A small weavers society in Kerala has been applying traditional knowledge of Ayurvedic dyeing with herbs to produce, what are being called, medical clothing. Sudha Passi writes about the initiative.


Even as smart technical textiles with anti-microbial properties are facing serious sustainability issues, a group of weavers in Kerala is charting a new chapter in sustainable textiles by making their own version of medicinal cloth by applying traditional knowledge of Ayurvedic dyeing with herbs.


The Thiruvananthapuram-based Handloom Weavers Development Society (HLWDS) produces and markets medicinal cloth under the brand Ayurvedic handloom. Clothing items like shirts, sarees, shawls, leggings, mundus (traditional lungi or wraparound for men) and bedsheets are infused with medicinal properties to facilitate recovery or prevention of various ailments such as arthritis, rheumatism, asthma, itching and psoriasis by dyeing the fabric or yarn with specific herbs.


Organic and medicinal

These are completely organic textiles with no application of chemical dyes or toxic irritants, and are fully biodegradable. Specific dyes and herbs are used to infuse a fabric for protection against a particular affliction. Thus, there here are special clothes for rheumatism, blood pressure, diabetes, psoriasis, itch, asthma, and also for reducing tension, the society claims. Up to 50 medicinal herbs could be used in a particular dye.


"More than 1,000 different kinds of herbs such as turmeric, aloe vera, neem, tulsi (basil), saffron, henna, etc are used in the production of dyes," says Rajan, dyeing technician at HLWDS, adding the society has a production capacity of 1,000 kg dyes per day. The herbs are collected by local tribals from forests in the region. For instance, the main herbs used in dye for the treatment of arthritis are curry leaves and apocynceae. To treat skin diseases, turmeric, neem and sandalwood are used. Dyes to treat diabetes contain Mimosa pudica (touch-me-not), cumin seeds, champa flower and shoe flower (hudahal).


The concept of medicinal cloth is part of Ayurvedic treatment, wherein the skin is exposed to medicinal herbs infused into clothing, matting or bedding of a patient. On coming in contact with the skin, the herbs from the fabric are absorbed into the body and can help in healing a broad range of diseases such as diabetes, skin infections, asthma, arthritis, and hypertension. Wearing medicinal cloth is also known to strengthen the immune system.


Experiments on the use of medicinal cloth conducted by Ayurveda College in Thiruvanathapuram found encouraging results in case of patients suffering from various skin diseases, arthritis, and blood pressure. According to Dr Vishwanathan, the former dean of the Drug Research Department at Ayurveda College, the results were "remarkably good" especially in the cases of arthritis and skin diseases. Following the positive results, the Kerala government granted HLWDS? 2.5 lakh for further research in healing properties of the medicinal textiles.