From the Field Society

New yarn for old threads

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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One company works to bring back the ‘clack’ to Chennimalai

Light streams in to the airy eco-friendly weaving studio in Chennimalai. It’s cool inside even though we are in the middle of a blistering summer. A weaver points to the pneumatic attachments to the traditional looms made from vengai wood (a kind of rosewood) that make weaving less physically taxing. Next door, another studio is getting ready to accommodate more weavers and looms. The clatter of the looms is set to be heard again in Chennimalai. And credit for this goes to Five P, a company that’s trying to revive handloom here.

For generations of people in Tamil Nadu, Chennimalai’s famous handloom bedsheets—chunky, colourful, with honeycomb motifs—have been hugely evocative. They are vivid, versatile and warm, used during the brief days of chill or spread on the floor to double up as durrees when an unexpected guest turns up.

Handloom town

But there was a time around 2008 when the looms in Chennimalai—or ‘handloom town’—in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district began to fall silent. The orders for handwoven fabrics dried up and the demand shifted to powerlooms, which wove faster, smoother and cheaper fabric in greater volumes.

D. Shree Bharathi, who heads Five P, recalls that there were once more than one lakh weavers here, but now there only a few hundred who are actually active.

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When Bharathi’s father, C. Devarajan, and chairman of Five P, watched the looms being dismantled and sold as scrap, he decided it was time to do something about it.

He asked his daughter to spearhead an initiative to revitalise the town’s weaving heritage. Bharathi, 26, was game for the task even though she knew it was not going to be easy.

According to Bharathi, the golden period of weaving here was between 1995 and 2010, when Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, sourced fabrics (called Indira and Linda) from Chennimalai to use in its furnishings range. “The order was large enough to sustain weaving in the cluster and things looked good. But when Ikea switched to powerlooms, it rang a death knell for the traditional weavers who didn’t stand a chance. There were no takers for their kind of weaving any more.”

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When Five P undertook a survey on the feasibility of reviving handlooms in the area, it found that a weaver who has been weaving for 30 or 40 years makes less money than a watchman. “Weavers may make up to ₹250 a day when they put in eight to 10 hours of work. But they don’t get work all year around,” points out Bharathi.

The dwindling number of weavers in Chennimalai are mostly members of co-operative societies that supply to the government-owned handloom store, Co-optex. The stock doesn’t move fast here even though the quality is good and the price reasonable mostly because of a lack of innovation and imaginative marketing.

Bharathi adds that many government sops for weavers are cornered by middlemen and don’t trickle down to the workers. Many weavers have switched to other jobs. Those who still weave are disillusioned and have different dreams for their children.

Savithri has been weaving since she was 15, but she made sure her daughter Kalaiselvi went to college and got a job as a sales representative in a textile company. Five P’s survey found that barely 15% of the weavers are in their 20s and 30s. Manimegalai, a weaver herself, says it is unreasonable to expect the younger generation to take to follow them. “We had no alternative. My parents could not afford to send me to school, so I learnt to weave. It’s not that I don’t like what I’m doing, but I want my children to be educated and in good jobs.”

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.

Weavers, fashion experts and technologists work together to make the Chennimalai weave contemporary.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Back to the looms

What Five P wants to do is to bring the younger generation back to the looms.“What the weavers sorely miss is job security, an assured income and dignity of labour,” says Bharathi. At the moment, Five P employs 25 weavers, and 200 more are on call. “The weavers have fixed working hours, an assured monthly income, job security, health benefits and we make sure their training is regularly upgraded. We undertake bulk orders from various organisations and boutiques and when the demand is high, we call in more weavers,” she says.

Weavers, designers, fashion experts and technologists are working together to innovate and make the Chennimalai weave contemporary. Silk has been added to the repertoire, besides natural cotton and linen, organic certified hand-woven cotton fabric, naturally dyed fabric, denim, and recycled fabric (woven from yarn procured from waste-knit fabric and recycled pet bottles).

Five P has an in-house brand called Nool By Hand, an apparel and home furnishings line that sells online. They also export to Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Designers from Australia have come to study the Chennimalai weaving model, and Bharti and her father would like to see that same appreciation and acknowledgement inside the country as well. As Devarajan says, “The weavers are our ambassadors and we must celebrate them.”

pankaja.srinivasan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 12:04:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/new-yarn-for-old-threads/article19384284.ece

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