Woraiyur’s heritage weaving industry faces a shortage of fresh talent

Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack. This is the ‘song’ of the handloom that fills B. Thiyagarajan’s days as he goes about weaving the famed Woraiyur cotton sari. Using a loom unit that combines ethnic carpentry with British Raj-era mechanics, Thiyagarajan, 65, is among the last of his family in the weaving profession – “our children don’t want to do this anymore,” he smiles sadly when visitors troop in see the loom he operates at his humble abode in Weaver’s Colony, Woraiyur.

“In the 1960s, as many as 200 saris would be produced in a day,” recalls B. Padmanabhan, a retired weaver who serves as typist at the Woraiyur Devanga Cotton-cum-Silk Handloom Weavers Co-operative Production and Sales Society in Tiruchi. The Devanga Chettiars are a community traditionally associated with weaving in the southern states.

“The Society building (past the Panchavarna Swami temple), would be teeming with 50-60 weavers waiting to deliver their goods and collect their wages. We’d check the saris for defects, and then hand over the raw material for the next batch.” Today, though, he says it would be difficult to see 10 weavers in a week, let alone in a day. The most quoted reason is the low level of earnings, on average, Rs. 2000 a month, for a job that requires a high degree of design and mechanical expertise.

“Most of those who are still weaving are past 50, nearing retirement. Though the demand for Woraiyur saris is constant, we are finding it hard to fill orders due to the shortage of weavers,” says S. Ramalingam, Textile Control Officer, Department of Handlooms and Textiles, at the Society. Established in May 1936, with 50 weavers, the Society had 385 members as of June 2013. Of this, only around 153 weavers produce Woraiyur cotton saris, (80x100 thread count), which are marketed by the Textile Department through Cooptex.

Testing times

There are other problems that make handloom weaving a difficult career these days. “You need a reasonably big space to install and operate a handloom unit,” says Padmanabhan. “People are reluctant to rent their houses out to weavers because they think the unit will damage the building.”

Thiyagarajan is among those who benefited from the Society’s housing scheme in the 1980s to build his home at a cost of Rs. 12,000 in Woraiyur. But with land values in the Tiruchi suburb skyrocketing since then, the house would be worth much more today, a fact not lost on many Society members. “Many weavers have chosen to alter their homes, remove the looms and rent them out instead,” says Padmanabhan.

“It is really sad that weaving has earned a bad reputation among the younger generation in Tiruchi district,” says A. M. Veeraiyyan, clerk and former weaver at the Society. “Youngsters are still showing an interest in learning the trade in places like Coimbatore, Erode and Paramakudi, that’s why innovations in the sector are commonly from those cities,” he adds.

The recent hiking of the monthly assistance from the State government from Rs. 400 to Rs. 1000 has also created a group of experienced weavers that no longer wants to work, he feels. “Around a hundred weavers are sitting idle, because they can simply collect the aid from the government.”

Inevitable change

The five-and-a-half metre Woraiyur cotton sari, priced between Rs. 300-500, is known more for its block colour schemes and geometric patterns than fancy floral patterns.

The pre-weaving tasks, which include the starching of the yarn and its winding into smaller sections for the shuttles, take up to an hour to complete, and are usually done by the womenfolk.

With the craft’s decline, finding asaris (carpenters/mechanics) to repair the machines is also becoming a difficult task. “For one faulty part, I had to go to Jayankondam (84 kms from Tiruchi),” says Thiyagarajan. “These days you will need Rs. 10,000 to set up a handloom unit. Most weavers have learned to take care of the repairs as well.”

To prevent dust from settling on the woven cloth, weavers must take great care to keep the handloom covered when it is not in use. A diluted form of kerosene is also sprayed on the yarn during the rainy season to stop insects like grasshoppers from biting the threads.

Computer-aided design (CAD) has eased the process of handloom production, but it is often cited as the chief reason for the death of the weaver’s own imaginative flourish added to the final product. In 1985, S. P. Subramanian, a Woraiyur weaver, invented the ‘korvai loom’, an attachment that created a ‘korvai’ (continuous) border on the sari while weaving the body of the garment, in a single process. The earlier method required the border to be attached manually after the main body of the sari was woven.

Despite being recognised by the government for this innovation, the ‘korvai loom’ concept was soon made redundant by the automated powerlooms that used synthetic fibres and achieved similar results, but with greater output.

As tastes in clothing change, the thread that binds Woraiyur to weaving is bound to be tested even further.