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How hemp can help revive our handloom Industry, our strength which has been ignored

How hemp can help revive our handloom Industry, our strength which has been ignored

Have you ever thought the textiles we so love to flaunt are a factor in the rapid destruction of the world we all live and breathe in?

Surprised? Well, here is a dropdown.

Textiles have become the third-largest water polluter on the planet. While factors like industrial waste, mining activities, marine dumping, sewage and wastewater, burning of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, accidental oil leakage, leakage from sewer lines, etc. play their role, dirty textiles are something we all contribute to, mostly unconsciously.

But that doesn’t lessen the damage. We keep spending billions of dollars every year on apparel, either using them or just keeping them for the sake of it, and then dumping them, without knowing a bit about the colossal damage it is causing.

An average American dumps about 28 kilograms of clothing every year. In India, 1.5 kg of clothing is dumped annually by an average person.

Most of these pieces of clothing, both wearable and usable, did their bit in wrecking our planet – while in making (manufacturing of synthetic fiber and artificial dyes), washing (detergents), and dumping (80% of discarded textiles ends up for the landfill or incineration).

Moreover, the clothing that is doomed for landfills can stay there for more than 200 years. Worse, as it decomposes, it exudes methane, a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon.

Destructive impact of synthetic fibers, chemicals, and dyes

Inflicting huge health and environmental cost, synthetic fibers are generally made of polyester, a by-product of petroleum and plastic. It causes hormonal disruption and has been even found to be carcinogenic. Skin allergies are often the result of the synthetic fibers coming into contact with the body. Synthetic fibers are flammable. To suppress this attribute, manufacturers use chemicals that make them irritating for the skin as well as more harmful to our environment.

Synthetic fibers are flammable. To suppress the characteristic, the manufacturers are using chemicals that make the fiber carcinogenic.  Not even the consumers but even the factory workers face the health hazards of manufacturing polyester. Processing petroleum into the polyester is a nasty process, leaving the poor workers and their families with debilitating health issues.

The production of nylon results in the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is several hundred times more dangerous to the ozone layer than CO2.

Usage of synthetic fibers and dyes is damaging the planet earth without repair. There are reports that the clothing industry is behind more than 20% of industrial water pollution. Most of the chemicals are the waste products of the manufacturing process, which get washed into the rivers and other water bodies. A big chunk of these chemicals simply does not disintegrate, which means that the water gets polluted beyond redemption.

The presence of these elements has made even marine life unsafe. Synthetic nylons have been discovered in the intestinal tract of a lot of fish. Seabirds have also died because of the ingestion of synthetic fibers they mistook as food.

Rayon is made from wood pulp, but thinking it to be unharmful and non-toxic will be a mistake. The manufacturing of rayon leads to the clearing of large forests.

The way out ?

The earth is calling upon us to discard the synthetic fibers and dyes and return to the natural products. It is high time we crawl out of the narrative weaved by the vested interests and re-adopt handloom. In case we are not able to do it immediately, we need to make sure we walk back the path in the coming few decades.

Remember the glory days of handloom and it will be obvious how the return to handloom will help us rediscover our lost glory. Handloom was a major factor in making even the remotest of our villages self-dependent and prosperity. Those were the days when we spun cloth on the spinning wheel, using natural fibers and dyes, which had zero environmental impact.

Just about 300 years before, we were the largest textile exporting country in the world. We accounted for 85% of the textiles exports in the world. Indians wore the finest clothes when the rest of the world used very gross and coarse kind of clothing. Europe had no clue how Indians were able to make the clothes of the highest quality sitting in their homes.

Indian textiles – years of decline

The colonial rulers destroyed Indian textiles to advance their own interests. Between 1800 and 1860, the British followed policies that resulted in the unemployment of millions of Indian weavers. At the cost of the livelihood of these humble villagers, the British promoted their own cloth factories back in England. The machines of mass production did heavy damage to the Indian native textile industry, which had made India self-reliant.

Between 1800 and 1860, 1.5 to 1.7 million textile weavers died because of starvation. Textile export plunged by 98% in just 60 years. If you measure by value, it dropped by 6300%.

The systematic destruction of the Indian textile industry also resulted in the loss of many weaving skills that their practitioners had earned in generations. Even in the post-independence era, the handloom industry failed to reach its erstwhile glory. India has 136 weaves, 67 of which are almost extinct now. As the practitioners of these weaves are in ripe old age and the younger lot are preferring other professions, these forms are likely to die as well in the next 10-15 years.

We need to get into the reasons for the steady declines in handlooms and work to revive them. And in the process, we are also sure of getting rid of synthetic fibers and dyes that are triggering economic destruction around.

Causes of steady decline of handlooms

That the British brought the doom of Indians is a known fact. But what is preventing handlooms to grow now?

The absence of a market and lack of raw supplies are two foremost reasons for the bad state in the handlooms currently. We will need to work on both these causes to revive the industry.

How to revive the industry

The handloom industry is divided into specific niches. For instance, Guledagudda of Bagalkote district in the Indian state of Karnataka is known for a hand-woven fabric, which is used only to make saree blouses, a traditional native attire. What makes the weave distinct is a unique reddish-purple border and small, white intricate motifs.

All the weaves mentioned have their own unmistakable imprints with their own specific markets. The onslaught of synthetic fiber clothes has led to steadily shrinking markets for handloom products, leaving little incentive for the weavers and their families to stay in the profession.

