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Fabrics of Community - India and the 'new' Khadi
- by Dr Pamela Ravasio

Khadi is an Indian fabric par excellence. Hand-made from start to finish - from harvesting the silk, cotton or wool fibre to the finished cloth - it has for centuries been the livelihood of rural communities. With Gandhi, Khadi and Khadi making become a symbol of India's independence. But what back then made Indians proudly wear 'made in India', is in the present one of the main reasons why the fabric has fallen into disgrace with the younger generation: to wear Khadi is a thing of the past, completely removed from the international popular design trends that are sweeping the Indian, indeed global, youth today.

Khadi, in short, is suffering miserably from a rather outdated reputation as a low quality fabric, and the old fashioned image associated with these fabrics by its recent history and ever changing fashion trends. The industry is in decline, stocks remain unsold and many a rural community that historically lives from the trade subsists in the harshest poverty imaginable. Most of those affected deepest are women working from home.

Only recently, and thanks to new high quality Khadi clothes coming onto the market and fashion designers in India as well as abroad taking a liking to the original beauty of the traditional Khadi fabric, the tide seems to be changing its course. Notably, the rising demand for sustainable fabrics as triggered an increased interest in Khadi. The cloth, in fact, is zero-carbon due to its traditional manufacturing process!

One social business in the midst of this trend is MoralFibre, based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The company collaborated with Khadi cooperatives, and through them with some 5000 Khadi making individuals.

Ms. Shailini Sheth-Amin, Founder and CEO - talks about  her vision to revive the Khadi industry and its importance for the livelihoods of India's rural population.

Pamela Ravasio: Shailini, you're an architect by training. What was the trigger to get involved in the Khadi industry, and what is your vision?

Shailini Sheth-Amin: The seeds of this adventure were planted in 2006. After living in England for over fifteen years, I moved back home to Ahmedabad, India. As an architect, energy efficiency and sustainable design has been is my specialization and area of keen interest almost all throughout my working life. On top of that, India has many problems that burn me and I have an intense need to work to become a part of a solution. 

I took the opportunity of some free time to take a fresh look at few of the organisations I was involved with in the past. The ‘Khadi’ Shops set up by my late aunt, my Guru and mentor Indumati Chimanlal was of particular interest. The first shop was started by her (through the formation of a trust) in 1930s.

During the Indian Independence movement ‘Khadi’ had a glorious history. I found that today, the majority of ‘Khadi’ Board-supported shops like ours, controlling most of the production and sales in the country, have fallen into a rut and they have lost touch with today’s young buyers. This de-values the beautiful ‘Khadi’ fabric as well as its ethos and it drives its reputation lower and lower in the market. Thousands of ‘Khadi’ spinners and weavers have lost work in the recent years and more are losing every year. Most of them are women living in remote villages in under-developed regions and surviving under the poverty line. There is very little hope of them finding other work.

With this backdrop, and with the help of friends, I set up this initiative in 2007. Our goal is to offer a crisp, fresh and richly textured Khadi fabric range - basically, being the living proof that Khadi in fact is a very beautiful, attractive fabric.

Pamela Ravasio: How to you collaborate with the Khadi makers?

Shailini Sheth-Amin: We differ from the normal manufacturers and suppliers. We do not ‘own a unit’ but work with other co-operatives. Most of our fabrics and products are bespoke so it takes time for us to deliver. Rather than supplying for ‘fast fashion’ with small lead time, we are inherently into the ‘slow products with time-less beauty and limited edition’ market. That's basically the way we work.

We are setting up new supply cycles with artisan groups who do not have the knowledge, understanding and skills to work with the current international textile markets. Most of them do not speak English or use computers and emails. Sometimes the only way to communicate with them is by post. Training our co-operatives by working with them, giving them work orders and help them succeed in present markets is a very important part of our ongoing work.

We try and explain this to our potential customers at the outset. By now, most of the customers and potential customers I meet, already work, or want to work, in a sustainable and ethical way, but very few know the issues and understand how this is different. I can understand that in spite of good intentions it is difficult to work like we do, unless one is very determined. The only thing I can say to them is that the artisans we work with are not a part of your normal supply cycle. We are including those groups who are left behind and as time goes by they are coming along!

Pamela Ravasio: Beyond its social and historic importance for India, as well as beauty and quality as a fabric, what is it about Khadi that appeals to you personally?

Shailini Sheth-Amin: The inherent quality of the fabric is such that it absorbs the body’s moisture, making it a cool and comfortable to wear in summer and a layered style keeps the body warmth trapped within its texture in winter. It is allergy free and the feel and wearability of the cloth improves with every wash. The cloth is made of biodegradable cotton by using human energy alone. It does not use finite energy and resources so that it makes less negative impact on the environment.

Our fabrics, unlike industrially manufactured ones, involve lots of ‘people energy’ in its making. Today with growing concerns about Global Warming and Climate Change, this is a unique way of fabric crafting. It is a clean energy initiative aiming to have far reaching economic and social benefits for the people living under the poverty line. This is what fascinates me.

Pamela Ravasio: What needs to be done in the years ahead?

Shailini Sheth-Amin: We strive to re-invent the age old hand spun, hand woven fabrics -khadi by design, as well as technical and state of the art marketing input for today’s consumers and buyers so that it becomes attractive to more and more people and markets. I hope that with research, innovations as well as the right kind of marketing and promotion we will have a unique Indian story to tell and great product to sell!

Improving the quality of production is the major change we want to see in this sector. We are constantly working to set up the required skills, training and tools to be made available to the artisans to create truly environmentally sustainable fabrics. In fact, I am a great believer in ‘Cradle to Cradle’ (C2C) approach: there is no such thing as waste in nature, only input to the next step of the process.

We need the development of a sustainable textile industry, which is the need of the time at local and global levels and promoting it worldwide. Doing the right thing for the earth’s ecology is not only our moral responsibility, it makes good business sense. While we develop new technologies that reduce our carbon output, we also look for programs that make a difference today. We are joining hands with a vast un-organized textile sector of India with organized sector companies like Reliance and Portico. It is like an untamed energy harnessed.

We are planning to include the artisans as share holders so that the benefits of the profits can be shared directly to them. They become prosperous and also, as share holders they will have a larger say in the company. There is a lot to do!

Pamela Ravasio: Taking on a more short-term perspective, what are you headed for next?

Shailini Sheth-Amin: The Khadi manufacturers have no direct link with the outside markets. What they produce is usually bought by [government sponsored] Khadi shops protected by government rebates. There is no awareness of real market demand and supply. There is a laxity in maintaining strict controls for quality and improving standards. Khadi cooperatives generally do not work against order deadlines. There is almost no direct exposure to markets. Like government and semi - government bodies, all jobs in the sector are protected and not incentivised by production or sales.

As a consequence, there is an immediate need to develop multiple skill sets in this chain. They include technical developments, product developments, business and production management, inventory management, merchandising, client management and managing finances. With the help of Ahmedabad Textile Research Industry Association (ATIRA) we are now in the process of setting up a new development programme to work with some of the Khadi units. This will hopefully be a path breaker and a demonstration of how a sustainability programme in the textile industry can be implemented successfully. This will help to make Khadi more attractive to buyers from the textile and fashion industry.

Pamela Ravasio: Shailini - thank you for your time.

Get to know more about MoralFibres, their philosophy and products on their website.
Dr. Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime.

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