Handwoven Kala Cotton
Kutch is home to a rich and diverse history of weaving traditions: an insight into the landscape itself as well as a glimpse into the lifestyles of those who settled to tend the fields, those who roamed throughout the region, and how the lives of different communities were quite literally (sorry) woven together in an economy of farmers, yarn producers, specialised weavers, and those who purchased and utilised the finished items.
One such unique woven cloth is Kala cotton, which begins life as a crop indigenous to Kutch and resilient to drought and wind, with a high tolerance to pests and diseases. The cultivation of this hardy, rain-fed plant is being revitalised by the Khamir craft organisation as an alternative to genetically modified cotton that requires irrigation and chemical treatments: Kala cotton is carbon neutral, energy efficient, economically viable and promotes valuable ecological diversity in India. With minimal investment needed, it's ideally suited to marginal farmers who can't afford the risks that come with 'modern' cotton farming, while the potential for sustainable income extends to the whole production chain of spinners, ginners, weavers and those using natural dyeing and printing techniques to enhance the cloth.
I love Kala cotton! I love the dedication to bringing back this organic local crop and boy do I love how it looks, especially when the yarns have first been dyed with natural indigo. While artisans weave the cotton into a wide range of weights and finishes, generally there's a slightly coarse, tactile edge to the fabric that is just delicious to a textile addict.
Also wonderful? Getting up close and personal with the indigo dyeing process. Taking a walk around the Khamir campus - stopping to make friends with a pile of rambunctious puppies - bundles of black and blue yarns drying on wooden beams caught my eye. Snooping further, I discovered my very favourite corner of the compound, not to mention my favourite people. Have you ever had a conversation with someone you've just met and share no common language skills with, for it to eventually dawn on you through bad sign language and much hilarity that the substance in question is cow urine?! I recommend it. (As for the urine - a vital part of the indigo dyeing process...!)
Dhaniben Khengar, her husband Khengar Manji Vankar and their colleague Maheshwari Nanubai Harji were so generous with their time, knowledge and smiles, walking me through the processes of their craft with actions when words failed us. Even Manji bhai, initially more reserved than the laughing women, would eventually beckon me over when he was ready to dip the yarns into the indigo dye bath so I could watch the cotton darken from green through turquoise to deep blue as it was pulled out of the tank and exposed to the air. Essential subjects like our families, marriages and children were illustrated thanks to the marvel of photos on mobile phones, through which I also learned about the prestigious workshop on natural dyes they had travelled to Hyderabad to take part in.
Having seen how the yarns were dyed, we spent time in a nearby village where the rhythmic clack clack of handlooms rattled from every other home. Picking our way down a narrow path, then doubling back thanks to a grumpy cow with giant horns who had no intention of letting us past, we reached the home of Vankar Aalu Viram, sitting in the pit at the end of the long loom outside his house.
Having learned to weave khadi at a young age in the footsteps of six generations before him, cloth production had been Aalu bhai's stable career for decades before the earthquake of 2001, at which point his family had to relocate and working in the fields was the only option. To his great pleasure, government support schemes for local handicrafts enabled him to get back into weaving not long after, and now approaching 60 years old Aalu bhai takes pride in the carpentry of his looms and spinning wheels as well as the beautiful textiles that he brings to life.
Meeting a number of different artisans weaving throughout the village, the dexterity and coordination between hands, feet, eyes and yarns was mind boggling. Invited to have a go on the loom of a lady weaving with recycled plastic, I was embarrassingly clumsy. Weavers are wizards, no question about it. Another skill I'm lacking in? Drinking tea directly off the saucer - it's harder than it looks!
The Dhaniben Clutch is named for a hardworking woman with a smile never far from her face, but honours each and every artisan behind this beautiful fabric. The Kala cotton initiative is so vital in the local economy and an understated jewel in the region's textile crown.