Weaving colours of hope: One handloom at a time

- by James Jose, State Outreach & Health Governance Team, UNDP India

Posted July 26, 2022
Fatima's family has been in the handloom business since generations

Fatima's family has been in the handloom business since generations

UNDP India

Fatima pats away her grandchild’s hand as she gives the Charkha another whirl. Her grandchild marvels as she sees the string from the yarn get rolled into a bobbin that keeps going up like a small tower. The red-coloured bundle of string dyed naturally sits next to several others, ready to be spun into a beautiful shawl.

"This red colour is from the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). You won't get such soothing yet bright colours from chemicals. We make our dyes," explains Fatima as she untangles a thread.

Fatima’s family has been in the handloom weaving business for generations. Nestled in Shankarpur, a village 25 km from the heart of Dehradun city, their small business spins and weaves beautiful garments of naturally dyed wool, cotton, and other fibres that often adorn the collections of top fashion labels across the country.

However, the vibrant handloom business has suffered in recent years with the advent of power looms and modern manufacturing equipment that churns out garments faster. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation with demand plummeting and disruptions in the supply chain, dealing a double blow to small businesses such as Fatima's.

Thousands of weavers like Gulzar have suffered the brunt of the pandemic

Thousands of weavers like Gulzar have suffered the brunt of the pandemic

UNDP India

“The pandemic affected our business more than others. Demand fell severely, and whatever orders trickled through could not be met because quality natural fibres were scarce to find due to the lockdown,” shares Fatima’s son Gulzar who manages the business.

Indian handlooms are known globally for their fine craftsmanship. A hand-crafted garment holds the allure of having been spun with great care, which demands a premium over factory-made products. However, in the age of fast fashion, this has resulted in little returns for the weavers’ labour of love.

"Several families in our village used to work in handlooms, but they all took up different jobs over the years. We could not compete with big brands, and our designs are traditional. Consumers these days always want something new," adds Gulzar Ahmed, Fatima's husband.

 

For the handlooms sector, it is also difficult to match the marketing power and acumen that bigger clothing and apparel brands have access to, resulting in consumers moving towards branded clothing.

A census of handlooms conducted in 2019-20 revealed that the total number of weavers declined by 19 percent in just one decade, from about 4.33 million in 2009-10 to 3.52 million in 2019-20. 

To build resilience of the traditional small handloom businesses and enable those whose livelihoods were severely disrupted, the Uttarakhand State Rural Livelihood Mission, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), implemented a pilot project, 'natural fibre value chain strengthening initiative.'

Under the project, clusters of handloom weavers are trained on incorporating new designs and expanding their product ranges while retaining the unique selling proposition, i.e., the natural fibres dyed in organic-coloured dyes woven using traditional skills and techniques developed over generations.

In Shankarpur village, UNDP, in collaboration with a social enterprise, 23:23 Designs, relaunched the enterprise with a new brand name, 'SAHAS KARGHA.' About 40 weaver families were encouraged to take up their traditional occupation. The name is derived from Sahaspur – the region and Kargha – the type of weaving style used by weavers of the region.

The product range was expanded, keeping customer needs, styles, varied use, and price points suitable for the urban Indian consumer.

The project has helped weavers to expand product offerings and build strong market linkages

Newer designs and an extended product range is expected to help small handloom businesses stay relevant in the fast-growing garment industry.

UNDP India

SAHAS KARGHA now offers shawls, saris, home décor items, and even shirts – all woven on traditional handlooms. The colour themes and combinations also reflect the natural beauty of the hilly state of Uttarakhand. 

The artisans were also made aware of the various marketing and sales channels such as business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), and e-commerce to expand the customer base beyond the state.

“With new designs and the knowledge to market our product, big clothing brands in metros are interested in our handloom products and designs. The training has helped us improve the quality of design and the combination of colours. Our products now look radiant and diverse but retain the traditional flavour," says a beaming Gulzar.

SAHAS KARGHA is an example of building back better by promoting local and traditional art and livelihoods to help small businesses thrive with pride.

“Weaving has helped my children to remain in the village and not venture out for jobs. We love the work, and customers love the garments – After two pandemic years, I am looking forward to this festive season;  hope business soars,” says a proud Fatima with a twinkle in her eye.