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Indian hand woven textiles are among the oldest known. Herodotus mentioned Indian textiles in his writings during the 5th century B.C. and Pliny quoted Indian cotton in his Historia Naturalis, at the start of the Christian era. Textile trade with China and South East Asia seems to have developed as of the 5th century. Greige dyed, printed and embroidered fabrics were marketed. Each region, even each city, had its specialty: cotton fabrics originated from Rajasthan, silks from Bengal and Banaras, silk-cotton fabrics from Andhra Pradesh and wools from Kashmir, among others. With commerce and migrations, Indian traditions were ceaselessly under the influence of Central Asian artisans and showed of an incomparable diversity, still enduring nowadays. In addition to the richness of its textile production, natural dyes, of mineral, vegetal or animal origin, have been India’s quasi monopoly up to the 17th century, when the first European trading posts and factories were set up in the country.

 

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Indian handloom production became gradually dominant in the European markets to reach its peak in the late 18th century Natural dyes remained a major export product up to the 19th century, when chemical dyeing processes were discovered in the West This supremacy was countered by French and British protectionist measures as of 1820, and also by the production mechanization in the West. Imports of cheap British fabrics and the adoption by Indian entrepreneurs of a mechanized production as of 1850 caused a drastic slump in demand for Indian hand woven textiles. With Ghandi’s Swadeshi movement of the 1920s, which advocated the production of Khadi in replacement of British imports and also aimed at avoiding rural exodus( link 1, link 2) , the handloom sector was revived. The craft remained a regular topic of the Independence movement agenda and the government decided to pursue its development after 1947. Support programmes were set up as of 1953, in order to promote Khadi, handloom, sericulture, and the production of coir.

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The handloom sector provides direct employment to more than 6.5 million artisans. With the liberalization of the Indian economy since 1991, and the progressive elimination of state support and protectionist measures, the craft is facing increasing difficulties to compete with power loom and imported textiles. The changes in market conditions resulted in a growing struggle for the weavers to meet their everyday needs, and the majority lives in extreme poverty with a daily remuneration of 1 USD and has no employment alternative. Millenary traditions are also slowly eroding and a world heritage is in peril.

 

 

THE ORGANIZATION OF THE HANDLOOM SECTOR IN INDIA

 

The professions involved in the handloom sector at the pan-Indian level, with a varying weighting of the different stakeholders, are: traders (Sattiwala, Grihasta and Gaddedar), master weavers, card makers and dyers, weavers, governmental agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and enterprises active in related activities, notably yarn suppliers. Caste and religion are major determinants of the work force, and power structures legitimized by religion are the primary cause of poverty.

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The art of weaving is transmitted from one generation to another, generally from father to son, since early times. This learning mode enabled the richness and the endurance of traditions up to today, and seems still to prevail. The new generations are nonetheless less inclined to adopt the profession, if the local performance of the sector should not offer employment opportunities or only allow survival in conditions of extreme poverty. Apprenticeship starts around the age of ten, early débuts which are one of the causes of the weavers’ children early school drop outs, poverty is another reason. Weaving is generally done at home, in a room reserved to this end, or used for several purposes, which may include sleeping. This organization is considered as an advantage by the weavers relatively to the other employment opportunities available to them on the unqualified work market, such as rickshaw driver or construction worker. From the trader’s perspective, the use of the artisan home for production spares him the rent of a place and related expenses. The weaver’s home is nonetheless not optimum with regard to productivity, the rooms being often small and the families large. Irregular and insufficient provision of power is also an issue, forcing the weavers to stop activity with daylight; it also hinders technological progress.

Production usually starts with the spinning of the yarn, using a charkha, unless the yarn is supplied or acquired spun. Dyeing follows; the operation is often done in rudimentary conditions, notably in rural areas. Azo-dyes are used, containing heavy metals, particularly harmful for the environment, and the dyeing waters directly go to the ground, polluting the existing water resources. Simultaneously to the preparation of the yarn, jacquard cards are produced, if required. After dyeing and once the cards are ready, the loom is prepared with the drafting of the warp, which can take from two to five days, depending on yarn size, design and loom. The weaving itself is often realized by two weavers, function of the design and fabric width. All family members are generally involved in the activity, most currently men set up the loom and weave, and women prepare the yarn and finish the products, if finishing is required.

The weavers are generally job workers and paid by the piece. The traders supply the yarn and the designs, as well as other inputs, if necessary. The loom belongs either to the weaver or to the trader. Advances and credit to the weavers by the traders is current practice and frequent at the start of the collaboration, leading to the weavers’ loss of bargaining power and independence. Traders also have a propensity to review remuneration downward on receipt of merchandise; they nonetheless also serve as “social security” in difficult times and in absence of governmental support, which generally remains inaccessible to the poor and illiterate weavers. Weavers can also be independent, they then acquire the inputs needed for their production and market it; they are nonetheless a residual percentage of the total workforce, generally less than 5 percent.