From pineapple to lemongrass, Anakaputhur weavers experiment with natural fibres to create fabrics

I recall frequent visits in the late 1970s to Anakaputhur, 20 km from Chennai. The African market had collapsed (to whom the weavers were supplying), most looms in the village were lying idle, and the weavers were in a state of despair. I “adopted” two looms and two weavers and began to explain the needs of the market and the kind of weaving to be done. Soon, they made yardage (calling it Kanchi cotton) with pettu borders, going on to mercerised cotton yardage. They went upscale, supplying to boutiques and major stores till a lethargy set in the 1980s, with the reluctance to weave cotton. Polyester yarn invaded the market, and exquisitely coloured saris were woven in traditional designs, and looked like silk saris. No amount of pleading would change most of the weavers’ direction. The wages were justified, and the market swallowed the entire production. The cries of cotton purists such as me were muffled.

Textile revival

At a recent national seminar for textiles organised by the Stella Maris College, I was reintroduced to Anakaputhur through asst professor Mallika Madhavan’s paper, Intervention And Innovation: Responsible Design. To quote Madhavan, the scene in Anakaputhur is very positive today with regard to design intervention and enterprise, despite the travails of marginalisation and alienation. A village that was humming with artisanal activity some hundred years ago, produced Real Madras Handkerchiefs, which were exported to Lagos in Nigeria. Women used them as turbans and wraps till military rule in Nigeria imposed a ban and the Anakaputhur weavers were deprived of their regular orders. “Most weavers were forced to give up their hereditary praxis resulting in a bare 200 looms left in the village,” said Madhavan.

And, Sekar was one of the minority of weavers who understood the need to retain hereditary skills. He turned to innovation as the next best thing and showed me his first samples of jute saris around eight years ago. He needed to be guided and helped with designs. Much later, he stumbled across an article in a magazine on The Ramayana, where he read that Hanuman wove a sari for Sita using banana fibre. Sekar researched on the subject and extended it to other fibres as well. Inspiring other weavers, Sekar and a few others organised themselves into a formal body — The Anakaputhur Jute Weavers Association, which earned them bank loans and support from research organisations.

Ten years of research

After 10 years of experimentation with the banana fibre, Sekar, along with a group of 10 weavers, finally succeeded in weaving fabric with banana fibre, using it for the weft and silk or cotton for the warp. Regardless of the hurdles of enforced joinery of the threads to make it usable on normal looms, Sekar, with his persistence, has today produced saris and yardage using both cotton and banana fibre.

Other unconventional fibres too are used today. Supplying the saris to a couple of stores in Chennai and Bangalore, Sekar says that their support in innovation in design and suggestion of colours has helped them a great deal. This weaver group has been able to collaborate with organisations such as the National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB) and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Ahmedabad. The weavers of Anakaputhur have entered the Limca Book of Records for making saris with 25 varieties of natural fibres such as the banana stem, cotton, bamboo, jute, pineapple, aloe vera, hemp, sea grass, lemongrass as well as recycled silk, linen and wool fibres, besides others.

As Madhavan observes, the attempt to popularise these eco-friendly fabrics is significantly important in this age of environmental concerns. Government aid or help from NGOs would help these weavers. An exchange programme with The Philippines, where a fabric delicately woven with banana fibre is created, too could be worked out.