Almost all houses in Manamedu have one long, rectangular room with an elevated platform and a thari, the in-house handloom machine.

Almost all houses in Manamedu have one long, rectangular room with an elevated platform and a thari, the in-house handloom machine. Once a thriving handloom centre, Manamedu has deteriorated from the nearly 400 handlooms it supported even a decade ago into around 127 looms.

The Manamedu Saliyar Handloom Weaver Cooperative Production and Sales Society is a two-roomed office that manages Manamedu’s handloom production, worth around 12 lakh a year. It is through this society that co-optex outsources its weaving work to traditional handloom weavers like V.Perumal.

“It takes us 10 days to weave nine dhotis and a towel from one cotton paavu (bundle of white cotton thread) or five sarees from the same amount of thread,” says Perumal, who took over from his father about 25 years ago. Co-optex pays the weavers Rs.840 every 10 days when they collect the finished pieces.

“Our cumulative earning of a mere Rs.2,520 per month covers neither the labour (generally) put in by both the husband and wife nor our family expenses.” To supplement their income, the couple run a petty shop in front of their house.

There are several processes that precede the cotton sarees and dhotis that co-optex retails: “We (the society) procure the cotton thread bundles from the National Handloom Textile Corporation in Coimbatore and get them dyed into different colours at a government approved dyeing centre in Woraiyur before the weavers come into the picture,” says P.Dhandapani from the cooperative society in Manamedu.

Explaining the following stages, Perumal says, “The thread bundles are then starched and stretched between the paavu vadis (knee-level stone pillars) to weed out frayed ends and faulty parts.” The thread is then spun onto kandus (plastic frames) by the women using a homemade nool raatai (spinning wheel) and kept moist to prevent it from becoming brittle. “Nearly two days are spent in putting the raw thread through all these processes, before it can be loaded into the handloom machine,” he says.

The lack of adequate wages and the dwindling demand for their work lie behind the drastic fall in the number of handloom weavers in the region, according Dhandapani. “Nowadays, many handloom weavers have closed down their looms to take up jobs offered under the MNREGS program, or at construction sites, where they earn more.”

Though the industry witnessed an export boom post 2000, the demand hit rock bottom in 2006 when several export orders were redirected to China.

The surviving weavers like Perumal and Rukmani, who capitalised on the boom to educate their children, are now eagerly looking up to them for a bail out. “While one of our sons is studying medicine in Tirunelveli, the other son, who is a B.A. graduate, works in a private firm,” he says.

Sitting behind the handloom machine that has been with their family for several decades, he says he will wrap it all up within the next couple of years: “It is no longer sustainable in today’s circumstance and now with our sons having solid careers ahead of them why should we suffer anymore,” he asks.

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