IMPRESSIONS from a Cross-section


Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, what is the road ahead for the handloom sector?

Strike a balance between handmade in India and 'Make in India'
As the pandemic rages on, fashion designers from the industry discuss ways in which the handloom industry can survive and face the challenge.

The handloom industry was always sidelined prior to the pandemic. It's time that we make the 'Make in India' concept a reality and start working towards making sustainable handlooms our strength. If we encourage it and make efforts to increase production, then sustainability will follow suit. Everyday apparels, lifestyle products and home furnishings can be made from handloom fabrics and materials. This will vary from product to product and its uses.

What will definitely survive these pandemic times is the clothing range that falls in the range of sustainable and classic fashion. Our consumers will be compelled to shop for items that stand the test of time, last longer-clothes that they can reuse and those that become trans-seasonal classics. It will be about educating the buying audience that handloom can be as "fashionable" or as enlightening as any other fabric. What needs to change, or rather what should have changed in all these years, is the mindset of the audience buying them. Had it not been for the weavers, the fabrics would not have given shape to our collections, month after month, season after season.

It is a long shot to think that handloom can "lead the way". The global economy by and large operates on the principles of a free market economy. No degree of crises would be enough to restore it to a point where self-sufficiency of localised economies is enough to power a country's macroeconomy. After covid-19, it may be safe to assume that mass-produced clothing will dominate the market, and all policy action would once again focus on industrial products, because that would make economic sense.

Handloom would continue to be very much of a "sub-culture", but given the expectation that social distancing norms would continue for months to come, and there might well be restrictions on factories to operate with minimal human resources, it does open up some opportunities for affordable handloom products to fill in that void, given that much of the handloom production centres are decentralised.

Sustainability from inception to the final product will thrive in all industries. Environment-friendly, humanely-made products will emerge stronger only when the welfare and growth of the humans involved is prioritised over profits. Handloom will fit in with the sustainability sentiments effortlessly, once we stop making products that add no value to the consumer or the creator and start infusing pride in organic substances, authenticity and natural newness in our legacy old techniques.

Education and awareness of craft will breed a new movement of modern patronage in domestic markets. Handloom has the vast potential to thrive across both affordable luxury and premium.

The handloom sector has been integral to Indian textiles, and returning to our roots will herald a revival of the handloom culture. While the world is paving a path towards sustainability, we have an Indian way of life rooted in eco-consciousness, which could enhance the potential of Indian fabrics and help the Indian economy to revive as well. Handloom fabric itself is a sustainable process. The Indian domestic market is huge, and though weavers are not as appreciated as they are abroad, the increased interest will help people understand the value of handloom and the language of retail will change with visionary ideals. This will in turn push designers to make part of their collections truly sustainable and thus align with the current sensibilities about our planet. Handlooms can cater to masses but can become a premium identity as well.

The handloom industry is key when it comes to what sustainability stands for. As an industry / sector it is one of the translations of how people perceive the world; with its localised format of how a craft is practised, to the technique of making it, its historical and geographic relevance, its uniqueness, its production in smaller quantities, its inherent characteristic that is so often based on the way it feels, its indigenous production processes and so on, and make it an industry that thrives on conscious practices.
We need to work towards designs that cater to the everyday lives and activities of people. It's our responsibility as designers to find ways to create products that appeal to people and also create awareness. A lot of handloom textiles are already considered quite premium. The wedding industry works a lot with banarasi weaves and other such exquisite weaves that are well suited for festivities.

The traditional craft practices and weaves have been our strength and should be assiduously nurtured. It is time to build synergies between craftspeople and weavers and designers to innovate within the constraints. Bearing in mind the post-pandemic scenario, a shift in lifestyle and with the slowing down of the economy, designs would be required to be more need-based. Transparency in sourcing, production and pricing will be crucial for the design community.

For the industry to overcome the crisis it has to strike a balance between handmade in India and 'Make in India'. It is time to recalibrate, rethink, reinvent and reuse. Scaling down production and replacing quality over quantity will pave the way for the future. The hurried fashion industry will have to learn to breathe easy. The coexistence of both technology and traditional craft practices will be the future.

Sustainability has been gaining momentum; it is now a need of the hour to adopt it.

After the lockdown, with the world's faith shaken and spending power at its lowest, the handloom sector will need a lot of support to re-generate demand.

Financial support is one aspect, but there can be many government-led policy initiatives that can help revive demand for these goods in the spheres of tourism and events by promoting cities as heritage weaving cities. 

One can look at sustainability in a few ways: defining the livelihood of the weavers, another towards making it environment-friendly, and finally making the style sustainable. It's a well-known fact that the carbon footprint of handloom is extremely small, practically immeasurable. Handloom is done without electricity or emissions. It solely showcases our country's impeccable skill and expertise. However, style sustainability is probably the most critical issue.

Sustainability is a broad term. But what sustainable practices do is to offer transparency. Handloom and handcrafted, where the goal has always been about sustaining livelihoods and heritage crafts by being gentle on the environment, definitely fits into this. What will help is advocacy on digital platforms, as well as increased market connectivity through the e-commerce marketplaces as well as fair prices. Production itself will be an issue, which will have to be approached delicately and intelligently.

Handloom, because it is time consuming and labour-intensive, requires a further handcrafted approach to reach a marketable stage that has always been premium.

Besides supplying superior fabrics to the industry, the handloom sector can help deal with the issues of urbanisation. Sustainability is a modern-day buzzword to me. Many issues will get resolved if people don't have to migrate to urban areas for work. Handloom can get them work in their villages and help them stay in the villages.

Setting examples that business is possible with handlooms, and spreading awareness by designers, individuals, institutions and governments is necessary. It depends on the craftsmanship and quality of the product too.

If people choose to buy ethically, then we can see handloom being able to support the fashion industry. Responsibly made handloom is a luxury product. A fabric where the weaver gets a fair share is expensive. Unless people who can support the industry can come together, handlooms will cater to a small niche of luxe shoppers, not the masses. When designers are able to work ethically, we need a customer base that is both aware and able to afford and nurture that ecosystem.

The weaver tribe has grown over the years but how the market will be after the lockdown, how much people are willing to spend for high quality, hand woven clothing are still questions that need to be asked. We are confident and have reassured our weavers that they will continue to get work. There will be realignment of strategies which we discuss with master weavers and they are eager to apply them.

The challenge is consumption, which is what we are all waiting for to unfold. We have been a premium brand, but the market is diverse and we have consumers looking for clothing at all price levels. We need a greater number of people to come and embrace weaving. Incentives from the government and relaxation of policies can certainly help weavers and their families to enjoy what they have always done.

This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of the print magazine.

Published on: 16/07/2020

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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