What is killing our weavers ? Some interesting facts ..

While Indian handlooms are being celebrated the world over, back home in Andhra Pradesh, weaver suicides continue due to abject poverty and lack of avenues to better their living conditions.

Clad in nine yards of stunning Indian handloom, Vidya Balan has branded herself as the quintessential Indian beauty today. The Sabyasachi saris that transformed her from a fashion disaster to an elegant diva, sell like hot cakes. Hyderabadi designer Gaurang Shah’s handwoven saris that are adorned by the likes of Tina Ambani and Kirron Kher are priced at anything above a neat `1,00,000. Such is the demand of Indian weaves and handloom, that our designers take great pride in showcasing them at Paris, Milan or New York. And each piece of cloth has a story to tell. But dig deep into the tale of Andhra Pradesh’s looms and you’ll find nothing short of a tear-jerker. And Puttapaka weaver Shravan Kumar’s is one such sad story.

Just weeks before his master-weaver uncle Gajam Anjaiah was to be conferred with the Padma Shri for his contribution to arts, the 36-year-old handloom weaver, Shravan Kumar, committed suicide by hanging himself. It was mounting debts that drove him to take such an extreme step.

On one hand, we have the Indian fashion industry celebrating the beauty of the Indian handloom on its ramps, both nationally and internationally, and on the other hand, a staggering number of weavers are ending their lives due to poverty and debts. Despite Indian handloom being at the centre-stage of world fashion, the people responsible for weaving these gorgeous fabrics see no monetary benefit coming their way. Something is clearly a miss.

Living hand to mouth..

Shravan’s story is not an isolated one. Even basic sustenance is a challenge for most weavers in Andhra Pradesh, which is home to around 3,50,000 looms. “each loom is worked on by one family, and their collective income is not enough to take care of even their basic needs,” says master weaver Gajam Anjaiah. “In my village of Puttapaka, there are around 400 families who are into weaving. The average income of a four-member family is between `2,000 to `5,000, per month. At times, it’s lesser than `1,500. With rising prices and increased cost of living, weavers have no option but to borrow money. when debts accumulate, suicide is the only way out for so many of them,” rues Anjaiah. As an after-thought, he adds, “the number of suicides in the past few years has come down though… Earlier, around five to six weavers would commit suicide every year, but now the number has gone down to two or three. And that’s mainly because there aren’t many weavers left. abject poverty has forced many to abandon their craft and look for other jobs in the city.”

Struggle for survival..

Inconsistent incomes and unending poverty might be one of the reasons many desert their skill, but the dwindling prospect of finding brides too has a large role to play. “Today, no one wants to marry their daughters off to men from our village. Understandable, considering another addition to the family would mean another mouth to feed when there is already a scarcity of food. So, in a bid to earn enough to be able to raise a family, young men are moving to cities like Hyderabad and taking up jobs as watchmen or security guards at corporate offices and housing societies,” says Anjaiah. With younger people leaving trade, master weavers rue that the craft is at a risk of dying out soon. “There is no proper water supply, electricity or educational facilities for families in our villages. So, who would want to live here? They are forced to ditch their craft and move elsewhere,” he adds, dejectedly.

Gross disparity..

This gripping poverty that forces weavers to run away from their villages, give up their craft or drive some of them to take their own lives can leave you baffled sometimes. And that’s because the paltry sum that a weaver earns at the end of a month’s hard work is totally contradictory to what the end product finally fetches a designer, after a label is attached to it and the piece is showcased by top models on the ramp. This disparity in earning is something that the fashion fraternity is aware of, and secretly ashamed of even. designer Shashikant Naidu whose design philosophy revolves around Andhra weaves, is one such designer who admits that the situation is dismal and longs do something about it. “Let’s be honest. as designers we hardly do much for weavers. Designers go to a weaver, pick up fabric worth `350, attach their label and retail it for `35,000. They’ve earned far more than what they paid for. This is something that we seriously need to think about,” he says.

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Weaving lives and future , metre by metre !

