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Khadi - the fabric of freedom

 2017 marks 70 years since partition divided the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The end of British rule and the beginning of Indian independence brought about much political and social change. Mahatma Gandhi was a pivotal character during this time; a fierce advocate for independence, he is often credited with forming Swadeshi thought. The Swadeshi movement was part of the wider campaign for independence, concentrating on Indian nationalism by developing the economy. 

 

Gandhi was a staunch believer in boycotting British goods, of which cheap fabric was a huge import. Gandhi believed that by empowering local people to weave their own fabrics and make their own clothes independence and growth of the local economy would naturally follow. Indeed, the famous image of Gandhi sitting in jail at his charkha, accompanied by the slogan “Concentrate on Charkha and Swadeshi” became a popular advertisement in the 1930s. Khadi itself became a symbol of self-sufficiency. People began describing themselves as having the ‘khadi spirit’, meaning they were capable of infinite patience. Khadi became known as the ‘fabric of freedom', now synonymous with Gandhi and Indian heritage as a whole.

 

Cotton khadi is a hand spun, hand-woven fabric, generally made from cotton fibre, but silk and wool khadi is also popular, as are blends of the three. Originally it had a distinct, rugged texture due to the use of organic natural fibres spun and woven in the villages. More recently khadi has become sophisticated and much appreciated by discerning fashion lovers. The weave is more refined and celebrates the delicate quality of a beautiful hand weave. Fabrics can keep one warm in the winter and cool in the summer, a welcome trait in the Indian climate.

Khadi yarn. Image: cobrapost.com

Khadi yarn. Image: cobrapost.com

Cotton khadi begins as natural cotton fibre, which is spun into yarn using a charkha, or a wooden spinning wheel. The yarn is then woven into fabric. Archaeological evidence of khadi production dates back to the Indus civilisation circa 2800BC, where the unearthing of bone tools for weaving and terracotta spindles suggest a flourishing textile tradition.

Trade routes at the time of Alexander the Great can be credited with the introduction of cotton khadi to Asia and Europe. The demand for hand woven muslin from the East continued to increase. Fine quality muslin yarn has the thickness 1/10 of a strand of hair, a wonder the West was yet to recreate.

The Indian fabric industry thrived unabated until the late 17th century, when England and France enacted laws to prohibit the import of chintz to protect their own mill produced fabric industries. Following this, the East India Company began monopolising the trade routes out of India. They introduced mass cotton farming and mill production, eventually flooding the market with cheap inferior materials. 

The suppression of khadi continued until 1925 when the All India Spinners Association was established to propagate and produce khadi. Around this time, khadi became a tool for independence - by boycotting British made clothing and supporting local craft, Indian people were simultaneously rediscovering their heritage whilst protesting against British rule. To this day, khadi is the only fabric allowed to be used for the Indian flag. 

An early version of the India flag including the Charkha

An early version of the India flag including the Charkha

The recovery continued. In 1957 the Khadi Villages and Industry Commission (KVIC) was created by the Indian government, executing the development of the khadi industry by fueling local village economies and providing employment to India’s independent weavers. 

 Khadi cotton continued its revival until the 1990s, when it was veritably reinstated as a fashion statement. In 1990, Indian designer Ritu Beri presented her first khadi collection, highlighting the fabric on the world stage.

Seventy years on from the days of partition, khadi is more relevant than ever. The natural, organic fabric has become a favourite for young Indian designers. Maku, Injiri and Eka are amongst a growing number - the low impact fibres speak to a renewed consciousness surrounding sustainability. Khadi truly is a modern, yet quintessentially Indian fabric, a symbolic reminder of India’s legacy of durable living and self-reliance. 

Image credit: Injiri

Image credit: Injiri