India’s textile minister, Smriti Irani recently took to social media to launch the “IWearHandloom” campaign. This was in a run to India’s second Handloom Day celebrations on August 7. Her efforts to create a buzz around handwoven fabrics of India were met with unprecedented social media support. Celebrities and lay people alike tweeted pictures of themselves wearing handloom clothes.

Within 24 hours the campaign saw over 51 lakh impressions and had 58000 interactions on Facebook. The campaign’s reach was 1.55 crore with 2.17 crore impressions of the tag—#iwearhandloom in the first day.

The ‘Handloom Day’ conceived by the Textile Ministry is aimed at creating a buzz around handlooms and giving artisans in the textile industry a much needed push.

A Significant Industry

The handloom industry is one of the oldest traditional industries in India and continues to form the backbone of the Indian economy. It is the second largest employer in the country after agriculture. India is home to 4.3 million weavers across its length and breadth working on as many as 2.4 million looms of different kinds. It holds the impressive record for the largest loom capacity in the world at 59%. It is also the world’s largest maker of handwoven fabrics and accounts for 95% of all handwoven fabric produced in the world!

From India to Rest of the World

The industry is a significant contributor to India’s economy. It caters to a large export market’s demand for home linens, rugs and carpets, tapestries, upholsteries, embroidered textiles, curtains etc. among other things. Indian handlooms have some big names in their clientele, this includes companies such as Ikea, Target Corporation, Walmart, Habitat, Town and Country linen.

Some of the major handloom hotspots that work on export goods in India are Kannur in Kerala, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Panipat in Haryana. Exports of Indian handlooms rose from US$ 264.2 million in 2009–10 to US$ 368.0 million in 2014–15. According to the Handloom Export Promotion Council the US continues to be the largest market for Indian handloom products. The other top importers of Indian Handlooms are European countries - The UK, Germany, Italy and France.

France has consistently been a major market for antiques, handicrafts and textiles from Asia. The demands on imports include socially responsible, environmentally friendly processes that handlooms must adhere to in order to qualify for imports.

According to a report by the Embassy of India in France, the French furnishings and décor segment is a promising one for Indian handlooms. France is the largest importer of curtains in the EU. While between 2007 and 2011, France’s curtain imports moved up by 6.3% annually, total EU imports had moved up by a lower 2.3%. It is also one of the top importers of table linen in the EU and India is its top supplier of the product. The country’s imports for bedspreads is the largest in the EU and with little local production it turns to developing nations such as India. These factors along with the demand for sustainable products make it a significant market for Indian handlooms.

Another important market for Indian textiles is Canada. India is Canada’s largest trading partner in South Asia. In recent times the two countries have increased their bilateral business interactions. Much of Canada’s needs for textiles comes from imports. According to statistics, woven clothing, apparel and other textiles such as floorings are among the top Indian imports to Canada. India currently ranks the fourth largest importer of textiles to Canada.

India Handloom Brand

The Government of India has created the “India handloom Brand” certification for high quality handloom products. For products to be certified they will have to adhere to stringent quality standards, traditional procedures and be defect free.

According to the Government of India, the brand was launched in August 2015, “so as to endorse the quality of handloom products in terms of raw material, processing, embellishment, weaving, design and other parameters besides social and environment compliance for earning the trust of costumer”

The parameters suppliers will have to adhere to in order to qualify for the India Handloom brand includes that “That no azo or banned dye has been used and necessary arrangements have been made for treatment of effluents.” It also includes the condition of no use of child labour.

More recently, in an effort to popularise handlooms, India’s Department of Handlooms and Textiles has collaborated with 70 retailers and 9 ecommerce players. Amazon India’s “Crafted in India’ section is dedicated to Indian handlooms.

Rs 6,000 crore (US$ 889.44 million) has been earmarked to attract investments in the textile sector that is worth US$ 10.95 billion.

An Eco-friendly and Women Centered Industry

India’s handloom industry unlike several other sectors is innately environmentally conscious and responsible. The traditional use of natural plant based non-toxic dyes is already an intrinsic part creating handloom textiles.

India’s handloom industry is dominated by women workers. It offers many rural women the opportunity of working flexibly in processes such as weaving from home based looms, preparing yarns, stitching or embroidering while they accommodate their domestic responsibilities.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in a speech on Handloom Day this year, “On National Handloom Day, let us affirm that we will give an impetus to the handloom sector and use more handloom products in our daily lives. Our handloom sector is diverse, eco-friendly and is a source of employment for countless weavers, who will be very encouraged by our support.” He also made the correlation between handlooms and their importance in the lives of women. “Since there are many women associated with the handloom sector, growth of the handloom sector is an important means of women empowerment also,” he added.

Challenges in the Sector

Despite the endless consumption of clothes and fabrics, the handloom industry in India is faced with several challenges. Being an unorganised sector middlemen and marketers are able to cash in on the potential of Indian textiles. However, often those at the lowest rung, the weavers and workers themselves see no benefits trickling down to them. Being labour intensive and requiring high levels of traditional skills has meant that many traditional methods have become endangered and will perish with the artisans. Perhaps the efforts to revive handlooms and make them financially viable will help weave a different story for the future.

Elizabeth Raj | Blogger- Arsha Consulting

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