“Like all Bodo girls, I grew up watching my mother weave,” Sama Brahma recalls. She is sitting at her bamboo pedal loom in the verandah of her house in Khujrabguri No.2, a small village located amid green paddy fields on the banks of the river Aie in Chirang district of Bodoland, Lower Assam. 

The nearest city, Bongaigaon, is around 20 kilometres away. On the way to her village of 87 households, in some stretches, the sandy river bank serves as the road; in one place, a broken bamboo bridge requires cautious crossing on foot.

In the villages of Assam, every home of the Bodo community has a loom. The community  (‘Boro’ in Assam) is listed as a Scheduled Tribe. Weaving is seen as a highly valued skill in women, and in a prospective bride. Only a few women like Sama have used this traditional skill to earn an income. 

“I started weaving well before the age of 15, and perfected my technique by weaving sala mata kapda [simple fabrics],” Sama, now 42, says. “As I became more confident, I would weave traditional items like the gomosa[a shawl-like garment], as well as utility items like bedsheets. But what I enjoyed weaving the most was the dokhona[which is like a saree] especially with complex floral motifs.” 


In  Khujrabguri No.2 village in Bodoland, Sama Brahma weaves for 6-8 hours a day every day at her bamboo pedal loom (right), and only occasionally takes a day off

Sama has some time to talk when I visit her house, which is made of bamboo poles plastered with mud, and a tin roof. It’s her day off, she does not have to go to the nearby lower primary school to cook the mid-day meal. She does this from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., from Monday to Friday, for Rs. 1,000 a month. Occasionally, in the past, she would also make and sell rice beer. Whatever she wove was for her own and her family’s use.

In the early 2000s, Sama joined a local weaving group called Aagor Daagra Afad (in the Bodo language, these words mean ‘design’, ‘weaver’ and ‘organisation’). It is managed and run by weavers, and was started to enable local women to earn an income from their traditional weaving knowledge. Sama receives dyed cotton yarn from Aagor, which she weaves into fabric. The hand-woven fabric is then collected by the organisation and fashioned into garments that are sold at exhibitions and at a few stores in India.

This work brings Sama a consistent income – Rs. 75 for every metre of cloth. In a good month, when she weaves 45-50 metres, she earns nearly Rs. 4,000. “Since Aagor requires me to only weave plain cloth [without any motifs], I am able to do that rather quickly,” she explains. 

Sama is in the top position in her weaving cluster of about 80 women, for the most fabric woven three years in a row, starting from 2014. Her motivation is clear: she wants to give her children an education. “I feel very sad thinking about my oldest daughter, Menuka, 21, who had to drop out of school in the 6th standard,” she says with tears in her eyes. “Back then, we had no money to support her education. But I will not let the same fate befall my other children.”


Tinkering with the recently installed warping drum (left), used to prepare the vertical ‘warp’ yarn, which is later loaded on the loom. Sama with her daughter Sulekha (right)

Her 15-year-old son Swrang and 12-year-old daughter Lakshmi are still in school. And Sulekha, 18, is studying in Class 12 in an Arts college. “Sulekha is determined to finish her graduation,” Sama says. “And I want to do everything in my capacity to ensure she’s able to do that. She’s the reason I weave so much. I will not let my aches and pains get in the way of her goal. ”

Sama herself studied only till Class 2 (in a Bodo medium school) and no one in her immediate family has a college degree. In her village, usually only the boys have gone on to graduate. So she is eagerly awaiting the day her daughter receives her BA degree. “I weave so that my daughter can become the first girl from our village to graduate.”

