âAn emerging conversation about sustainability has become a priority on a large scale, especially as hand-woven textiles are a central part of our future,â says Archana Shah in an interview with Vaishali Dar. During a career spanning four decades in design, the 64-year-old mentor, researcher and traveler has not only established her name as the founder of the first textile fashion brand Bandhej, but finds a huge untapped potential in the textile industry. Kutch is her first love as the region finds prominence in her first book Shifting Sands Kutch: A Land in Transition written in 2013. Her endless fascination with traditional craftsmanship and its potential is clearly demonstrated in a recent good account. documented entitled Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices enriched with many stories of craftsmen. Traveling the country up and down, Shah tells us about the diversity of artisanal textile processes and the reuse of many artisanal talents to rejuvenate the sector while fighting climate change. Extracts:
You have extensive knowledge of the different regions, the stories of craftsmen, yarns and textiles, as your book shows. What inspired you to write this?
Each region of India has its own raw materials, craft techniques, textiles, patterns and color palettes. Patan in Gujarat is famous for its lavish double ikkat sarees, the patolas. The warp and weft are both dyed in a predetermined pattern and intertwined for the design and it takes six to eight months to create a patola sari. I am very fascinated by handcrafted textiles, more than that, the know-how. All of the glorious textiles have been spoken and written, but not much about the artisans who created them. I wanted to tell their story. There has been a lot of talk that craftsmanship is no longer viable because the children of craftspeople see no future or meaning in it. This is not true. From 2018-20, I traveled to experience the reality of the field inside the weaving centers, the hand weaving projects, their manners, their clothing, their food, their intricacies, the perspectives of those involved in the process, in remote areas to find out what the artisans really want. . This book gave meaning to my wandering.
Kutch is covered prominently in your first book. This time too, the cover features Lilaba Bhavubha Jadeja from Abdasa village in Kutch. Your fascination with Kutch and its inhabitants continues …
I have worked closely with the people of Kutch and I love the land very much. It is a personal journey to the land to explore the people, traditions and crafts, and the changes over the decades. The latest book shows a generation of textile teachers – a grandmother teaching her granddaughter who is also interested in spinning. She is an educated girl but interested in learning the centuries-old art of cotton spinning on peti charkha. The pictures match my thoughts.
Can we say that the hand loom has the upper hand in the fast fashion world?
A craft product can produce five collections a year, but fast fashion can produce 52 collections. Young people who talk about climate change need to be more responsible. Do you really need 500 shirts or 50 shirts in a wardrobe? These are the choices we have to make. How much plastic waste and the use of substandard dyes goes to landfill? Khadi as a fabric lasted a long time and we never bought 200 pairs of clothes. This is slow fashion, where we buy less and the best.
Hand weaving is more durable than factory made fabric. Its strength lies in unique designs that are difficult to reproduce by electric looms.
Yes, hand looms have a distinctive look and feel compared to electric looms. But we need all kinds of productions so that it’s not against each other. When loom fabric is sold as a hand loom, I have an ethical problem. Looms cannot dress the world. We need different kinds of fabric for different market. Electric looms can be cleaner in their processes or in the use of natural dyes. Handcrafted craftsmanship has a human touch. The most important support is the marketing support for the weavers. We need to create a distinctive new identity for hand-woven fabrics, so that they are worth preserving.
So, is sustainable fashion more than a trend? What does the industry need to do to become truly green?
Handicraft production is intrinsically respectful of the environment; it employs more workers and is still not an organized sector. Handicrafts don’t use fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean all practices are environmentally friendly. Gradually, people realize what pollutes their land, their food and affects their children. Small but important initiatives in remote villages are changing processes and thinking. For example, in the Himalayan region, where water is scarce, farmers have started using natural dyes so that toxic wastewater is free of chemicals and can be reused on the farm to grow vegetables. In Kutch, one village has stopped using naphthol dyes, instead introducing handmade dyes or installing effluent treatment plants to treat wastewater. We are well on the way to reducing industrial pollution, but there is still a long way to go.
What is the biggest threat to traditional hand-woven fabric: declining demand or declining weavers?
It’s like a Catch-22. The weavers are in decline because the demand in the market is such. If they continued to work even after the pandemic, they will continue to produce. Urban centers have fewer working machines and are automated, so fewer hands are used to operate the machines. The migrant workers returned to their villages. As a politician, we need a paradigm shift in the way we view development in the sector. Why can’t we create work in the villages? If we can provide a sustainable source of income in rural areas with basic facilities, there would be little reason to leave their hometown or their family. After agriculture, the handicrafts sector is the second largest sector in India, so developing products with the right speech can help people buy handicrafts.
When you launched the Bandhej brand in 1985, the focus was on traditional textiles and a range of eco-friendly handcrafted clothing for Indian women. What changes have you seen over the years?
More than the company, it is the brand’s confidence in the craftsman and his young generation that endures. There is constant product development and a loyal hand loom customer is always on the lookout for genuine products.
During this four-decade journey, what are your lessons for textiles as a designer, mentor, researcher and traveler. Which one did you like the most and why?
Everything is interconnected and gives a purpose to my trip. It’s an exciting process – the artisans at work, why they make things, the patterns they choose, the colors developedâ¦ The reason for noting all of this was the need to share what I saw throughout. my work in close collaboration with the craftsmen. But one of the most encouraging lessons from my trip was that money and crafts now empower women.
Climate change and unemployment are two challenges. How can the industry cope?
We are all in the midst of a crisis. More automation and artificial intelligence mean that all of this is doing away with repetitive jobs, but 90% of the world is making their own bread and butter doing those repetitive jobs. But the real problem is to work on the policies and to find a potential roadmap to uplift the sector.
Making a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices
Pp 276, Rs 1,495