Mention sustainable clothing, and Arnab Senapati thinks of the women weavers of the north-eastern states of India who have established a rich textile tradition.


We are living in a time of opposing forces. On one hand, there is a sense of acceleration and speed dominated by amusement, fun and high-tech fabrics which are functional rather than sustainable. The other, weaker trend, leads us in the direction of sustainable textiles that symbolise a slower lifestyle with emphasis on quality, rather than on quantity. This finds expression in what is durable, practical and timeless.


There is a sense of contradiction and duality between these opposite trends. It is a well-known fact that natural fibres like cotton, linen and silk or semi-synthetic fibres like rayon and modal created from plant-based cellulose produce methane, the potent greenhouse gas, as they degrade. Even natural fibres go through chemical treatment in the process of becoming clothing. They are bleached, dyed, printed on and scoured in chemical baths. Nonetheless, their negative effects are less than those of synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic. The latter have the same environmental drawbacks, with a more serious repercussion. Since these are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they take hundreds of years to degrade. Hence, it becomes imperative to look at sustainable clothing.


Talking of sustainable clothing, the first thing that comes to my mind are the women weavers of the north-eastern states. The raw materials like cotton, silk, nettle and kauna grass are grown locally. They use both frame looms and back strap looms made of bamboo and wood locally available. Other implements used for weaving are made of the same material. The dyes they use are natural, sourced from indigenous plants and minerals. Their remarkable design and skill sets are unique and cannot be copied or produced by any other method. This makes the fabric unique even while it takes low-cost infrastructure. That translates into small carbon footprints.


Indigenous communities of the north-eastern states have their unique practices related to weaving which are eco-friendly and sustainable. For example, cotton, the most extensively used raw material earlier, was and still is to a small extent, grown in the region, except Arunachal Pradesh where the extreme climatic conditions are not congenial for cotton production. Meghalaya produces a considerable amount of cotton. Silk is produced in several parts of the region, mainly Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Sericulture is still popular, mostly among many indigenous communities.


Both eri and muga silk are produced in the region. Eri culture is an age old agro-based small scale industry of this area. It meets the partial need of warm clothing. Moreover, eri pupae are popular as a delicacy. Men and women both culture eri unlike weaving, which is done only by the women. The transportation of the seeds before and after rearing of cocoons and the collection of leaves to feed the worms are done by men, while women take part actively during rearing.