A textile journey woven through the world
Words by Jayathmika Lakshmi
The relationship between India and its textiles is unparalleled, with a worth that goes beyond mere economics. Years of imagination and innovation along with a unique abundance of natural resources combined to create a colossal collection of textiles. With the discovery of natural fibres and dyes, every region in the subcontinent developed a distinctive style of weave, print, dye or embroidery. This not only resulted in a range of regionally specific fabrics but also allowed weaving to occupy a central role in Indian culture and become crucial to the development of modern India.
But today the industry is hanging by a thread. Almost every handwoven and spinning technique can be replicated much faster by machines while cheaper synthetic equivalents have replaced natural dyes, making them impractical for commercial use. Additionally, competition from global industries and the consumer’s continuous craving for fast fashion have further worsened the condition of the industry.
Nevertheless the humble handwoven and printed industry has survived, adapted and innovated their skills and continue to be revered globally.
“Fashion history is incomplete without India and the never-ending inspiration and workmanship it has provided,” says Indian textile revivalist and fashion historian Mayankraj Singh.
Indeed, from the middle ages to the 19th century, Indian textiles were some of the most sought-after global commodities. “The documentation of Indian textiles began during the Indus Valley civilisation and has continued till today,” explains Singh. “Some of the earliest Indian imports included textiles, which left the rest of the world in awe of handmade fabrics.”
Records show indigo being exported to the entire Middle east as far back as 712AD. Fine Indian cotton and silk fabric imports were discovered in Southeast Asia in 850AD. In 1502, Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama visited Kenya and was presented a white bed cover with the most intricate needlework, which was made in Bengal. Admiration for Indian fabrics travelled across the world and when the Europeans sailed to India in the 15th century in search of spices, textiles quickly became their most valuable import in the region.
The Portuguese who were the first European settlers in India, began importing large quantities of woven cotton, silk and embroidered fabrics. They were soon followed by Dutch traders, who arrived in the early 17th century, to the South-eastern region of the country and set up textile warehouses along the Coromandel coast. Finally, the English East India Company arrived in the 18th century and took over the Dutch trading centres. A variety of textiles were exported, including elaborately embroidered Kantha quilts, which combined geometric designs with mythological scenes as well as ordinary checked handkerchiefs.
“Throughout time, India has been instrumental in contributing to the textile arts. While Europe was clad in bulky wool, Indians had mastered the art of weaving airy cottons and silks,” explains Singh. "Whether it was elegant Dhakai Mulmul in 18th century France, brocades in Elizabethan England or rich tissues in the 19th century, Indian textiles would always create a stir upon reaching foreign shores.”
Amongst the many fabrics that were introduced in the European markets, chintz quickly became the favourite, with about a million pieces of fabric being imported yearly. The woven, printed or painted cotton cloth became one of the country’s finest creations. While it initially had Indian and Mughal designs, the fabric was later developed to suit international markets by combining Western and Southeast Asian elements. The reasonably priced, richly patterned and radiantly coloured textile was desired by people of all classes and became fashionable as both dress material as well as furnishing.
But the rising demand became a worry for English and French mills as they couldn’t replicate the fabric and bans were subsequently declared on the import of Indian chintz in both countries. Despite the ban, traders continued to smuggle and sell the fabric until the mid 1700s when European mills discovered ways to replicate chintz. Around the same time many developments were being made in England, which lead to the industrial revolution and reduced the Indian textile trade immensely. By the mid 19th century, India was reduced to supplying raw materials to British mills, while printed cotton fabrics were being sent from England to India. Apart from designs which imitated Indian prints, British patterns like houndstooth were introduced to the Indian consumer.
Between the mid 19th century to the early 20th century, the amount of fabric woven in India fell by 40% and weavers suffered unable to compete with the price and quality of British cloth. Around the same time industrialisation began in India and textile mills were set up in Bombay and Ahmedabad. This further deprived weavers of jobs and finally with the second World War, the Indian textile trade was suspended. Since the 1980s, the country has lost a number of textile skills, while some have completely dematerialised from their original place of manufacture.
However in spite of the decline in skills a number of textile processes are still carried out in the country today, continuing to impress globally whilst remaining an indispensable craft to Indian fashion. The success of industrialisation in India led to a revival in local fashion as businesses started to dismiss British fabrics.
Today a number of Indian textile markets exist across the country that are competing with fast fashion brands and urban markets, which sell a uniform range of mill-made material. “Ever since the fashion revival, there has been a surge in the number of talented artists due to the increasing demand. Additionally, through social media, more and more artists are finding a footing in the market.” says Singh. “I strongly believe that with the amount of talent we have in the country, it’s hard not to find a skilled artisan.”