, poverty alleviation and sustainability”. Sally Holkar, a textile specialist, moved to India from the US in 1966 and her story is no short of a fairytale. 

Even after 50 years of being in the handloom industry, her romance with Indian textiles and culture continues unabated. Recognising her love for Indian handloom she co-founded the Rehwa Society in 1978 but discontinued with it after some time. 

Holkar recalls, “After I was no longer associated with Rehwa Society, I stayed on in Maheshwar and decided to start an organisation for weaving that would employ women who are not traditional weavers. So we got a grant from the TATA group and used locally grown cotton to start off what is today, Women Weave. Where Rehwa had used silk from China and cotton from Coimbatore, Women Weave was hyperlocal in procuring raw materials.”

Women Weave today empowers hundreds of women weavers and plays a pivotal role in preserving the quintessential Indian style of weaving cloth. There are various projects under Women Weave, including The Handloom School which provides nontraditional education for students who have traditional weaving skills but no access to a conventional academic education. Sally aims to provide cutting edge training to students of her school so that they sustain the art of handloom weaving and rekindle the dying Indian tradition. 

Women Weave exhibition in Delhi, India (WION)


Finding true love

Holkar fondly remembers the time when she found her love for handloom. She says, “I married into the royal family of Indore princely state. I mention this because this is how I got involved with handloom weaving. 

“The original capital of Indore state was Maheshwar on the banks of Narmada river and among many other things that the place is famous for, it is for Maheshwari textiles. Maheshwari was blessed and sponsored by Rani (Queen) Ahilya Devi Holkar in the late 18th century. My husband, Richard Holkar (son of a Maharaja of Indore) and I wanted to revive the dying tradition of handloom weaving and that’s how it all started.”

Weaving cotton and lives together

When we start discussing fabrics, she shows me around a display of handwoven sarees, suits, scarves and what nots at the exclusive exhibition. Indian handloom textile enjoys a certain privilege in the hands of a textile connoisseur but is often misunderstood by the general mass. 

Breaking myths, Holkar explains,“This particular product we produce is called Khadi like any other Khadi in the market. But it is not Khadi theoretically because it is not completely handspun. It is semi-mechanised and most of us who are in Khadi business use semi-mechanised spinning processes which give you a very beautiful result. They are small yet powerful hand powered machines which don’t use electricity. So they are environment-friendly. You can do it anywhere.”

Sally’s story of weaving handloom textile in the ancient kingdom is a story of empowerment of hundreds of women. Besides being eco-friendly, her brand of Khadi helps many of those who would otherwise not get employed. She adds, “The women we work with, the spinners and not the weavers, most of them have birth defects like foot deformation. This process (spinning the cotton) only requires strength in arms, so it provides a lot of employment opportunities. It is just an addition that they can do the job sitting under a shade. I add this, because women who pick cotton, particularly, ask for a job in which they can work under a shade in the scorching sun in summers.”

Since 2003, her brand of Khadi has touched many lives and acted as a catalyst for change. She adds, “In all areas that we work in, women are mostly illiterate, are married off early and have had children at a young age. In many cases, their husbands are alcoholics and wasted. In these households, women become the sole breadwinners and it becomes their responsibility to take care of the kids’ education and manage the house. 

“When these women try to work at home, the abusive and demanding husbands--eat up a lot of their time that they could have otherwise utilised for earning. The Handloom School addresses this. It gives them a place to work together under a shade, close to home. When they come to school they share their joys and sorrows, share their earnings sometimes, problem-solve together and meet their challenges. They enjoy so much together that many of them say Humko ghar nahi jana hai, aur kaam dedo. (We don’t want to go home, give us more work.)”

Handloom weave vs. Fast fashion

With innovation and newer technologies taking centre stage, it’s the age of fast fashion. Fashion designers hustle every season to come up with something new for their clients. While the pace of Indian fashion industry has also picked up in terms of design, production and use of innovative cloth materials, there are those like Sally Holkar who are working hard to make the Indian handloom textile “a thing of fashion”. 

