When one hears the word ‘khadi’, the first thing that springs up to mind is Mahatma Gandhi and the Swadeshi movement that he led. The fabric is a symbol of Indian textile heritage that embodies a worldview of the past as well as of the future. Khadi has been linked for a long time with India’s freedom struggle and politics. Although a hand-woven fabric, it has a legendary meaning and relationship to India’s freedom struggle. It has a long winding history and the evidence of its presence came from Mohenjodaro and the Indus Valley Civilization. However, Khadi came in limelight as a pure hand-woven native fabric during the Swadeshi movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.
The word is derived from “khaddar”, which refers to the handspun fabric. It is also a term used for fabric in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is a hand-woven fabric usually made from cotton fiber. It is also combined with silk or wool and referred to as khadi silk or woolen khadi. The material is known for its durable texture, comfortable feel, and ability to keep people warm in winter and cool in summer. In general, khadi is produced in two steps. Firstly, the fiber is converted into thread using tools such as spinning wheels (popularly known as Charkha). Then the thread is woven into a fabric with the help of looms.
For centuries, the Indian subcontinent has known hand weaving or spinning. Even during the Vedic period, charkha, a spinning wheel, was present and used for spinning khadi. Years later, during Mauryan and Gupta periods, the production of the fabric was greatly advanced and in the Mughal period, it reached its peak. The art of weaving khadi was only relegated to villages after the Industrial Revolution in England when Charkhas were replaced by power looms.
The famous stone sculptures found in Mohenjodaro represent the origin of the fabric. They are elegantly decorated and have patterns that are still in use in modern Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Sindh. However, the actual method of growing or spinning employed by Harappans is not entirely known.
Ancient literary references have also given the earliest descriptions of cotton textiles in India. In 400 BC, Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote that “there are trees that are wild and produce a sort of wool better than the beauty and quality of sheep’s wool. The Indians make their clothes with this tree wool.” Interestingly, some of the paintings of the 5th century on the Ajanta Caves of Maharashtra also depict the process of separating cotton fibers from seeds (called ginning) and women who spin cotton yarn!
The trading route that was established by Alexander the Great was the initial movement of hand-woven clothes that began throughout Asia and Europe. The hand-woven calico, chintz, and muslin were a hit on the European markets by the end of the 17th century. The growing popularity of woven hand textiles threatened local foreign market expertise and resulted in the enactment of laws banning chintz in France and England. They then sold their manufactured materials to India at very low costs, with the introduction of industrialization and textile mills.
One of the last blows that left thousands of weavers throughout the subcontinent unemployed was the establishment of Bombay’s textile factory. The decline in hand-woven fabrics of cotton further deviated until Mahatma Gandhi took the responsibility of interweaving the Khadi movement with a greater fight of the freedom movement.
Khadi was revived as a powerful political weapon for national liberty and the employment of the poor during the Swadeshi movement. Mahatma Gandhi believed that this fabric was intrinsic to the nationhood of India. As a national mission, it was popularised. He saw the process of creating khadi as a way of liberation from foreign rule and as a means of independence and unity between all classes. Indians who believed in freedom boycotted foreign clothing and wore home-spun khadi clothes. This helped in expanding the once declining khadi industry. This was a very important step. Khadi denoted Hope when it was revitalized in 1918.
In 1925, the All India Spinners Association was created after the Non-Cooperation Movement in order to create, produce and sell khadi. The organization worked tirelessly for two decades to improve the techniques used for khadi production and create jobs for India’s unemployed weavers.
Even after independence, advanced weaving techniques were developed that continued to flourish. KVIC (Khadi and Village Industries Commission) is even known today for designing and supporting the development of Khadi fabric. As the fabric gained considerable fame, the KVIC organization worked diligently to improve the techniques and offer employment to Indian artisans.
Khadi had emerged to be a trend in the early 1990s. KVIC held the first khadi fashion show in Bombay in 1989. The show displayed more than 80 different styles of khadi wear. Ritu Beri, designer and entrepreneur, presented her first Khadi collection in the prestigious Tree of Life show at the Delhi Museum in 1990. It was then that khadi was launched on a bigger scale. Now as an advisor to KVIC, Beri is working to take khadi to the global arena.
As India entered the 21st century, many new Indian designers started experimenting the versatile textile to make sure that Khadi remains in fashion.