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Khadi for a new age

Thursday, October 04, 2018
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From being a symbol of freedom to becoming a fashion statement, khadi has had a long and eventful journey, says Menka Shivdasani

When Mahatma Gandhi encouraged people to take up the charka and weave their own fabric, making a fashion statement was not what he had in mind. As Khadi India’s A Journey to Transformation, a two-year progress report (November 2015 – February 2018), notes, nearly a century ago khadi and products of village industries proved that India has a core strength of ‘swadeshi’ character and did not have to depend on Western products. As the country transited into a free nation, “the spirit of khadi stood steadfast as a core industry, keeping villages passionately at the heart of our expanding body of economic being”. The report, brought out by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, also observes that in a post-Independence era, khadi can suit the sense of fashion and modernity of a new generation even under the immense social media glare and Internet-based businesses. The fact that it is also ideal for our sultry weather helps.

The message that khadi can be cool, contemporary and trendy is not a new one. In 1985, designer Devika Bhojwani had put khadi squarely in the centre of fashion circles when she pioneered a swadeshi label. The garments were distributed through nearly 5,000 khadi outlets. At that time, Devika reportedly pointed out that khadi was meant to make weavers and spinners independent; The New York Times also quoted her as saying, 'Young people now want to wear something Indian and traditional with just a little bit of sophistication, a slightly Western look.''  In 2002, with film star Jaya Bachchan, Devika had also presented an exhibition at the NGMA in Mumbai after spending three years with weavers and spinners to create 109 new weaves and textures. Suddenly, khadi was no longer being perceived as a rough, drab garment that one generally associated with politicians.

In more recent times, as the move towards sustainable fashion gets stronger, khadi is back in the news. “Khadi is forming a major part in the fashion industry today; women of fashion are realising how important it is to lead a sustainable lifestyle and are accepting the change gracefully,” say Priti Jain and Farheen Rahman, Founders of Toile, an eco-fashion house with stores in Mumbai and Kolkata that offer designers a platform to showcase their work in sustainability.  “Eco-friendly designers are working hard to mix sustainability with today's trends. Sustainability is not only a phrase, it's now becoming a lifestyle, conscious women are making sure to incorporate khadi and cotton and other sustainable fabrics in their wardrobes,” they add. They point out that such outfits are pretty reasonably priced, considering the hand woven techniques and handwork put into making the garments.

Deepti and Sweety Bhalala, the designers behind the brand Mesmora, add: “Khadi is a symbol of Indian textile heritage. It is hand-spun and handwoven. The fact is that it is a cottage industry always makes our hearts happy. Khadi with its slubs (soft lumps or unevenness in the yarn) brings out the beauty of the human hand. It is a great industry which needs to be revived in a big way.” Mesmora has brought in a contemporary feel to khadi, with a new range of long ‘easy breezy’ palazzo with trendy cuts and patterns.

Sweta Agrawal and Pallavi Podar of A Humming Way, also have a khadi collection, with material sourced from weavers in Gujarat.  “Hand spun and woven, khadi is a valued treasure of India as it embodies the past heritage and future fortune,” they say. It was in November 2017 that the designers and curators set up a workshop and created the brand’s maiden Khadi collection. The collection, using Indian handlooms in classic crisp cuts, was introduced at the Lakme Fashion Week Summer Resort ’18.  The silhouettes encompass a range of styles from fitted jackets, pants, long and short dresses and co-ords.

The khadi industry was in the doldrums for many decades but its production and sales have been going up steadily between 2004-2005 and 2016-2017 after a long slump. In recent years, beyond fashion, khadi has also emerged as the most sustainable fabric in the world. So much so that large textile conglomerates like the Arvind Group have been promoting khadi denim around the world.

In 2017, Arvind signed an agreement with the Khadi and Village Industries Board (KVIC), the official owners of the ‘Khadi’ trademark to promote Khadi denim. In its modern avatar, presented by Arvind Limited, Khadi retains its original values of being the most sustainable fabric in the world. The hand-spun yarn is hank-dyed in organic indigo dyes, and then woven on handlooms into fashionable denim. Arvind engages entire communities of artisans in the production of modern Khadi. Arvind had announced at the time of signing of the agreement with KVIC that it plans to source a million metres of Khadi denim from KVIC.

According to the official figures from the KVIC report, average khadi production grew from 6.52% (2004 – 2014) to 26.43% between 2015 to February 2018. Between 2015 and February 2018, the number of khadi sales outlets funded for modernisation grew from nil in the period from 2004 – 2014 to 728 in the post 2015 years. Conscious efforts to boost the sector have made a difference; in Shivadaspur, near Jaipur in Rajasthan, for instance, the Khadi Centre that had been started in 1958 had become dysfunctional in 2001. The dilapidated building with its wasted facilities was finally revived in 2017, when 50 charkhas, 20 looms, 10 sewing machines, 30 solar charkhas, and five solar looms were installed, along with a training centre and the creation of 150 jobs.

The move towards khadi as a fashion statement may still take a while, though the acceptance has been increasing. As Pradnya P. Ambre and Sugandha Lad point out in the International Research Journal of Engineering and Technology (July -2017), “Though it is remembered as a fabric of freedom, it is still perceived as unfashionable by many, especially youth. Acceptance of khadi as fashion fabric by well-known fashioners like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, has forced youth to take note of khadi fabric.” Their survey of teenagers led them to observe, however, that “khadi can no more be neglected and it is soon becoming a fashion symbol.”

So long as contemporary khadi garments remain in the designer realm, however, they may remain out of reach for the average buyer. Stylish options must be made available at prices that don’t hurt; that is when khadi will go mainstream.

Sweta Agrawal

Entrepreneur & Curator, A Humming Way

“Khadi – The word conjures up the images of Mahatma Gandhi and the swadeshi movement led by him. It’s associated with India’s freedom struggle. Khadi has always had a very special place which is a metaphor of freedom, empowerment  equality—now that’s the history of the fabric.

But the versatility of the fabric is how practical and usable it is in today’s world when we are fighting with the problems of leaving a carbon food print on our environment and I mean fabric being the second most garbage the world is dealing with right now so sustainable fabric like khadi makes its way in today’s fashion world.

Awareness towards our sustainability has been the main point for designers in the fashion world among today’s youth. When it comes to sustainability, how beautifully khadi has come around and claimed its position as the strongest amongst all the other sustainable fabrics!

The versatility of khadi is that apart from being hand-spun and hand-woven, reusable and recyclable, and soft on Mother Earth it is also today’s designers favourite as the tenacity of the fabric makes it possible to use it in various ways and techniques.

We work with khadi because it gives us immense satisfaction as it helps us to support two major causes – Sustainability, and helping us in supporting the coexistence of our workers and artisans with a fair page cycle, helping and nurturing our historical fabric

Today’s generation wears this because it brings a sense of comfort, which has made it a must-have for modern women of India. The basic trait of good khadi fabric is that it is warm in winters and cool in summers, is very low maintenance and the fabric is strong enough to sustain our fabric manipulation. A HUMMING WAY works with a lot of fabric manipulation, and this concept is rare with organic fabric, but khadi can really sustain it  and gives a beautiful result with our experimentation.”

Short takes

  • Though khadi has been associated with Mahatma Gandhi and freedom, it has been made contemporary by modern designers.
  • In an age where sustainability has become a major issue, khadi offers an eco-friendly option that is sturdy enough to allow for creative experimentation.
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