By: Anirvan Ghosh and Chandra Ranganathan, ET Bureau

While 75% of Zari comes from Gujarat where it's a cottage industry, the rest comes from the government-owned Tamil Nadu Zari, which is one of its kinds in the country. The silk is mostly sourced from Karnataka, which produces 60-70% of the country's requirement according to an official of the Central Silk Board. There are others who are using a higher percentage of silver.

For example, Nalli Silks that does about Rs.450 crores of turnover incorporates a 60% silver content in its sarees, says Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetty whose family founded the brand in Chennai: "The zari proportion for us is 60% silver, 0.5% gold, 23.5% silk and the rest would be other chemicals." And with prices from Rs.6, 000 to Rs.99, 000, demand for its sarees is still strong, claims Chetty.

While smarter blends in the zari are helping producers trim costs, there's a risk to this as fakes abound. "Customers can never tell the difference, and fraudsters are at bay to a large extent," says Palanisamy. This prompted the government to install XRF Analyser machines where anyone can get the silver and gold content of a saree analysed.

A single machine costs around Rs.19 lakh and there are only two of them in the city. This has helped preserve authenticity of the Kancheepuram saree, which was registered three years ago under the Geographical Indication (GI) Act. The GI status means that any saree sold as a Kancheepuram saree should follow the prescribed weight, quality and zari norms and should be woven in that district only. Anyone selling fakes can be booked under the Act.

On the design front, both private players and handloom cooperatives are enlisting the expertise of the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad, and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Chennai, to churn out designs that would appeal to young, affluent consumers.

Arignar Anna Silk Handloom Cooperative with about Rs.30 crore sales last year, prices its sarees the same irrespective of whether they are sold within or outside. Kancheepuram. R Tamilarasi, Joint Director, handlooms and textiles, says that while this impacts profitability it brings in higher volumes to offset this.

"Traditional high-end sarees are still very much in demand but for less formal occasions the fancier sarees are doing better," she says. The fancier sarees are the new designs, of lesser weight and six yards long, in comparison to the nine-yard saree that the bride wears in a traditional wedding. The handloom organisations, depending on their size, have a reach throughout their main customer base, which is Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.

The reason for the demand being restricted mostly to the people of the above states is that people in the northern states want more ornamentation, lesser weight and more intricate designs, something that the Banarasi silk saree weavers are known for, says D. Thirunavukkarasu, Assistant Director of the Kancheepuram Thiruvalluvar Silk Weavers Cooperative, which had sales of around Rs.15 crore last year.

While exports for Kancheepuram's saree industry have been almost flat at about Rs.4 crore every year this figure does not reveal the true picture, say both the handloom associations and the private players. "Most buyers who want to buy come down to India to feel the saree before they spend on it," says J Govindarajan, Sales Manager at Kancheepuram Silk Weavers Cooperative, which had around Rs.7 crore of sales last year.

However, the US slowdown has resulted in low values of NRI purchases, although the volume has grown. "They usually come down on business and won't mind spending a huge amount on silk sarees because they earn in dollars. But because of the job loss there and uncertainty over future there has been a 5% dip in NRI purchases," says Chetty, who attracts many of them. In terms of price, if they bought Rs.25, 000 saree for festivals before, that's come down to Rs.15, 000 now.

But this has been made up for with the growth in domestic sales. And while the individual purchases might be lesser, the volumes make up for it.

The coming years could see a shortage of weavers, something that has started to bite to some extent even now. Palanisamy says that expansion plans might have to be put on hold as the younger generation is not too keen to get in. Some weavers are also selling their sarees directly to the customers, something the cooperatives have come to accept, says Thirunavukkarasu.


They are also migrating to other industries now. Chetty says that the manufacturing units of MNCs located in the Sriperumbudur belt between Kanchipuram and Chennai offer them wages of Rs.7, 500 a month compared with the Rs.6, 000 that weaving a high-end saree would fetch them. Chetty expects production to dip in the future if this trend continues. For now, the existing weavers, with average age of 40-45 years, are mostly sticking to the profession. Some change has come through technology though.

Designs are all computerised and every private player and handloom organisation has its own design unit. The designs are mounted on the jacquard loom-a mechanical loom invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801-that has holes punched in pasteboard, each row of which corresponds to one row of the design.

These rows were earlier hand-made. They are now fully computer aided designs (CAD), says S Govindarajan who's the Head Designer at Kancheepuram Silk Weavers Cooperative. But this technology upgrade does not mean powerlooms will be used instead of handlooms. All the players explain that it is the handloom, which is the USP of the saree. "That is what makes us what we are," says Palanisamy.

Diversification into garments other than the ubiquitous saree is another trend that's taking shape. Silk bed sheets and pillow covers are being sold mainly to the hospitality sector, says M Gnanamoorthy, director, SM Silks. This has brought higher margins, he says, and the company has grown by around 30% in the last couple of years.

Owners like him, who are the present generation in management, are now sporting Blackberry phones and wearing branded shirts, a sign not just of prosperity but also of technological awareness. With several enquiries coming from abroad for their sarees, they can't afford to lag behind. Gnanamoorthy points out that they are using natural dyes as opposed to the traditional chemical dyes. This, according to him, has earned the company goodwill among its customers, particularly the more environment conscious ones.

The shortage of weavers may also be a temporary phenomenon. "With a slowdown in the manufacturing and IT sectors, we see some of the young weavers coming back," says Chetty of Nalli Silks. For this town where hope is ever alive, the Gods might just make sure that the town stays immune to economic turbulences.

Originally published in "The Economic Times" dated November 10, 2009