When I ask her about the current state of handloom, Holkar affirms, “Handloom is threatened and it is so, for many reasons. Handloom cannot compete with the volume that fast fashion requires. it cannot meet deadlines. Handloom happens in rural India so the logistics of getting the yarn out and getting the finished products do not meet the demands of fast fashion--this is why we started The Handloom School. 

Handloom has to move way upmarket to survive. It has to do things that aren't necessarily very ethnic looking or even recognisable as handloom. We need to do something that can only be done affordably, in short runs by hand

“I feel that handloom has to move way upmarket to survive. Handloom has to do things that aren't necessarily very ethnic looking or even recognisable as handloom. We need to do something that can only be done affordably, in short runs by hand--by people living in low cost areas of India.

“To stay relevant handloom must do short runs, make very complex beautiful cloth, create bespoke design garments and sell at an affordable price. There is no alternative--otherwise the only other option is to invest in power looms and big mills. But these have limitations as you have to design a minimum 1000 metre piece of one design. On the other hand, in handloom you can make a 25 metres piece of one design and swiftly change to another design.”

Handwoven textiles from Women Weave (WION)


Future of handloom

During our conversation when I ask Sally how hopeful she is for the handloom, she happily says, “There is something very positive about this generation. Many find us on our website, and those who approach us and want to work with us are eco-friendly aware, sustainability aware, truth-in-advertising aware. Today people are particularly interested in three things: natural dye fibers, natural dyes and women. This sentiment is shared by people across the globe.”

Discussing her clientele, she says, “We have very good clients in India and have more diverse clients abroad. These people have not grown up hearing about handloom or experimenting with it, so they are naturally more enthusiastic about it.”

At Women Weave, Holkar and group want to change the way regular weavers are compensated for their work. With the line of weavers failing to sustain the age-old tradition of weaving and giving up on their learned skills, Holkar is working to make the handloom powerful again. 

Adding to this she says, “We are providing the skills, market linkages, designs and raw materials to weave at The Handloom School. After they graduate from the school, we put the weavers directly in touch with the end-buyer, cutting the middleman completely. Middleman otherwise takes the lion's share of any price of the handloom that is bought. The weaver has no leverage or bargaining power, because there are too many of them and they also don't know where to sell. This way we create a win-win situation.”

I want these women (weavers) to weave bespoke, high-end cloth which will fetch them good price and give them access to niche markets to service. Fashion is a very fickle friend. One day it’s about prints, next day its embroidery and the very next day it’s hand weave; so I tell them that you have to create such a quality product that it’s always in demand

The Handloom School is a blessing for weavers who want to grow big in this field. Holkar adds, “I want these women to weave bespoke, high-end cloth which will fetch them good price and give them access to niche markets to service. Fashion is a very fickle friend. One day it’s about prints, next day its embroidery and the very next day it’s hand weave; so I tell them that you have to create such a quality product that it’s always in demand.”

In making the weavers competitive, The Handloom School also equips them with know-how of the latest technology. Holkar says, “Everyone you meet on the street is on whatsapp. So we are teaching them to do the weaving business on whatsapp. They are learning how to use laptops to sell on Facebook and Instagram. It’s a new world for them.”

Sally's work goes much beyond just glamour. Her women force at Women Weave are her true strength. “When they do well, it will inspire them to stay in this business. They will earn more than they could ever earn while weaving on their own. 

Towards the end of the discussion, Sally is sought after by a man and a woman. The woman is from Antar Agni, a handloom label that works closely with Women Weave, while the man is a regular weaver who has come to meet Sally for the first time. He wants to join her group of weavers and learn with the team. 

By this time, the exhibition is bustling with people who are swooning over the beautiful clothes, and I pack my stationery to buy myself a golden coloured Maheshwari dupatta.