It struck me the other day that there are two things that are part of my life that epitomize two aspects of modern life that seem to be diametrically opposed. Mass-produced and disposable versus hand-produced and sustainable. Both feature strongly in my life and pull in opposite directions
Following on from an inspiring and uplifting webinar hosted by Khadi London https://khadi.london/, I have to face the contradictions inherent in the two sides of my life. My day job for the past 25 years working in TV Costume and then in my more recent adventures with hand-produced textiles in India. The webinar focused on the progress being made by small enterprises in India to popularise khadi with a younger age group and to make it a more practical choice in terms of price and accessibility. We heard about Farm to Fashion enterprises where indigenous varieties of cotton are being reintroduced with much success. https://www.instagram.com/p/CFkTgzupPog/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet
A Quick Background on Cotton Production in India
For generations, unsuitable varieties of cotton for the Indian climate and their local soils were foisted on farmers by the British in colonial times, with often disastrous results. They went to extraordinary lengths in attempting to grow a long staple, or long length of fibre cotton that the new spinning mills, established by the British in India in the 19th century could use in their machines. The indigenous short staple cotton that was grown at the time in the cotton growing regions of India, was great at being drought resistant and pest resistant to some extent, but the fibres had to be hand spun on the Charkha or spinning wheel and were not suitable for the new spinning machines in the mills of India . However, these and other interventions in Indian cotton cultivation and production ended up in disaster for the lives of millions of Indians and the whole of the Indian cotton industry. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of cotton in India you must read:
https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/34419315-a-frayed-history A Frayed History, The Journey of Cotton In India by Meena Menon and Uzramma. It’s a fascinating read.
Recent Cotton History
In more recent times GM modified seeds of long-staple American variety have been forced on farmers by the Indian government in an attempt to stamp out pests that attacked these non-indigenous varieties. As these seeds are sterile, rather than being able to collect the seeds and use them for the next crop as they had always done in the past, the farmers are forced to buy fresh seed, usually on credit, from a local agent. If there’s been a drought or other reasons for a poor harvest, then the farmer won’t have enough cotton to sell to be able to pay back the credit he took out to pay for the seeds. This has resulted in tragic outcomes for the farmers who have often lost their land, having to offer it up as payment for the credit owed and has sometimes ended up with the farmers taking their own lives as they can see no way out.
Back To The Future
Back to the future and the growth of interest in organic cotton and organic cotton of an indigenous variety, with a short staple or fibre. Small rural enterprises have been springing up all over India led by passionate individuals who want to create a sustainable way forward for villages that includes re-introducing a slow way of producing cotton and silk. No power is needed other than the human body and spirit and sometimes a bit of sunshine of which there is a plentiful supply, and rain of which there is less!
The cotton is grown and picked, ginned, carded, spun, dyed and woven within the village or a cluster of villages by hand, with the aid of hand worked machines as necessary. Usually these are spinning machines and increasingly, ginning, carding and roving machines. In order to create enough yarn to keep the weavers busy they need to be able to spin on more than one spindle at a time or employ more spinners – the economics speak for themselves when they’re trying to make Khadi less expensive to buy.
One important factor that affects the quality of the finished fabric is that the cotton isn’t squashed into a ‘bale’ as it would be on an industrial scale of production. Unbaled cotton retains much more of it’s natural resilience and springy nature and it’s softness too, so the Khadi cotton produced in this simple hand-produced way is far pleasanter to wear than mass produced cotton, or even handwoven cotton that’s been made from industrially processed baled cotton yarn.
All these different processes can be carried out in the village and gives work to many people, usually women, who then have an independant income that adds to the overall income of the family.
As you can imagine the resulting fabric carries quite a premium price due to the intensity of the labour and the amount of time needed to produce even a saree length of fabric. These and other issues that have held back the rural Khadi industry were discussed in the https://khadi.london/ webinar. It seems that these issues are gradually being addressed by small independantly funded groups in different parts of India. Innovations such as Khadi denim helping to make Khadi attractive to a younger buyer, solar powered small machines to help speed up some of the cotton processes prior to spinning, fashion and textile design students doing voluntary internships with Khadi enterprises. Initiatives like this all help to make Khadi affordable and fashionable, Only then will it find a place in the hearts of the mainstream fashion buyers.
The biggest irony for me is that I sometimes work freelance as a Costume Designer on a fast moving popular continuing drama series on national television in the UK. We have tight budgets, even tighter deadlines and everything is needed by tomorrow. Our characters portray the lower income end of society, often wearing mainstream fashion that would have been bought at economy retailers or web retailers. The fabrics are more often than not synthetics. The garments are churned out in questionable conditions about as far away as you can get from the UK. The dyes are lurid and far from natural. Digitally printed designs cover the fabrics synthetic surfaces. It’s as far removed from my ideal vision of a new world order of slow fashion as you can get! Yet, in economic terms, this is what the majority of the population of the world are funnelled into accepting, indeed marketed into loving! These fabrics and fashions are affordable even for the least well off in our societies.
Local and Sustainable
Where there are laudable movements in the UK to create locally produced, naturally dyed handmade textiles from wool to flax for linen, they carry a substantial premium to give the producers a reasonable return on the time-consuming process they have gone through to make the fabric and resulting garments. Only the better off in our society therefore have the opportunities to maintain this kind of sustainable lifestyle choice. So although I would love to be a part of a sustainable and locally sourced fabric and garment initiative, financially it’s out of my reach. It’s also certainly out of the reach of the TV costume budgets that I work with.
I don’t have any answers to this dilemma, but the irony is not lost on me as I trawl through the online stores looking for suitable clothes that have been churned out in faraway factories that will suit our characters and not break the bank, whilst dreaming of India and it’s dwindling clusters of handloom weavers, spinners and natural dyers, desperate to expand their audience to foreign clients who are happy to pay the premium for their exquisitely and lovingly created textiles before it’s too late and their beloved crafts die out forever.