India's handmade textiles are embedded in every aspect of its identity. The history of these fabrics date back at least 6,000 years. Courtly splendour was proclaimed by sumptuous fabrics, while religious worship still finds expression through sacred cloths. Centuries of global trade have been shaped by the export of Indian textiles and patterns, in demand around the world. These celebrated hand-made textiles even survived the threat of industrialisation, instead uniting India as symbols of power and protest. Today, young designers are adapting traditional making techniques to create exciting new fashion, art and design for a global audience, giving India's textile history a new relevance in the modern world.
Nature and making
India's rich natural resources for making and decorating textiles are unrivalled. Its varied geographical regions and climates provide a huge range of plant fibres and natural dyes. Over centuries, most regions have developed specialities based on local resources, such as the golden silks of Assam, the fine cottons of Bengal, or the red dyes of south-east India. Craftspeople use an astonishing range of skills to process raw materials and produce regionally distinctive dyes, weaves, prints and embroideries.
Cotton and silk are the raw materials most associated with Indian textiles. India supplied cotton cloth to the world for centuries, as well as producing an astonishing variety of hand-made cotton fabrics for domestic use until industrialisation changed how cottons were made and sold. India's wild and semi-domesticated silks continue to provide a huge range of yarn and fabric for local use. Other animal fibres used to make textiles include sheep's wool and yak- and goat-hair. Finished textiles are also often decorated with natural products – insect wings, cowrie shells and shimmering minerals such as mica. Silver and silver-gilt, manipulated into thin ribbons and fine threads, is also used in weaving and embroidery to give extra glitter and richness to cloth.
Cotton cultivation in India may go back as far as 9,000 years, and is still an integral aspect of the Indian economy. The production of this invaluable natural resource has always relied on the skill and labour of individual farmers. The film below follows the story of cotton farming in South Asia from planting to harvesting.
Cultivating Tasar silk
India's 'wild' silk moth species must be partially reared outdoors where they have access to a variety of trees in which to live, eat, and spin their cocoons. Tasar silk is one of the most widespread of India's 'wild' silks, but is most plentiful in the states of Odisha, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The film below explores how cultivators must cooperate with nature to cultivate this 'wild' silk.
Derived from the leaves of shrubs in the Indigofera family, indigo dye has been used for millennia in most regions of India to colour yarn and fabric (especially cotton) in shades of blue. Indigo is a substantive dye, which means it adheres to fabric without the help of a chemical binding agent (mordant), but requires expertise to successfully prepare and use. This process is demonstrated in the film below by the Cheepa family, indigo dyers living and working in Kala Dera, Rajasthan.
Each part of India has its own weaving tradition, but Gujarat, on the west coast of India, was the main centre of innovation for more than 500 years. As Gujarati weavers migrated, weaving techniques and technologies spread all over India. The simplest type is plain weave, in which the weaver runs a horizontal thread ('weft') evenly over and under a fixed set of support threads ('warp'). More complex weaves derive from this basic method. Looms in India ranged from the simple back-strap loom which consists of sticks, rope and a strap that is worn around the weaver's waist, to complex draw-looms on which velvets and patterned silks were woven. Their use declined with the rise of the mechanised Jacquard loom in the 19th century.
Rajasthan Khadi Sangh is a weaving cooperative in Kala Dera, Rajasthan. Here, cotton is spun and woven by hand using traditional tools and equipment to make cotton Khadi cloth. Handmade textiles are still a significant part of the Indian economy, providing work to millions. The film below demonstrates how weavers at Rajasthan Khadi Sangh turn cotton into plain-woven cloth.
In India, printing patterns with wooden blocks is mainly associated with the north and western regions of the country. Dress fabrics using small repeating floral patterns in several colours, require multiple blocks. Larger-scale motifs are printed for furnishings and tents.
The carving of a printing block is in itself a highly skilled practice, requiring a team of craftspeople specialising in different stages of the process. In the film below craftsmen at Yaseen Wooden Block Makers in Jaipur, Rajasthan, turn a plank of wood into an intricately carved printing block.
