In Pollachi, a couple fights to create an ethical brand of weaves: right from organic cotton and farmer welfare to revival of designs and documenting the process.
In the room, a loom is giving birth to a pepper black and chilli red sari. The loom clatters loudly; the weaver sits upright on his bench. Left to right, right to left, his hands whoosh in rhythm as they move a shuttle. It is an incredibly complex procedure with punched cards laced together and hung from a Jacquard box suspended above. A mess of skeins miraculously rights itself into orderly strands and, in time, a sari emerges. The threads are severed, the loose warp yarns tied into tassels and the sari handed over to the waiting attendant to be folded and taken away to be displayed.
The drama unfolds in a large, high-ceilinged hall that is the weaving studio of Ethicus, started by Mani and Vijayalakshmi (Viji) Chinnaswamy in 2006 in picturesque Pollachi near Coimbatore. Appachi Cotton, their family-owned ginning factory, has traditionally employed hundreds of women from neighbouring villages. Almost every home in this region once had a loom. But not anymore. Across the country, weavers are abandoning their craft as it does not pay. “There is no more pride in weaving; there is no money and certainly no recognition,” says Viji.
Viji and Mani wondered if they could bring about a change. Not just for the weavers, but also for the farmer who grew the cotton, the ginner, the designer and, finally, the consumer. They persuaded farmers in the Kabini region of Karnataka to grow organic cotton. Beginning with 250 acres in 2006, the area under cultivation now is nearly 2000 acres. Sustainable development is the philosophy of Ethicus and organic cotton and environment its underpinnings. “We were aiming for a circle where each player in the chain was important,” says Viji. (see box). “It was not easy. Most of the weavers were in heavy debt and not free to work.”
Undaunted, Mani and Viji bought 22 old discarded looms, refurbished them and set them up in a hall adjoining their factory. That was the beginning of Ethicus — “An ethical fashion brand.” To give the anonymous weaver an identity, each Ethicus sari began to carry a tag with the weaver’s photograph, name and age and the number of days he took to weave the sari. It was “ethical” because the focus was the welfare of the farmers, the weavers and the environment.
When they were finally ready to launch, Prasad Bidappa offered to invite Shobhaa De to launch Ethicus in Mumbai in 2009. Since then, they have interacted with people like Sally Holkar, Ratna Krishnakumar and Laila Tyabji who have actively patronised the revival of textile traditions. Mani and Viji acknowledge their generous support. Their mantra of “ethical fashion” caught the imagination of a lot of people, notably German designer Jurgen Lehl (“design god”, as Viji refers to him). In the two days he spent with them, she says, they learnt two years worth of design lessons. Two interns from NID who were present are the envy of their less-fortunate colleagues! Donna Karan was another celeb visitor.
Says Viji, “Gaining visibility in the world of textiles is a challenge. Retaining weavers to work regular working hours on ever-changing and evolving designs with fine yarn is a challenge. Deciding to build an ethical fashion brand is also a challenge. No shop wanted to sell our label. No shop was willing to buy the product outright. No one seemed to care about organic farming, sustainable development or ecology. But most challenging of all was convincing the farmer and the weaver that they were important, and instilling in them a sense of self-worth.”