A few hours travel by train from the bustling metropolis of Kolkata in West Bengal, is the town of Phulia. This town has been renowned as a centre of excellence in hand weaving since Partition when hundreds of skilled weavers migrated here from Bangladesh. Seeking new lives, they established themselves in Phulia, building hand looms and specialising in complex weaves like jacquard and jamdani, which are designs based on their Tangail sari culture of their home towns.
Our Artisan Partners
From the late 1950s, weavers began to form cooperative societies to organise and better market their products. Our weaving partner is in one such village weaving society established in 1958 by 52 local weavers. Today the society consists of 213 member weavers and workers, coming from the villages scattered around town, and whilst it is predominantly men who sit at the looms, the bulk of pre- and post-loom work is carried out by women.
Around 15 of the oldest members of the society are Master Weavers - those who are able to weave more complex patterns or hard to handle yarns. These Master Weavers can innovate with new fibres, designs and techniques, and are able to train the younger weavers.
The society is managed by a small group of administrators and a president, who are themselves weavers. The weavers’ complex consists of a long shed containing 100 looms, a back room for spinning bobbins, a showroom and office, and a small house where one of the weavers Jhuran Das, who also doubles as a groundskeeper, lives with his family.
Looms are a mix of traditional pit looms (made by building the looms’ frames above pits dug into the ground, enabling weavers to stay cool doing the soaring summer temperatures) and standing looms.
Working from 10 to 6 every day with Tuesdays off, the weavers’ wages are set by the society according to the level of complexity of the weave. A base daily salary is Rs.500 ($7).
Jhuran Das, pictured below, is one of the oldest members of the society. At 60 years of age, he is a Master Weaver who has 45 years of weaving experience behind him. Together with his wife, he lives on the society compound, weaving by day and acting as groundskeeper by night. Like many of his fellow weavers, his father migrated from Bangladesh at the time of partition. Jhuran took a weaving training course when he was young and now specialises in the more difficult weaves - he weaves our linen and linen-silk blends, as well as jamdanis.
In recent decades, the weavers of this society, like everywhere else across the country, have seen the emergence of a major challenge to their livelihoods - the rise of the power loom. In 2000, Phulia had around 75,000 handlooms. This declined to 35,000 in 2010 and today there are less than 20,000. An average annual income of a weaving family in Phulia is around Rs.26,000, ($355), reflecting low wages and inconsistent work.
The problems arising from power loom are three fold.
The first is that the amount of work available to existing weavers is patchy and inconsistent. The society, which weaves for a wide range of clients, doesn’t receive enough orders to provide full time work to many of the 213 members. Demand for handloom work has dropped in the face of cheap and prevalent power loom cloth.
Secondly, younger workers are not interested in hand weaving - they prefer to join a factory making power loom fabrics. The salary is similar to the base salary for hand weaving and yet the amount of work manning a power loom - monitoring the machine and flipping a switch now and again - is significantly less than sitting at a loom and weaving for 8 hours. The availability of such work is also greater. This means that not only is the handloom industry approaching a slow death with the absence of new weavers, but also that age old techniques, like the complex jamdani (that Indians may still see in their grandmother’s saris), will die out with the older weavers. We see this already with super-specialised fabrics like 250 count muslin - the number of weavers able and willing to weave this almost unbelievably fine cloth are very few. Even the number of weavers in the society who can weave linen - a more brittle and difficult fibre to work with and something that is not traditionally woven in India - is only a few.
Curious to explore solutions to these problems, our weavers were asked what could be done? The answer: innovation and complexity.
By skills building - transferring skill from the older generation of master weavers to the younger generation - and focusing on experimentation and the weaving of higher value cloth, hand weavers are able to create fabrics which are not replicable by power looms and which fetch a significantly higher value in the market. More expensive fibres like linen and zari and complex techniques like jamdani and high count muslins are amongst such examples.
The final major problem faced by weavers is their low pay. Not only does a power loom offer a cheaper alternative to the end customer, in many cases it’s impossible to decipher a power loom from a handloom fabric. So even if a customer wants to buy handloom, they won’t necessarily be able to identify one from the other. The Indian fibre and textile industry is notoriously non-transparent and certifications available to determine handloom are prone to misuse.
So our challenge at asunsti is to choose high value, handloom fabrics which in turn create high quality, useful and desirable clothing, and to market these in a transparent and responsible way. That is our role in this chain that connects weavers with the owners of their beautiful creations.
Making Our Linen
- The first step is growing the flax and turning the fibre into yarn. The fibres of the flax plant which are used to create cloth are found under the bark; the outer woody stem must first rot away in a process called retting. In the humid climate of West Bengal, this happens by leaving flax bundles outdoors to rot. These fibres are then dried. A further process of breaking and beating, or scutching, these dried bundles removes the inner, unwanted pith. The remaining linen lengths are combed to straighten them and remove the shorter fibres from the longer ones. Longer fibres are then spun into linen yarn. Our linen yarn is sourced from India's first Flax Mill - Jayashri Mills.
- The yarn is dyed by a local dyeing unit in AZO-free dyes, then collected by the Society who ready the yarn bundles for weaving.
- The society spins the yarn onto bobbins so it can be easily handled. To prepare the yarn for the warp, a laborious process of denting and drafting ensures the correct design will be woven, and drumming the fibre ensures the right tension is achieved. Only now can the actual weaving take place. It's usually done on a pit loom; experienced weavers like Jhuran can weave 3m of linen per day and around 4m of plain weave cotton per day. The finished cloth is then washed and ironed.