India's embroidery is almost as famed as its weaving and dyeing. Specific regional styles have developed over centuries, using a huge variety of stitches and materials. In the 17th century, the finest Gujarati ari (hook) embroidery was highly prized by both the Mughal court and European consumers. Other outstanding local styles include the kantha embroidery of Bengal, phulkari from the Punjab, and chikan whitework embroidery from Lucknow.
The embroiderers at the Sankalan embroidery design and production house in Jaipur, Rajasthan, practise a variety of stitch techniques to embellish fabrics by hand. This film below follows their work on a lehnga, a wedding skirt, from traced outline to finished product. Only by slowing the footage could the incredibly fast stitching of ari embroidery be captured, as professionals perform it so rapidly it is nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.
Sacred and splendid
India has been home to a great variety of religions over the centuries. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians in particular make widespread use of textiles in their worship. Whether worn for rituals, offered by devotees to temples and shrines, or used as hangings to decorate sacred spaces, textiles still play a key role in religious observance in India.
Textiles produced for India's royal courts demonstrated the wealth of rulers and the skills of craftsmen. Surviving pieces from the 15th century onwards show that courtly patronage produced some of the finest textiles ever made – in India and in the world. In the royal workshops of Gujarat, weavers made elaborate silks with human, animal and flower designs. In the Deccan region, meticulously hand-drawn and dyed cottons were made for courtly clothing and furnishings. The imperial workshops of the later Mughal emperors produced lavish floral and figural wall hangings, often based on European and Iranian designs. In south India, Hindu rulers drew on local painting traditions as well as the aesthetics of Mughal flower patterns to create their courtly masterpieces.
A Global Trade
Indian textile-makers exported a vast range of luxury and utility fabrics to the Middle East, Mediterranean, Africa and Asia for centuries before European merchants arrived in the wake of Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498. By the 18th century, Indian makers were responding to demands from as far away as Japan and the Americas. Their skill lay not only in the mastery of textile techniques – spinning, weaving and dyeing – but also in meeting the different needs of these markets. The bright and flowery chintzes favoured by the European market and checked cottons destined for West Africa didn't suit the tastes of South East Asian buyers. The ability of Indian artisans to know their customers and adapt their making accordingly made the success of Indian textiles truly international.
Most of India's vast cloth trade has been in everyday, utilitarian textiles. Ancient household furnishings, tailored garments, accessories and even pieces of sail-cloth made of Indian cotton have been recovered from sites in Chinese Central Asia and the Middle East. Identifiable by its fibres and spinning method, Indian cotton dating back 6,000 years has been excavated in Jordan, and pieces of plain cotton fabric from the first century AD have been found on Egypt's Red Sea coast.
The first Europeans to reach India by sea encountered a well-established trading network. Indian textiles were initially seen simply as goods to be traded for Indonesian spices, but by the time the English and Dutch East India Companies arrived in 1600 and 1602, there was a ready market for Indian cloth at home. Over the following 250 years huge quantities of luxury muslins and chintzes were imported alongside inexpensive handkerchiefs, ginghams and calicos – often at the cost of the exploitation of Indian weavers. Indian textiles designed to suit western tastes overwhelmed European, especially British, textile manufacturing until the Industrial Revolution.
Textiles in a Changing World
Industrialisation radically altered the nature of the textile trade worldwide. In the late 19th century, booming British factories were cheaply manufacturing large quantities of yarn and cloth, both to satisfy Britain's own needs as well as for export. India, with its vast population then under the control of the British imperial government, was a tantalising market for industrial manufacturers. By the 1890s the resulting influx of foreign fabric into India was increasingly seen as a threat to its domestic textile economy. This sparked mass protest and galvanised a political movement to liberate India from British control. In the wake of great social unrest and emerging nationhood, Indian textiles were used as symbols of protest and national identity. After winning independence from British rule in 1947, India's new government prioritised modernisation, and textile-makers had to respond to increasingly urban environments. Over the following years, they adapted their skills to ensure their continued cultural, economic and global significance.
