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. (


clairz said...

This was a lovely and informative post, Tracy. I learned so much. I couldn't see the video, though--is there a link for it?

Tracy Hudson said...

Thanks for letting me know, clairz, I put the URL and link for the video.

clairz said...

Thank you, Tracy, for adding the link. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this gorgeous video!

traudi said...

I really enjoyed reading this and thank you for all the pictures. They made me want to handle the fabric. Traudi

Laura said...

What a treasure chest of fascinating information and glorious photography. Thank you for gathering these jewels and sharing them with us. I will return to this posting many times!

Indigonightowl said...

I enjoyed this very much! Beautiful fabrics, beautiful quilts! The video at the end was gorgeous and such a feast for the eyes. H was humming the music after it ended. Wonderful post!


Outside Eye said...

Thank you for your fascinating work. I am travelling to Ladakh in two months with my husband and family where we are volunteering in a school. I am a writer of fiction and poetry but am very interested in fibre and knitting. I wonder if you have a resource of your writing/images in one place - i have begun to gather things together. My mother-in-law died in December and for her knitting was such a gift to her family. I can do nothing but write, and it not enough, so I have decided upon seeing your work to learn before I go so I can knit away my anxiety about travelling so far from home for the first time, and go to the yarn shops and visit the women there. Thank you so much.


Tracy Hudson said...

Dear Josephine, thanks for your comment. I learned to knit in Ladkah! This blog is the best place to see my collected work, using the links in the sidebar for writing and videos. You can also look for me on as himalaya.
Here's a set of photos from when I volunteered in a school in Ladakh, and did loads of knitting for the children there:
There are two more Ladakh sets in my Flickr as well.
My favorite yarn shop is the Kongma Wool Centre, near the Old Bus Stand in Leh.

AnjaElf said...

Hey! :) I love the khadi fabric so much!I want to start working with it, but it is difficult to get it here in England at a good price. Do you know anywhere that I can buy it directly from India over the internet?That would be amazing!!
Thank you so much and keep doing what you're doing :)

Tracy Hudson said...

Good question! I know I've seen khadi towels for sale online - Google 'khadi towels" and a lot comes up. Maybe you could inquire of a seller who is already importing khadi products?
Ooh - just found one. The link below says she's available to source fabrics, etc. Worth getting in touch!