Presentation at the Textile Museum, Washington DC, 18th April 2015
I decided to focus on just 2 major aspects that made Indian textiles stand out amongst world textiles and continues to do so:
It just so happens that South India, and especially the state of Andhra Pradesh still has artisans with the skills that combine these 2 elements: they practice unbroken traditions that are thousands of years old, weaving and painting fabrics.
Pattern is inextricably linked to textiles, so I will touch upon it briefly, but it would require a separate presentation .
As we all know, ancient India was the earliest center of cotton cultivation, manufacture and trade. It was from here that delicately woven cotton and brilliantly colored fabrics were introduced to the Middle east, Africa, Asia and thereafter to Europe.
Although we find hand woven fabrics all over the world, no other country can boast of such fine hand loomed cotton woven as early as 3000 BC. One of the earliest fragments of cotton cloth found wrapped around two silver jars in Mohenjodaro was made of 34s warp and weft having 60 ends and 20 picks per inch.
I would like to first demonstrate what fine means. The term cotton count, is an international norm for defining a yarn’s thickness. The higher the number, the finer the yarn. A 100s yarn is finer than a 20s yarn. Normally, a yarn is spun and twisted to give it strength. It is then plied with one or more yarns to achieve even more strength. This is when we call a yarn a 2/20s or a 20/2s depending on which side of the Atlantic you are! I would like to invite you to take a look at some of the samples of single ply and double ply yarns to get an idea of fineness. So this gives us an idea of how fine cotton was in the Indus Valley Civilization back in 3000 BC.
Now, for most of us weavers, weaving un-plied yarn is in-imaginable, leave alone single ply 100s! If you put an un-plied yarn in the warp, the chaffing caused by the repeated lifting of the yarns and motion of the beater on the loom would eventually break the thread. But guess what? By the 1st century AD Indian weavers were weaving diaphanous textiles described in the greco-roman report Periplus of the Erithreyan Sea.
We know that more than 30 types of cotton cloth were imported by Romans from Pliny’s accounts. And most of the fine cloth was woven along the humid banks of rivers or coastal areas. In fact the word muslin gets its name from the port of Masulipatnam on the Coromandel coast of Andhra Pradesh.
But nowhere did it reach the perfection of muslins of Dhaka. By the time the Mughals were ruling India, we wove muslins with 200s to 400s counts. Miniature paintings dating from the Mughal times show us women dressed in a range of fabrics including translucent muslin.
There are stories of how the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb scolded his daughter for walking around nude, to which she replied that she had 7 layers of Dacca Muslin! These muslins had poetic names like Malmal (the finest sort), Abirawan (running water), Shabnam (morning dew). They were expensive and made mainly for the elite and royalty.
So how did they manage to spin and weave such fine yarn?
- There existed a superior quality of cotton fiber
- The coastal areas of India had ideal levels of moisture and temperature
- Dexterity in hand spinning and weaving developed from one generation to another, improving all the time
- And my new theory is that we Indians have an endless concept of time! We are born, we die and we are re-incarnated! And that allows us to undertake tedious work.
All of us have been told that the quality of a fiber depends on it’s length. This is not entirely true! The indegenous species of Gossypium Arboreum and Gossypium Herbaceum had much shorter fiber lengths than the cotton species from the Americas Gossypium Hirsutum and Gossypium Barbadense.
As cotton fiber clings to it’s seeds, the process of prying them away, called ginning is tedious and long. Although Indians used small wooden tools to speed up the process, it still remained a small scale production.
By the 17th century the textile trade was largely in the hands of The British East India Company, basically a group of greedy traders. As their appetites grew, they introduced cotton cultivation in North America with the Hirsutum and Barbadense species. Cheap slave labor was used for the ginning.
In 1793, an American, Eli Whitney invented the Whitney Gin which drastically reduced the hours needed to gin cotton. From 600 slave hours, it came down to just a dozen or so per bale. The Whitney gin had been developed using the long fibers of the Hirsutum and Barbadense species. These fibers were so long that even when the ginning machine broke them, they would still be long enough to be spun. So Indian cotton with it’s short staple was wrongly labelled ‘inferior’.
However, studies have shown that
- Indegenous Indian fibers are shorter yet finer than the Hirsutum- Barbadense fibers.
- The fibers cling much more to the seeds, making de-seeding even more difficult, but this also gives them a natural crimp and springiness.
- The greater elasticity of Indian cotton comes because of a cavity inside the fiber that allows for easy passage of air.
- This allows for better dye absorption and luster, softness and breathability
- All these attributes are enhanced by gentle manual processing, spinning and weaving.
By 1880, the British had succeeded in forcing Indian farmers to cultivate foreign varieties of cotton to supply raw cotton to mills in Britain. They levied multiple tariffs and taxes and brutally restricted Indian cloth production so that Indian markets were increasingly forced to purchase cloth manufactured in Manchester mills. Indian indigenous cotton stopped being cultivated for it’s fiber and the exact technique of creating Dacca Muslin disappeared.
Luckily, hand loom weaving, especially of Saris remains a living tradition in many villages in India. Weaving with fine hand spun yarn using locally grown cotton survives precariously in a little village called Ponduru in Andhra Pradesh. I’m hoping that I will still be able to find a few weavers when I go there this year.
Cotton from the indigenous varieties are handpicked.
The fibers are then combed using the tiny teeth of the Valuga fish jaw bone that gently pry the fibers away from the seed and impart a certain luster to them while keeping the seed intact for planting again.
They then use a bamboo bow to twang and separate the fibers further, and arrange them in roves.
Women spin yarn as fine as 120s count from dawn to about 10 am until the sun dries up the morning dew, and the light did not have too much glare, much the same way women spun yarn for Dacca Muslin.
Most of the looms used by the hand loom weavers are still pit looms. A large pit is dug in the ground and the soil is tamped down all around. A little built in seat is hollowed out on one side, and a very rudimentary structure made of wood or bamboo makes up the rest of the loom. During the hot summer months, it’s actually very comfortable and cool to sit there and weave. But during the Monsoon rains, water seeps into the pits. Although they bail the water out, weaving becomes near impossible. Worse still, the pre-loom process of sizing with rice starch outside is hampered. Nothing dries.
So why do they continue to weave in pit looms? Cotton gets stronger when wet. The humidity levels are higher closer to ground! So when Dacca Muslin got as fine as 400s count, we must remember that it evolved in humid flood prone Bangladesh.
Nathalie Froger Silva, National Geographic, Malkha Marketing Trust, Sarisafari.com.