The other day during a phone interview someone asked me whether it was a conscious decision to work with environmentally friendly fabrics or if it just happened to be that way. I felt it was an unfair question, and in a moment of foolish rebellion I said it just happened to be that way. How could I let Cotton down by proclaiming my entire business was built on a calculated decision of marketing environmentally friendly fashion when in fact my love for Cotton goes way back to days when I was too young to know about global warming?
But here I am, two days after that phone interview and wondering why I chose not to play the game. Marc Jacobs has a perfume called Cotton, high-end Ayurveda-based cosmetics are now in, and 5-star yoga and wellness spas now exist all over the country (with a day trip to the nearby village school planned for the conscientious).
So what’s the problem? Well the marketing game only works if you publicize something that is sought after, something that appeals to everyone’s notion of what is cool. I feel that for some reason Handloom and Crafts missed the coolness train in India. You can buy handloom everywhere, and the quality varies so much that for most consumers handloom still stands for cheap and poor quality. And when they think of block-printed or tie-dyed fabric, they also think colour bleeding, faded-in-no-time, and difficult to care for.
And they aren’t always wrong. We don’t live in an age where people have the time or money to wash each of their clothes individually. If the textile sector had caught onto that a long time ago, we would be competing with mill-made fabrics on a different level; instead of poor quality competing with durability it could have been luxury goods competing with run of the mill.
Let me take a minute to make it clear that I am not saying we should strip a fabric of its core personality; I don’t want cotton to behave like polyester, nor do I want tussar to behave like silk chiffon. I am just asking for fewer weaving defects, for colour uniformity, and most importantly for colour fastness.
Below are swatches of three fabrics.
Swatch on the left: mill made cotton fabric.
Center swatch: handloom cotton fabric (yard dyed).
Swatch on the right: hand block-printed fabric (the fabric itself is powerloom but that doesn’t matter because the printing was done on white fabric).
I washed each of the fabrics separately in soapy water, and then placed them on a white fabric out in the sun. After a few hours when they dried, I rolled back the fabric swatches to see if any colour had bled onto the white fabric.
The results are hopefully clear to spot. The mill made fabric did not bleed at all, the handwoven fabric in the center bled a little, and the block-printed fabric should clearly never come into contact with any other fabric in its wet or damp state (so if you sweat while wearing this your undergarments will get stained).
Representing handloom and other textile crafts is not easy, but if we expect to get on that coolness train then we have to take it seriously. Handloom does not have to imply poor quality. I own many handloom fabrics that do not bleed. I also own a few (very few) block-printed fabrics that do not bleed. Surely there is something we can learn from how the big mills do it.
Getting textile crafts back on track now will take double the effort it would have taken a few decades ago; because aside from the work required to improve the quality as a whole, think of the kind of effort it involves to change people’s perception of an un-cool product. Improving quality requires some communication amongst craftsmen from different parts of the country to share R&D findings and to make a collective effort to raise the quality of traditional textile crafts. There’s enough of a market out there for handmade products they way they already are, but to move into that luxury goods category would require craftsmen to think of handloom and block-printing (or any other craft) as brands.
It may be too early to mourn, but if we don’t do something soon it will be too late to ride the train.