A new denim looms ahead

The denim has survived wars, recessions, and almost always been in fashion, and is now being re-imagined in yet another avatar. Heard of handloom denim?

For Muhammad Furkan, a third generation weaver who lives in Kiwad, a village 75 kilometres away from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, the sound of a handloom in motion is like a second heartbeat. He recalls it being one of his earliest childhood memories. However, for the last six months, the three looms that he operates from his house and the two that he oversees in his neighbour's, have been producing a fabric they are unaccustomed to -- denim. 

Here, Furkan's entire family chips in with the work. And it is not just them; in fact, there are over 200 looms in the village that are participating in an experiment that has been initiated by the Denim Club India (DCI), a forum for denim professionals and enthusiasts in the country. Called the Handloom Denim initiative, the forum is attempting to create a revenue model that will help the handloom weaver community get jobs and higher returns, while promoting the craft to an international consumer.

Though Furkan's father produced only khadi, and Furkan made bandages and other low-priced products for the local market, he moved to manufacturing fabrics for brands like Fabindia a few years ago. He earned anywhere between Rs 100 to Rs 120 for creating fabrics like jute and cotton. With the switch to handloom denim, he now earns around Rs 240 per day. At Rs 60 per metre, he is able to churn out three to four metres a day on each loom.

A photograph of some of the handloom denim products at the
Tex Trends India Exhibition in Delhi, which was held on January
19, 20 and 21. The designer bottoms made from 'handloom
denim' will start upwards of Rs 10,000, formal coats will start at
Rs 8,000 and jackets at least Rs 10,000. Denim Club of India will
introduce the new products into the market at InDIGO 2012,
which will be held on April 20 and 21, this year in Delhi

The denim thus produced makes its way to New Delhi, on eight hour-long bus journey. Once in the city, designers will use the denim to create high-end collections of jeans, jackets and dresses. Jackets, for instance, will be sold for a minimum of Rs 10,000. This new 'handloom denim' is unlikely to cause too much of a ripple in the denim industry,  however, which hovers at the US$ 51.6  billion mark globally.

Why? While conventional industry-based denim is manufactured at high volumes for a mass market, handloom denim is manufactured at the painstaking rate of three metres in eight hours. However, the DCI believes this model is sustainable. It believes that many hi-end consumers look for more environment-friendly clothes, which is where handloom denim scores.

According to Rajesh Dudeja, founder, DCI, "The village (Kiwad) doesn't even have Internet connectivity. I thought it was important for the weavers to see the final product and meet the possible investors to know the potential of the industry. At the start, the weavers were reluctant to produce something new, but they now understand the returns it can generate." At the Tex Trends India Exhibition held from January 19 to 21 in Delhi, weavers met designers and individuals from the denim industry to better understand each other. On April 20 and 21, the DCI will organise InDIGO 2012. Here, denim products made through the handloom process will be exhibited to the public.

Dyed thread is reeled onto spindles that are then used in the
loom. This is a preparatory step to preparing denim carried out
by female members of the family. Pics Courtesy/ denim club of

According to Ikramuddin, a 38 year-old weaver who goes by his first name, the effort to produce this denim is worth it. "I don't mind losing sleep because I can put my children through school. They will have a choice to work elsewhere and even if they choose to continue in this line, they will be educated," he says. For the last six months , he, along with six brothers, has been working almost 12 hours daily to produce handloom denim.
Naturally, the fashion industry is excited by the wealth of choices.

Designer Samant Chauhan, who has conceptualised a range of Jodhpur pants made from handloom denim, suitably called Rugged Handloom Revolution, says, "Handloom denim is in line with eco-friendly and sustainable fashion. With this launch, I hope both the fashion-conscious as well as eco-conscious are able to enjoy the new range that will be made available."

It's not just the fashion industry. Many are hopeful that this will provide relief to a craft that is increasingly under threat from large-scale factory products that are cheaper to produce. As RN Choubey, Development Commissioner -- Handlooms, Ministry of Textiles puts it, "It is wonderful to know that handloom denim has been successfully developed in the Bijnor cluster. This is a remarkable achievement. It will enhance the value of traditional craftsmen and open new avenues for them."

Dudeja claims this can provide employment to many weavers. Around 700 million metre of denim is being produced in India every year and industry bigwigs say it will increase to an anticipated demand of around 1200 million metre by 2014-15. "Even if 1 per cent of the total denim demand is met with handloom denim, it can generate employment for more than 13,000 workers on looms and an equal number of people who will work on the pre-weaving process," he says.

Your blue jeans are going green
Not only will denim created through the handloom process help the struggling weaving community in India, it is also environment-friendly. In the conventional method, the journey from cotton to denim involves leaves a large carbon footprint. Here, cotton yarn is typically "sized" with starch to increase its strength for weaving, and bathed in oil-derived paraffin to smooth and lubricate it. The yarn is often "mercerised" in caustic soda, to give it a worn-out look. Caustic soda can kill aquatic life and even burn workers. Dyeing, an integral part of denim production, is also one of the most toxic steps.

Denim gets its colour because of indigo dye. While industries prefer to use synthetic dye made from coal or oil, handlooms prepare the dye using plant extracts, after making modifications on handlooms used to make khadi. The denim produced through this process is labour-intensive and slow-moving in comparison to the mechanised method, but the handloom works on manual energy and does not leave a carbon footprint. The fabric too is light in weight and comfortable in hot weather. Colour options however are limited in handloom denims.

Did you know?
The ancient art of handloom
Fragments of woven cotton and bone needles have been discovered at Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa, the ancient seats of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Even the Rig Veda and the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana dwell upon the craft of weaving at length. These weavers of the past were true masters of their craft. Such was their capability that legend even refers to the fabulous semi-transparent saree (a great technical feat) worn by Amrapali, the famous courtesan.

Four questions for
Jesus Ciriza Larraon,

Director of The Colours of Nature (TcoN), a small clothing manufacturing brand based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. TcoN was the first company to introduce eco-friendly handloom denims in India in 2007

You were an engineer in Spain when you decided to come to India and start The Colours of Nature. Why?
I started the company in 1993 because I wanted to study ancient Indian dyeing techniques. I love the craft and I do this out of passion for the cause, not to make money.

What makes your products stand apart?
If the material is organically grown, the dye is natural (the dyeing process does not use chemicals). The buttons are made from natural ingredients, the embroidery threads have been naturally dyed, the jeans are given a finish with bio degradable soap (very less pH) and are made from organic cotton and therefore the jeans are completely organic.

What was the reaction of weavers when you approached them to create handloom denim?
They said it was impossible to make a fabric so tight on a handloom. We ended up making a few modifications and it took some convincing but now we are working with about 25 weavers locally.
The numbers are low, so we produce limited products.

Are eco-friendly products deemed niche and hence priced higher?
Our jeans are priced between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 because of the limited numbers made. Those are still competitive prices. It isn't an elitist concept to wear organically produced clothing. If the demand increases by 40 per cent, the price could fall by 70 per cent and hence the main idea is to increase awareness about the product. Our growth has been considerable but slow.

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