Britain began to export machine-made yarn and cloth to India in the 1780s. Encouraging exports of low-cost fabric and imposing tariffs on imports of Indian cloth enabled Britain's textile industry to grow rapidly but severely hampered the development of India's own industry. The importance of manufacturing and trade among nations was promoted through the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London, and subsequent international exhibitions held across Europe. Cloth manufactured in the Lancashire mills soon replaced all but the extremely fine or extremely rough Indian fabrics, causing mass unemployment and hardship for India's spinners and weavers.
British exploitation of India's economy and people led to the swadeshi ('own country') movement of the 1890s. Swadeshi urged the nation to boycott foreign goods and buy Indian products. The principle of self-reliance influenced the nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi in his call for swaraj ('self-rule'). Gandhi appealed to the Indian people to spin, weave and wear Khadi – a fabric hand-woven from hand-spun cotton thread. He believed this would bring employment to the masses and alleviate poverty. In 1921, Indian nationalists adopted Khadi cloth as a symbol of resistance and incorporated the spinning wheel into the design of their flag.
Gandhi mobilised the masses through protest marches and acts of civil disobedience. As the independence movement gained momentum, the visual impact of his clothing and the large crowds wearing white ‘Gandhi’ caps became a powerful tool of protest. Jawaharlal Nehru successfully led the nation to independence on 15 August 1947.
The film below contains extracts from Mahatma (1969), a biographical film on Gandhi produced by the Gandhi National Memorial Fund in collaboration with the Films Division.
India's independence in 1947 brought the challenges of industrialisation and modernisation. Alongside a drive to increase factory production to clothe India's vast population, the government set up the All India Handloom Board in 1952 to nurture hand-weaving and other textile crafts. In 1961, the National Institute of Design was established and designers began to play a key role in the modernising process. Today, many independent studios continue to produce hand-made textiles, while cinema and fashion popularise traditional techniques.
Today, Indian craftsmanship remains in demand across the globe. International designers as well as British high street brands use Indian skills to produce garments with hand-beading and embroidery. Fashion brands sometimes choose not to promote their production in India as this is often associated with cheap mass-manufactured garments and the exploitation of labour. Many designers though have cultivated mutually beneficial business relationships with the Indian artisans they employ. They appreciate the great diversity and quality of skills available in India and the ability to create innovative designs for an international clientele.
At the Cutting Edge
The thriving culture of India's major cities is now nurturing a new generation of cosmopolitan designers, artists, consumers and patrons. From spectacular fashion to provocative art installations, makers continue to explore and experiment with hand-made textiles. They live in an environment of new technologies and fast global connections which affect how they interpret, use and interact with their heritage. Though fashion and art offer fresh ways of appreciating the hand-made, they also challenge our expectations. How can the possibilities of craft skills be extended to new areas? What is the relationship between artisan, artist and designer? International in their reach and inspiring in their creativity, today's contemporary Indian designers are exploring these questions, reflecting the very latest concepts of textile-making and use.
Contemporary textiles used purely as art are a relatively new phenomenon. Installed in smart urban homes and gallery spaces, they offer new ways of experiencing textiles. Using natural dyes, hand-painting or embroidery to express themselves, artists are stretching the possibilities of those techniques. They are removing them from their traditional uses to create works that are beautiful as well as thought-provoking. Collaborative pieces between artists and artisans are also a way of sharing skills and learning from each other. Experimentation becomes a driving force for preserving the old and forging the new.
Fashion emerged in India as a major creative force in the 1990s with many designers championing the value of traditional skills. Today, city-based designers routinely work with artisans across India, while in their workshops, they experiment with new materials and techniques. Exciting textures, a fresh aesthetic and western silhouettes have a national and international appeal. Craftsmanship in Indian fashion spans fine machine-stitching to the labour-intensive handwork needed for elaborate and often unconventional embellishments. It is this inspiring dexterity of the human hand which imparts a unique Indian identity to the final product.