The Genteel
August 3, 2020


Close up of Khadi fabric (Photograph by Kunal Lodhia)

"What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery... The impetus behind it is not philanthropy to save labour, but greed." - Mahatma Gandhi

In the age of ever-increasing efficiency, production and consumption, it's very easy to lose sight of why it is we consume; ideally, it should be out of necessity. In his effort to liberate India from the industrial grip of British rule, Mahatma Gandhi Ji advocated "Swadeshi" (self-sufficiency) as core to the movement towards independence or "Swaraj" (self-rule).  Gandhi Ji taught himself and others the art of creating thread through the use of the ancient Charkha, a yarn spinning wheel. He pushed the idea to supporting societies and expressed how the symbolic act of using the Charkha could unbind the people from their dependency on Western machining mills and help them realize how unnecessary it was to consume vast quantities of imported textiles. 

Iconic image of Mahatma Ghandi and
the Charkha

By 1920, this peaceful revolution was steady on its way as Charkhas quietly spun in unison in villages across the nation and the word Swaraj was on the tongue of those hungry for freedom. Khadi, the "nationalist fabric" was born.

At that time, Khadi referred to hand spun and hand-woven coarse cotton cloth. The simple procedure begins with cotton being rolled into slivers and then carefully fed into a turning Charkha.

Those who still honour the tradition of turning the wheel with one hand and feeding ginned cotton with the other find the process meditative; they focus on the steady rotation of the wheel that symbolically perpetuates the echos of freedom cries many years ago. Quite literally, history is woven into the fabric.

Traditionally, the Indian flag was only to be made of Khadi, and the second insignia of the Swadeshi movement being the Charkha wheel at the center of the flag. Although originally comprised of cotton, Khadi is also made of silk. The coarse and knotted appearance of Charkha-spun cotton Khadi makes the fabric easily recognizable. As one would expect from a handloom, each thread is different in appearance and each yard is a work of art that varies from one another. Hand dyed, Khadi can have the even more unique characteristic of varying shades throughout the thickness of thread, an elegant and subtle detail that lends much character to the garment it transpires to be. Khadi is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, a key attribute for many people living in the varying climates of India. The fabric can be comparable to a type of linen - after a few wears and washes, the fabric relaxes.

In these Bhanders, one can wander through neatly folded racks of Charkha Khadi from all around India while taking in the rich smell of "dhoop" that has incensed the air for years.

In contemporary pop culture, we've seen Khadi used in costumes, including as the robes of the Jedi in Star Wars films. Obviously Yoda would have to know Khadi! Yet today, the number of traditional Charkha spinning communities is steadily declining. The demand for cheaper goods has, once again, resulted in power mills replacing handlooms. Consumers who ultimately bear the cost of increased cotton prices are preferring less expensive alternatives. More expensive to buy, handicrafts are in less demand and fewer weavers continue to make Charkha Khadi. The substitution of synthetic for natural fibers, along with the diminishing returns of cotton crop yields from organic farming have further expedited the push for power mill-made goods in recent years. What once was a readily accessible fabric is now attainable by a much fewer number as it is a treasure in increasingly limited supply.

In an effort to safeguard tradition, the government has established subsidized co-ops for handloom-working communities and distributes Charkha Khadi throughout India via a network of handcraft emporiums known as Khadi Bhanders. In these Bhanders, one can wander through neatly folded racks of Charkha Khadi from all around India while taking in the rich smell of "dhoop" that has incensed the air for years. Look up and you'll most likely see a framed photo of Gandhi Ji draped in a garland overlooking the showroom. Ask to see some Khadi in a few shades and whatever little stock they have will be laid out in front of you. You can't help but run your fingers along the warps and wefts and think of the artisan who placed each one by hand. Their story, their technique and their care all woven in. That kind of connection is what makes Charkha Khadi so magical. Hundreds are employed by the support system of co-ops and more will shift towards this work force should the demand for Charkha Khadi increase.

In the end, the driving force is still consumer preference. It is not uncommon to see communities of modern day artists or musicians clad in bespoke Khadi garments. However, with the imbuing of name branded apparel and the heavy influence of Western media in society, Charkha Khadi is steadily losing its fashionable appeal in India. To make an appreciable resurgence, textile distributors will have to step up and market Khadi as a possible substitute for similar fabrics such as linen. This will raise awareness of Charkha Khadi, and more importantly, of what it represents.

This year, one of the most influential textile manufacturers, Arvind Mills, placed an order with several handloom co-ops to distribute a special line of denim created from Khadi. Arvind Mills, a significant player in the denim industry, has previously collaborated with Japanese denim maestro Hiroshi Kato on several collections of selvedge denim. With a steady rise in current denim sales worldwide, this is a wise step in the right direction to bring the production of real Khadi back into demand. In parallel, it will also take the unified efforts of designers and consumers to realize the consequences of their preferences in order to revive Charkha Khadi spinning communities.

In an age of ever-increasing appetites for consumption, there is a chance that we are unwittingly ending deep-rooted traditions. The story of Khadi represents both the idea of being connected with how much we actually need and just how naturally beautiful simplicity can be.



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