A young crop of designers is reinterpreting denim by weaving it by hand to give it a different and softer shape
Lounge looks at whether this trend will overcome the idea of structure and stiffness its come to be associated with
Denim has been one of the more enduring and recognizable style trends in India. Ahmedabad-based textile company Arvind Ltd, which was the first to start manufacturing it here—over three decades ago—remains the largest manufacturer. With increasing demand and more producers entering the Indian market, manufacturing, especially with mill-spun and woven yarn, has been scaled up and dyeing with synthetic indigo has become a common practice.
Around 2011, Arvind Ltd also began developing “handwoven denim", crafted from handspun Khadi instead of cotton, in consultation with designers Shani Himanshu and Mia Morikawa, who run CellDSGN. The company owns the label 11.11/eleven eleven, founded in 2009, which specializes in textiles like Kala cotton and ahimsa silk. In 2014, their collaboration resulted in a collection of handmade denim.
Aamir Akhtar, CEO, lifestyle fabrics—denim, Arvind, says: “Handwoven denims are a tribute to the traditional textiles of India that historically provided livelihood to a large section of society, primarily village communities who use heritage techniques. Since the entire process is manual, the fabric is not only premium, but is also extremely sustainable. They are different from machine-woven denim fabrics made in highly automated industrial set-ups."
A SLOW-WEAVING INITIATIVE
Handwoven denim has grown in popularity though some believe it cannot be labelled denim without that fabric’s key characteristics of coarseness and stiffness. A handful of new brands have created a niche market, crafting a “Make in India" identity for denim.
Generally, denim is crafted in a twill weave, with enough yarn count and weight per square yard to give it a stiff structure. Designers working with handwoven denim are opting for softer fabrics, which might have a similar weave construction but a higher yarn count, lending the fabric fluidity and fineness.
In past seasons, designer Diksha Khanna—whose eponymous label was founded in 2014 in Delhi—has showcased the possibilities of altering denim’s rigidity with a lightweight distressed sari, perhaps the first of its kind. Her design aesthetic, she says, is “based on combining contrasting elements like structure with fluidity. It revolves around the coexistence of opposing forces, which harmoniously come together and blend in synergy."
Harago, a small label founded by Harsh Agarwal in Jaipur in October, deals in handwoven menswear. Agarwal weaves his denim in an unusually high yarn count, Ne 60, which makes it light. “For menswear, it’s usually very difficult to work with handloom textiles because they end up being too light, but such handwoven denim works well for menswear," he says. It allows him to make long coats, waistcoats and even drawstring pants—clothes not usually associated with the fabric. He adds an extra dimension by tie-dyeing the yarns before weaving them.
Founded in 2017, the Indian Weavers Alliance, which supplies textiles to Raymond and Good Earth, started experimenting with denim in October, along with Surat’s Anubha Industries. Their area of operation is Guwahati, Assam, away from the concentration of denim mills in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
“As per the last census, Assam has around 1.35 million weavers, the largest in the country. Having said that, the handloom industry is still struggling because of the lack of a versatile product, especially because it focuses on the production of localized, area-specific products," says Indian Weavers Alliance founder Saumar Sharma. He chose denim because it is “versatile, market-friendly, fashionable and has a regular demand", and is able to provide employment to weavers. The Alliance’s speciality is making denim from eri silk, widely available in the region. “We are trying to diversify the fabric from its traditional qualities," says Sharma.
All three creators, Khanna, Agarwal and Sharma, work with versions of denim that can be tailored easily and worn in tropical weather. Given these characteristics, Himanshu maintains, it cannot technically qualify as denim. Himanshu, who has consulted with global denim brands Diesel, Gas Jeans and Levi’s, says: “I haven’t seen anything closer to or newer than what was being done before (in texture and tensility). I see it, but it isn’t denim for me, just another woven fabric. It’s not easy to weave denim because the number of yarns that pass through the reed (in the loom) is high and makes it heavy, and not a lot of weavers are able to do that with precision.
“The idea behind wearing denim is being able to break into it. After a year or two of wearing any new denim garment, it will start taking your form with creases, almost like your second skin. Any fabric that limps or is relaxed won’t have the same effect. It can be inspired by denim, but isn’t authentic," he adds.
Handwoven denim for all
So, will handwoven denim spread beyond its niche? Compared to other handloom textiles, it’s more labour-intensive because it is usually woven on a four-pedal loom. Akhtar says: “Handwoven denim is currently an extremely minute percentage of this business. An artisan can at best manufacture approximately 4m of handwoven denim every day, while high-speed industrial looms deliver almost 400m as daily output."
Khanna, Agarwal and Sharma believe in the commercial viability of their products. Himanshu, however, is less optimistic. “Knowing the precision with which handspun denim is made, I don’t think it will be produced on a mass scale. If that happens, it will lose its delicacy," he says.
But this isn’t stopping designers from inscribing an Indian identity on a foreign garment.