The History of Indian Textile Production

In western perception, India is often associated with colourful festivals and motley, buoyant street scenes, an exotic mix of bright robes and ornate fabrics. In fact, India has a long history of producing fabrics, including those of the highest quality and most costly in the world. Already the Vedas inform us about Indian weaving processes of that time, and the well known Indian national epic Ramayana and Mahabaratha, which approximately date back to the fourth century B.C., also tell us about the existence of fabrics at that time. Early on, India had numerous international trade relations in the Textile trade, since Indian fabrics were renowned in ancient times and Indian silk was popular in the early centuries of the Christian era in Rome. Cotton fragments from Gujarat, India were also found in the Egyptian tombs of Fostat, which date back to the 5th century AD. During the heyday of the Silk Road, there was a lively trade in cotton textiles that were exported to China. Even today, India still produces a variety of different types of fabrics, which are characterised by different designs and color choices, as well as varying weaves and techniques. Due to the diverse cultural and regional influences, climatic conditions and trade relations, regional differences have developed over the centuries that have survived to this day.

Traditional Materials & Techniques

Handweaving
Indian handlooms are known for their rich diversity, variety and fine quality. They are an integral part of Indian culture, and festivals or celebrations are unimaginable without them. Indian weavers use local myths, symbols and stories to design weaving, while color usage and weave vary according to the region to reflect the local identity. Over time weaves, patterns, and designs have changed, and modern fibres, as well as new machine weaving techniques are often applied today. However, the traditionally important meaning of hand­crafting continues to exist today, with local knowledge and skills passed down from generation to generation. Worldwide, India has the largest hand weaving sector today.

Plant Colouring
Dyeing techniques are one of the oldest artisanries of humanity. In India, the production of plant dyes has developed into a highly complex art over many centuries. Natural dyes are derived from natural materials such as tree bark, flowers, leaves and minerals, which have traditionally been used by weavers throughout the country. Plant dyes are a sub­category of natural dyes, deriving exclusively from plant material. Multicoloured patterns are created through ingenious, multi­phase printing and dyeing techniques, where certain pickle-pretreated areas absorb paint well, whereas other areas that have previously been painted with special pastes, will not allow paint to penetrate the fabric and therefore remain light.

Block Print
For the block printing technique, color or ink is printed on the fabric from a hand­-carved wood block. Records show that as early as the 12th century, several centres in the South and on the West and East coasts of India became known for their well­ printed cotton. Although cotton has the property of hardly absorbing natural colours, Indian artisans have succeeded in producing vibrant and intense printed fabrics. Today, this ancient craft is increasingly being rediscovered and spread to new centres such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Hand Embroidery
Indian embroidery is almost as famous as weaving and dyeing. Over the centuries, specific regional styles have evolved, consisting of a variety of stitches and materials. The area most associated with embroidery is Northwest India. There, embroidery is produced in professional as well as at-home workshops. In the 17th century, the finest Gujarati­ Ari embroidery (hook embroidery) was highly admired by both the Moghul court and European consumers.

Traditional Handicraft Techniques Today

Despite today’s still high international demand, many young people are leaving the labor sector in search of permanent and more lucrative jobs. The profession of hand weaving and hand embroidery is characterised by extremely poor working conditions, without regular salary, pension, insurance nor health care. In addition, the salary is usually well below the minimum wage. Additionally traditional techniques in textile production play only a minor role, because they are often replaced by industrialised production processes and the use of chemical products. Today dyes are for example predominantly dyed with chemical dyes, which has catastrophic effects on humans and the environment.

Our Goals

A central concern of NILAM is the protection and promotion of traditional Indian handicraft. These handicraft techniques are an essential part of Indian history, identity and culture, and can act as a catalyst for women’s employment and empowerment in rural areas of India. With our brand Sita Crafts we are committed to disadvantaged women in Tamil Nadu. Through further education and training on traditional textile crafts, we promote the qualification of untrained women and offer them alternative income opportunities. The products that are manufactured in our Indian workshops will later be distributed in Europe, where we will benefit from the international trend for sustainable and handcrafted products. By guaranteeing handcrafted products and reimbursed fair wages, we can not only support disadvantaged Indian women and raise awareness in Europe for the need for fair trade, but we can also preserve traditions of great antiquity from ruin.

Sources

Central Board of Secondary Education CBSE. 2014. Traditional Indian Textiles. CBSE: Delhi.

Ebert, Camilla, Mary Harlow, Eva Andersson Strand and Lena Bjerregaar. 2016. Traditional Textile Craft – an Intangible Cultural Heritage? Centre for Textile Research: Copenhagen.

India Law Offices. o. J. Indian Textile Industry.

Khatwani, Prakash und Khawani, Prunal. o. J. The Heritage of India. Indian Traditional Textile. 

Thakur, Rajendra. o. J. History of Block Printing in India. 

Tirthankar, Roy. 1998. Economic Reforms and Textile Industry in India. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 32 (Aug. 8-14), pp. 2173-2182.