After waking up at 5 a.m. and spending long hours doing household chores, Sama weaves for 6-8 hours a day. She is at her loom every day, only occasionally taking a day off to rest. The bamboo loom that she uses has been built by her husband Dhaneshwar Brahma. He works in the fields in their village or in nearby villages, earning a daily wage of around Rs. 300. His income helps with the household expenses. Most of Sama’s own earnings are spent on their children’s education. “I had to buy Sulekha a bicycle to ensure she was able to get to her college,” she says. The nearest college is in Bijni town, around 25 kilometres away. Sulekha cycles the first five kilometres to reach Mongolian Bazar. From there, she takes a shared rickshaw to Bijni. PHOTO • ANNE PINTO-RODRIGUESPHOTO • ANNE PINTO-RODRIGUES

Time for household chores is woven into Sama’s time at the loom; to go to the market and for other errands, she takes her bicycle

But as more and more of the younger generation gets an education and moves on to jobs, Bodo weaving skills are slowly dying out. “I am doing my part to keep the tradition alive,” Sama beams. “I have taught both my older daughters to weave. Menuka is able to weave complicated motifs, while Sulekha is perfecting her technique, weaving simple fabric.”

The demand for hand-woven fabrics has also been growing. “A few years ago, machine-made dokhonas from West Bengal were flooding the market. At Rs. 250-300 per piece, they were affordable but of inferior quality,” Sama says. “Today, handmade dokhonas have made a comeback and people appreciate the effort that goes into making one. They are willing to pay up to Rs. 600, sometimes even more, for it.”

We walk towards Sama’s bicycle – she uses it to go to the market and for other errands – and I say goodbye. While her family’s finances remain a challenge, the opportunity to earn and support her children’s education makes Sama happy. She says she is confident that Sulekha’s generation will have a brighter future.

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DIY – Why not try your hand at dyeing cotton fabrics at home?

There are two ways of getting cotton fabrics dyed. By way of getting it processed commercially or if the quantity is small then one can do it oneself. Dyeing used cotton fabrics that have stains, that are faded or if you are seeking a different color, is easy, if you take the interest and if you know how.

There are a whole lot of household items in cotton that could require a change. Napkins, towels, long-used shirts, small bed sheets, large handkerchiefs, all sorts of used apparel, and if one is adventurous, even the sarees, chunni and your favourite bedsheets.

All that would be needed is getting ready made dyes available in stores, a washing machine or large buckets, a small sink for the soaking and rinsing.

If one is patient and likes to experiment with the natural substances like tea or coffee decoction, soft drink packets, colors used in Holi, turmeric, the beetroot etc. to get a freshness and change in color, one can easily attempt that too.

So let’s get started, shall we?

1. Getting the clothes ready for dyeing

It is always better to have clothes that are to be dyed, clean and fresh by washing so that the dye or color would stick much better. It would be better to leave it completely wet since it has to be dyed and also the dyeing would not be splotchy and uneven otherwise. One must also not use the fabric softener which could cause weak coloring.

The uneven or wrinkled cloth could cause uneven coloring at places. So one should smoothen the fabric as much as possible by hand to get uniform coloring all over.

2. Creating the dye

One could easily get ready-made dyes or powders to make the dyes from stores in your town or city. Based on the way it is prepared and the number of clothes that have to be colored with that color, get the dye or color solution ready in a bucket.

3. Dyeing – in a Bucket

Before completely mixing the required quantities of liquid dye or its powder with the requisite amount of water in the bucket, it would be better to mix the dye with less water than the required at first. This is known as pre-mixing.

  • In a small container put the required amount of dye, and two cups of water. It would be a good idea if a cup of salt be added to the mixture. This would depend upon whether the dye would allow salt to be mixed. This tends to make the dye intense. ( the dye packet would specify how much of each should be in the mix)
  • Now get hot water of the requisite quantity, not necessarily boiling but definitely hot, in a bucket that would allow the cotton fabric to soak and be covered with water.
  • Now add the readied dye in the water. Stir the mix well until you get the color you desire.

NoteUnless specified about adding more color if not satisfied, it is always advisable to try out the dyeing of one fabric and then proceeding to add more dye if not satisfied with the result.

  • Submerge the fabric in the bucket with the dyed water above the fabric. It would be a good idea to use a stick or thick latex gloves almost upto the elbows so that no dye gets onto either hand. Otherwise the dye being a chemical, could affect the skin. Even otherwise the color getting onto the skin could take a long, long time before it would disappear.
  • Keep the fabric dipped in the hot water for at least ten minutes. Then keep seeing whether the fabric has attained the color that you desire. Keep it dipped till you are satisfied that you have attained what you wanted before finally removing from the bucket.
  • For rinsing run water from the sink tap and keep the fabric under it till the water runs clean.
  • You could then even wash it in the regular washing machine and then hang out to dry.

