Aparna Sharma weaves a tale about the beauty of handlooms in sustainable fashion.
“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” – Mahatma Gandhi
I was sitting with my 13-year-old daughter and we were discussing a history chapter about Mahatma Gandhi. I pointed to the picture of the khadi wheel and asked her, “Do you know what that is?” She said, “It is a wheel Mahatma Gandhi used to make his clothes,” and I responded with, “Isn’t it amazing that the khadi wheel is not only a symbol of India’s independence, but also a beautiful tool which represents slow fashion?”
What are Handlooms, And What Is Their Importance to India?
According to The Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, the term handloom is defined as, “any loom other than power loom,” i.e. any cloth made by hand without the use of electricity or machines; a process of operation that uses a wooden structure which is called the loom.
Like many other industries, the handloom sector struggled a lot due to the COVID-19 pandemic . Reviving handlooms is important as the world struggles with environmental destruction from fast fashion. The handloom has a very low environmental footprint, and it uses no coal energy since the entire process is done by hand. It is one of the largest cottage industries in India, and is responsible for a major chunk of employment in the rural areas. The handloom industry employs around 10 million artisans, and it is considered the second-largest income generator after agriculture in rural India.
Mahatma Gandhi: An Icon of Handlooms and Slow Fashion
While everyone is aware that Mahatma Gandhi is a symbol of peace, having conducted peaceful marches and organised many non-violent activities to fight against the British Raj in India, he is also a symbol of sustainability. One significant activity that he’d organised, which is still used as a model for slow fashion, is the Khadi Movement. Khadi basically means handspun or handwoven cloth and it played a significant role in India’s independence. Mahatma Gandhi empowered Indians to start weaving their own clothes using the loom, in order to resist the high tax the British had imposed on imported clothes.
He saw the possibility for Indians to take back what belonged to them by becoming economically independent. Thus, he encouraged everyone to start weaving, and also taught them to plant and harvest their own materials for the yarn needed to weave khadi. Gandhi was a forward-thinking man who realized that khadi has a very low carbon footprint, and its continued production even today marks the survival of an important part of India’s culture and history.
Imperialism In A Post-Colonial Era
After globalisation and the widespread use of fast fashion, it became increasingly difficult for the handloom sector to compete with the power loom sector. Multiple problems have arisen as a result of the growth of fast fashion. Opaque supply chains, the exploitation of the land, environment, and labour in the Global South, and of course, the huge environmental footprint due to complex supply chain logistics.
Fashion CEOs are all mostly billionaires, but most labour that they employ in the Global South to create their capital are paid poverty wages. A fashion revolution report mentioned that a woman worker in Bangladesh earns in her entire lifetime what a fast fashion CEO earns in four days. Many intellectuals working on empowering slow fashion have pointed out that this is a new form of colonialism.
Perhaps it is time to go back to what Gandhi said and consider how we as consumers can play a role in supporting handlooms and buying less of fast fashion.
Aparna Sharma (Instagram: @stylishsuitcase) is a non-conformist who believes that fashion must become a force for good and style must meet sustainability. She breaks down the nuances of slow fashion and how we can stay stylish without being trendy.