To restore the trust of the weavers in their profession, the markets have to be brought back. Informing consumers about the advantages of handloom products will not only support retain the existing markets but also get more people to buy the stuff. Encouraging weavers to form cooperatives will help in this regard as most weavers are skilled only in the production part and not marketing. Making cooperatives will not only scale up their production levels but also enable them to take advantage of the marketing skills of people who have had experience in it. This will increase their income and draw more people to weaver cooperatives.

Another challenge is to ensure a steady supply of quality raw materials to weavers. Conventionally, weavers used natural yarn and dyes to produce the fabric. However, currently, there is not enough land being used to produce raw material for handloom. We need to find ways to meet this challenge.

Can hemp ensure enough supplies to handloom?

Hemp has certain advantages over other natural fabrics such as cotton, silk, linen, jute, etc. Regarding its top competitor, cotton, hemp is miles ahead. First of all, the production of hemp per unit of land is considerably more than other fabrics. Hemp requires half the amount of land per 2,000 pounds of fabric textile compared to cotton. What is more, cotton demands four times more water than hemp.

Cotton requires 5,280 gallons of water sourced from agricultural farming methods to produce mere 2.2 pounds of cotton. Hemp, in sharp contrast, needs just 80 gallons of water to produce around 2 pounds of water. Rainwater is enough to supply the required quantity to hemp crops. Cotton also has a longer crop cycle.

A crop prone to attack by pests, cotton makes it imperative for farmers to spend a considerable sum on pesticides. It not only takes up the investment but also has an environmental and health impact. Hemp, on the other hand, has inherent anti-bacterial features. It requires a negligible amount of pesticides, thus bringing down the cost for farmers and subsequently, profits.

Hemp is a much more breathable and durable fabric than any other. After processing, it is as smooth as silk. These characteristics make hemp the first choice among all these fabrics. A substantial increase in the product in the same farmland ensures the supplies to the handloom industry are never down.

Shifting to hemp will end the supplies woes for the handloom industry.

How hemp-backed handloom can ease the pressure off agriculture

When the British left, 90% of Indians were in agriculture, not by choice, but because of compulsion. They struggled to eke out a living from whatever holdings they had. Subsistence farming became a big part of the farmers’ survival. Even today, several decades after independence, thousands of farmers are committing suicide because of structural issues. The old practice of growing food for their own survival hard for them when a calamity strikes. Lack of adequate structural support and direct lack of access to markets proved to be their nemesis.

A major reason for the suffering of farmers is that there is simply not enough land or the demand for food grains to support all of them. Foodgrains are perishable. There is no market system in India, where the perishable items could be preserved. Hence, getting the right price for their produce becomes practically impossible for farmers.

The only solution is to shift at least 30% of them to the production of cash crops (read hemp). Generally, cotton is regarded as the topmost cash crop.  However, as mentioned before, it has some serious disadvantages, and moving to hemp will serve objectives better.

30% of farmland producing hemp will be a big step in the right direction. Textiles are a big market and connecting to it will help farmers financially. As more people understand the importance of using natural fibers, things will only get better for the farmers as well as the handloom industry.

Time to reconnect traditional skills with hemp

It is not that hemp is anything new. It has always been a part of the Indian way of life, as evident from several cultural traditions and historical anecdotes. Lord Shiva was offered hemp leaves in several parts of India. It was a natural crop in the Himalayan region. The cotton lobby, however, which viewed hemp as a threat to their business, succeeded in misguiding the people and authorities regarding hemp and got it banned. Recently, the people and governments are waking up to the advantages of hemp and revoking the ban.

Traditional skills to weave exquisite cloth as well as make hemp products were a part of our culture. It was dismantled though, as you know now, for selfish reasons. We need now to connect the dots again between the two.

It is time to work with the handloom industry and convince them about using hemp as raw material. Using their traditional skills, they will be able to produce textiles that will be cash-generating for them compared to cotton or any other cash crop.

Using harmless natural dyes has also been a part of Indian traditions. Reconnecting with our roots will help us get rid of detrimental chemical dyes. It will help lessen the negative environmental effects of the industrial revolution.

Internet and revival of handloom industry

The dwindling market has been the nemesis of the Indian handloom industry. Internet is a powerful tool to find and take your products to the markets they haven’t been dispatched to yet. Even in the existing markets, handloom products can be marketed in a better way to get better prices, to the benefit of everyone associated with the industry.

Lamgodi: a case study of hemp as a revival tool

When Kedarnath floods pronounced utter destruction for the hilly state of Uttarakhand, one of several places that suffered devastation was Lamgodi. While almost all families suffered, there were 13-14 families where no men were left alive to earn for the family. Though immediate financial help was provided by the government, NGOs, and even the individuals, the money disappeared in a few months as did the interest of the benefactors about the life in villages.

Like always, we failed to understand the families facing financial distress in a calamity require sustainable income. While some grants might provide immediate help, they will only survive when they have the skills and means to earn. Quick support wasn’t followed by skill-training.

Hemp Foundation, well-versed with the village economy in Uttarakhand, pitched in, providing training to womenfolk in these families to weave cloth using hemp yarn. Our people worked with them consistently for months, training them in skills which would help them earn all their life. We instilled in them self-confidence and self-belief.

The credit to stand up again in their life goes entirely to these womenfolk who displayed exemplary courage and determination. Our role was just to introduce them skills developed by their own forefathers and then connect them with the world economy. The rest followed!

Closing thoughts

If hemp becoming the force to revive the handloom came across as an overshot to you, you might have altered your ideas by now. Hemp has the potential to take back handloom to its glory days and, in the process, help India and the world chuck the deleterious environmental impact of the industrial revolution.

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