I did something recently that gave me more satisfaction than a vacation. At the Sampoorn Handicrafts fair held at Chitrakala Parishad in Bangalore—similar to Dilli Haat and Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda festival—I spotted a beautiful khadi salwar kameez swaying in the wind. It was off-white, simple and beautifully cut. I had to have it. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it in my size. “All these are cut to Italian sizes, madam,” said the volunteer manning the stall.
“Why don’t you go next door and buy the fabric?”
This was how I discovered Malkha cotton, which brands itself as the “freedom fabric”. At Rs110 per metre, it was reasonable. I bought 8m, enough for two salwar kameezes; and found it to be eminently breathable; perfect for Bangalore’s varying weather.
Soon, I began wearing Malkha pretty much every day. I became obsessed with this simple handwoven cloth that made me feel—if not exactly Gandhian, at least like a Gandhian’s stunt double. A Gandhian wannabe. Fashion as a political statement.
I went to the website (www.malkha.in) and read their blog (http://malkhaindia.blogspot.com). All entries were put up by a lady called Uzramma, so I emailed and then called her. When we spoke, she was in Chirala village in Andhra Pradesh, where one of Malkha’s four units operates. Uzramma (“no last name”) is in her mid-60s, and has been working with handloom textiles since 1989. “The great strength of Indian handloom is the regional diversity,” she says.
Mass-produced yarn from spinning mills increases production but neutralizes the quirky variations of regional Indian textiles. In the past, cotton itself went by many names: bafta, nainsukh, dosuti, moree, jamdani, mulmul, chint, mashru, himroo and others. Now, they all have morphed into Westside or Big Bazaar cotton.
As Uzramma talked, I finally realized what Malkha was. Malkha (the word is a combination of mulmul and khadi) is a fabric, yes. But it is also a blueprint, a logistical exercise. Fabric production today is a multi-step process that has become the opposite of sustainable.
First the cotton is picked and taken to a ginning mill to separate the lint from the seed. This fluffy, airy lint is actually the foundation of cotton fabric. Processing this lint into yarn requires severe mechanical intervention.
Here’s what happens: This lustrous lint is steam-pressed into bales, trucked hundreds of kilometres to the nearest spinning mill, where a conveyor belt with coarse, medium and fine-toothed combs separates and loosens up these tight bales of lint—akin to how we comb our hair. The somewhat loosened bale is sent to a blow room where industrial-size fans blow hard to get the cotton bale back into its original fluffy state (like we blow-dry our hair and you know how damaging that is).
Malkha avoids all the above steps, thanks to what its blog calls a “revolutionary carding machine” that does all of the above steps on site. The portable carding machine takes the cotton from the grower and separates the trash from the fibres right there. The fibres are fed into a draw frame where they become yarn. The yarn is bought by the weaver in the neighbouring village who makes fabric out of it.
The Malkha Marketing Trust markets this fabric, which is created by a self-managed micro-enterprise with the wonderful name of Kranti Nulu Vastrautpathi Vikraya Kendram that roughly translates as Revolutionary Yarn and Fabric Production and Sale Centre.
The inventor of Malkha’s carding machine is a 42-year-old mechanical engineer from IIT Madras, and managing trustee of the Chennai-based Fractal Foundation named L. Kannan. “Spinning inherently is a small-scale activity,” says Kannan. “Textile production was village-based, household-based. Nowadays, the whole thing is organized with no geographic proximity, creating inefficiencies, rejects, and pile-up of stocks, so that the individual artisan or weaver becomes a piece-rate worker. The substantial value that the industry generates is not passed down to the weaver.”
Fractal Foundation entered the game to address this gap. “We are trying to return textile production to the community—so that cotton yarn production, the dye house, the weaver and the garment-making unit are all localized. That’s why some call this carding machine a game changer,” says Kannan.
His last sentence would have sounded like a brag were it not for the flat tone in which he delivered it. Uzramma’s response is more enthusiastic. “We are going to rule the world of cotton textiles,” she says. “The way we make Malkha is energy-saving, eco-sensitive, socially responsible, and produces good clothes. What more do you need? We are going to change the world.”
The problem, of course, is the scale. Malkha’s four units together produce 2,500m of cloth per month. In contrast, the daily fabric production of Delhi-based Modelama Exports is 10,000-15,000m.
“People are interested in Malkha because it has a story to tell,” says Sanjay Gulati, the managing director of Modelama Exports. “They are spending money and feeling good about helping a cause that percolates down to thousands of weavers. Malkha combines modern technology with a traditional handcrafted method. All of this has touched the hearts of our European customers.”
Is scaling the main problem with marketing Malkha? To my surprise, he disagrees. Scaling up is not the solution, he replied. “There are some products that we place on the top of the table as a symbol of our prestige and pride. I think if we market Malkha this way, it will attract customers that are the elite of the business world. Mass market production will make it lose its charm.”
For all Indians, particularly Indians of the past generation, cotton is a fabric suffused with romance and identity—ranging from the sheer Dhaka and Bengal cotton to the bright Chettinad variety. They are all a part of our psyche. As Uzramma said, “Textiles have been the core industry of the subcontinent for 5,000 years—like silk is to China and baskets or bamboo weaving are to Africa.”
What Malkha is doing is not “revivalism”, she insists. Rather, it is using the “strength of the Indian textile production traditions in a contemporary context”.
A portion of Malkha fabric is exported to Italy, France, Norway, the UK and the US. A French buyer for Hermès wrote a letter, posted on Malkha’s blog, enthusing over its texture and subtlety. The fabric is also attracting the attention of local fashion designers, including Mayank Mansingh Kaul, whose designs for kurtas using Malkha fabric are put up on the Malkha blog.
I find Mayank on Facebook and email him. We talk. Kaul, 25, is a Delhi-based textile designer who founded a fashion collective called Afterhours. “Cotton is not just a fabric; it holds so many associations for us Indians,” Kaul says.
“Malkha takes an interesting position because they are about handwoven cotton, not hand-spun. Hand-spinning is unsustainable. It costs Rs1,000 a metre and as a designer, it is hard for me to build that cost into my clothes. Malkha takes the best of both processes and creates a reasonably priced fabric that is getting rave reviews from international buyers but is also affordable for the local villagers who create it.”
Estimates vary, but India is among the world’s largest producers of organic cotton. The problem, according to fashion designer Peter D’Ascoli, is that there are only three Dutch agencies which certify organic cotton and most of the cotton farmers cannot afford this certification. D’Ascoli worked in New York with Diane von Furstenberg for many years before relocating to Delhi. He is part of Kaul’s collective. “As a New York designer, I am so attracted to Malkha because it addresses two huge fashion trends that we need to focus on,” he says. “The desire for sustainable production; and the whole notion of fair trade and nurturing ancient crafts and ways. Malkha addresses both these trends in an authentic way. Two weeks ago, in New York, I showed Malkha fabric to Diane (von Furstenberg) and she had the same reaction as I.”
D’Ascoli, Kaul and two other designers in the Afterhours collective are planning a fashion road show using just the Malkha fabric. They will start in October with a show in Mumbai’s Melange and then take it to London, Milan and possibly New York. They should also try Serenity, an eco-friendly store at Jayamahal Extension in Bangalore and do a show here. I would buy. They should also consider designing Malkha shirts or kurtas for business people like my husband: socially conscious but not a tree-hugger. Malkha might just possibly achieve this middle ground and be the fabric of choice for everyone from the young editors of Mint to the younger breed of politicians.
Shoba Narayan wonders if Malkha might be the midpoint in the continuum between a tree-hugger and a corporate titan. Write to her at email@example.com