Monday, January 16, 2012

Ode to Khadi

When Gandhi was promoting swaraj, or self-rule (ie, independence from the British) in India, he urged Indians to discard their milled cloth from England, learn to spin and weave cotton themselves, and wear only cloth that was produced by hand in India.  This was his concrete and powerful  manifestation of self-rule.  Gandhi set the example by spinning on a charka for long hours, even during meetings and interviews, and wearing a simple dhoti made of homespun cotton, sometimes with a homespun wrap or shawl.
Therefore, the bust of Gandhi at Mani Bhavan, the house he occupied while in Bombay which has been converted into a small museum, is not garlanded with flowers but with handspun cotton yarn.

The homespun cotton is called khadi, and it became a lasting political symbol in India. From the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to today’s members of the Congress Party, politicians wear khadi garments as expressions (however hypocritical or sincere) of solidarity with Gandhi’s original vision. 
Khadi fabric is produced all over the country as a government-initiated cottage industry.  Every town of any size has its own khadi emporium, and the products vary according to the traditional dress and garment needs of the region.  The cotton (and silk, and wool) is spun and woven by trained artisans in their own homes.  I believe that nowadays, the term khadi is applied to fabric that has a handspun weft, while the warp may be milled yarn.
 Even humble handtowels and bath towels have elegance and intrigue when made from khadi.
For me as a quilter, khadi was an extremely interesting fabric to come across.  Given its relatively loose, handwoven quality, it’s not great for precision quilting, but a blanket made of large khadi squares in different colors is a beautiful sight.
King-size khadi wedding quilt I made with a hand-cranked Puja sewing machine in India, circa 1999:
I have never been to any production sites for the weaving or spinning of khadi, but I avidly shop for the yardage whenever I’m in India.  The shops run a gamut from the sleek, chrome-and-steel, multi-storied department store atmosphere of the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Connaught Circle, New Delhi, to the dusty, poorly lit, unrenovated-in-60-years look of the Khadi Bhavan on D.N. Road in Fort, Mumbai.  (no photos allowed inside - bummer!)
When we were living near Dharamsala in north India, I made regular trips to the khadi shop there, a small cubby with floor-to-ceiling shelves of promising yardage. The stock seemed to turn over quickly, and there would always be something new and different. Bulky weight, lightweight, streaks of purple and green or just blue on white, or a new solid color I’d never seen before, in mint green or the honey yellow of a monk’s robe.  The shopkeeper got used to my strange habits of admiring the cloth and buying a meter here, a meter there, sending him to remote shelves to extract an interesting looking wedge of color and texture.
It always amazes me to think that this shopkeeper was working for the government of India, as are all the employees of the khadi shops and all the craftspeople that make the fabric throughout the country.  I’ve had the experience of telling someone in India I practice handicrafts and being asked, “Government job?”  Wouldn’t that just be great.
I like to make myself clothes and shawls from khadi, because it soothes me to look at the weave. I can literally get mesmerized by the details of the cloth as it drapes my body, and the handcrafted warp and weft give a strong sense of grounding calm.
The khadi shops also offer "ahimsa silk," which is silk produced without killing any worms, in accordance with Gandhi's principle of non-violence (ahimsa in Hindi or Sanskrit.) I have a khadi  ahimsa silk shawl that has gotten progressively softer and more excellent with washing and wearing. It's one of the very nicest fabrics I own.
So while I can't talk about details of current production methods, I wanted to at least share the love and let others see the wonder of this rich and symbolic cloth. Any additional information is most welcome.

This extremely beautiful video gives a poetic picture of khadi. If you're a spinner, it will make you want a charka. (