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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Textile exports: then and now

Textile exports: then and now

The paucity of handspun yarns and the declining number of weavers for distinctive handloom products have contributed to a fall in exports

Neeru Kumar’s silk shibori. Photos: Priyanka Parashar/MintPremium
Neeru Kumar’s silk shibori. Photos: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

In many ways, the 1990s were a period of incredible cultural transformation. That was when the information technology revolution took root as a booming Silicon Valley sent ripples across the world. It was the time India was liberalizing, with new markets opening up. The time was ripe for new products. The rich Indian inheritance of textile skills and natural raw materials offered exciting and unlimited potential. Suddenly, the world was an open market, hungry for anything original and different. And I had graduated from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

Textile design was my passion and strength and I set off on a journey, throwing myself into the world of weaving. I set up a weaving design studio for the Handicraft and Handlooms Exports Corporation of India Ltd (HHEC). This gave me ample scope to experiment with, and develop, woven textiles for markets abroad. It was an exhilarating time. I explored the possibilities of Tussar silk, with its outstanding colour and texture, and its immense, but still hidden potential.

The products we developed in that period under the Neeru Kumar brand were extremely well received the world over. Japan, Europe and the US were fertile markets. Economies were doing well; Japan, especially, was experiencing an economic bubble and was willing to pay more than the rest of the world for good design. It was the best market to work with. I happened to find like-minded studio weavers in Japan who were just setting up and wanted to collaborate with an Indian weaver. It was a symbiotic partnership that lasted more than 20 years. There was mutual learning and growth, with a free and generous exchange of ideas and aesthetics.

I attribute our success in exports in the 1990s to the defining features of the textiles we designed using indigenous raw materials, developing exceptional products from Odisha Ikat and Bengal Khadi muslin, with sophisticated hand-weaving techniques, in a colour palette that caught global attention. This gave our brand a strong visual and textural identity.

Neeru Kumar’s double Ikat in indigo
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Neeru Kumar’s double Ikat in indigo

Many classics from our work repertoire found space and appeal across the world—from Hollywood film sets to homes with Zen-like interiors. We had a Khadi clothing exhibition in Japan in 2001, which was a huge success.

Currently, textiles from our collections are sold from prestigious museum outlets, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Harvard Art Museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rubin Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, both in New York.

Since the late 2000s though, there has been a significant change, with international markets looking for cheaper merchandise. Except in very niche, high-end markets and some select global stores, the handmade is not sought after in the same way it used to be. The cumulative effect of the global financial meltdown, felt especially in Europe and even Japan, the need to push up quality to compete with the best, the surge in machine-made textiles and the decreasing availability of handspun yarns, which contribute to making unique products, has led to a fall in handloom exports from India.

On the supply side too, the production possibilities have become more constrained, for traditional weaving work no longer offers viable livelihoods. Young-generation weavers are considering other occupations, so finding skilled workers to create distinctive products, workers who are willing to deal with detailed design intervention, is no longer easy. Earnings have come down and there is little to motivate them.

Machine-made textiles should ideally not pose a threat to handmade textiles because it is simply impossible for a machine to replicate the distinctive, almost luminous, qualities of the handwoven. It is important for us, and future generations, to understand, respect and value the effort that goes into the making of handmade textiles.

A conscious effort has to be made to sustain these skills, especially in the area of hand-spinning, which lends to handwoven fabric such singular character. It is only in the development of specialized hand skills and their application that hand-weaving will be able to make its mark in world markets.

There is little hope for the wonderful inheritance of Indian handmade textiles unless the product speaks for itself. It is here that design intervention must focus—by playing upon the uniqueness and luxury that handmade offers. This is where experimentation can play a vital role in supporting the survival of exquisite textiles made by the human hand, mind and eye, and the knowledge and skills that India is fortunate to still possess in such abundance.

The writer, a textile designer and conservationist, is the founder of the Neeru Kumar and Tulsi brands.

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Updated: 27 Aug 2016, 12:35 AM IST
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