 1. Dyeing – in a Washing Machine

It all depends upon whether you are using a semi-automatic or an automatic washing machine.

The semi-automatic would need to be monitored for the soak cycle and then after the draining of the dyed water, the rinsing till the color seem fast. Then finally the drying if satisfied in the dryer.

The automatic washing machine would go through the motions of soak, rinse, wash on its own with the setting at ten minutes or slightly more if you think so).

In both cases, unless the fabric being colored is large, stick to the lowest load setting.

Described for a semi-automatic washing machine.

  • In the dispenser or small bottle, add the dye as you would the detergent with a little water to prevent blotching of color. Slowly complete the adding of dye to the water. It would not harm to have a little hot water to the dyed water unless the dye packet does not recommend it. Also do not exceed the temperature setting recommended for your washing machine. (We would not want warping of certain machine parts that are plastic do we?)
  • Adding a little detergent (slight not the usual quantity) would help for the even movement of the dye but not that much where the dyeing would tend to get weak.
  • When satisfied that the color solution is ready in about a few minutes, put in the cotton fabric and see that the water level is above the fabric. Start the wash cycle. After about ten minutes put a cup of salt (1 part) dissolved in four parts of water into the washing cycle load. The stirring takes place on its own since it is a washing machine. Run the entire cycle of at least 30 minutes to one hour with the fabric soaked in dye, before you drain the water considering that you are satisfied with the color that appears.
  • Move on to the rinsing cycle. Rinsing complete and there is no color residue you can move it to the dryer and then hang dry.

In both the above bucket and washing machine methods the color used has been a chemical (man-made substance) that has fast coloring properties.

Cleaning of the washing machine

Turn the washing machine on its highest load setting to hot or simply use hot water through manual means. Wipe down around the lid and top, and pour water through the dispenser to clean it out. Pour in 1 to 2 cups (240 to 470 ml) of bleach, plus a standard amount of detergent. Throw in a couple of old towels or a load of old rags and run it through a washing cycle.

Dyeing the cotton fabric with substances found in nature

Making the natural dye

There are very many items found in nature that you just have to look around you to discover the treasure trove there is. Berries, flowers, bark, leaves, nuts and lots more like turmeric, acacia, the beetroot vegetable and so many others.

One must understand that the colors of natural substances cannot be reproduced in exactness, but can come sufficiently close to satisfaction, if one does not expect too much.

Avocado skin and seeds would yield a light pink, as would strawberries and cherries. Blackberries and blueberries a purplish hue, Artichokes, grass and foxglove flowers provide green. These are some of the examples that one can attempt with those substances closest to the color we are interested in. Some recipe books provide sufficient information on various substances like vegetables, berries, nuts, and other food items that we consume to give us an idea what color of dye we can aim to prepare.

How we do it

  • Cut the plant material into small pieces. For one part of plant material add two parts of water. Boil the mix for about an hour. Strain the plant pieces for the colored liquid or dye.
  • To set the dyes on the fabric, you must dip the fabric in a mordant before the dye e.g. salt or vinegar.
  • E.g. for berry dyes one could soak the fabric in a solution of 0.5 cups of salt to 8 cups of water solution before dipping in the dye. For plant dyes 1 part vinegar to four parts water solution needs to be used as mordant and kept for an hour, before transferring the fabric to the dye solution.
  • In both cases the fabric can simmer for an hour in the mordant and then one hour in the dye solution.
  • Then the rinsing and finally drying. The color may be close to that expected to duller than needed. For a deeper effect, the fabric may have to be retreated later again or the concentration of the coloring substance would have to be increased.

Experimenting can be done with some of the substances mentioned below like tea, coffee, acorns, flavored juices etc. While tea and coffee are strong coloring substances in whose solution the fabric can be kept longer for the color to be deeper, the flavored juices may not be very effective but just a temporary change.

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