How India’s Textile History is Woven Into the Modern Fabric & Soft Goods Industry
For the WORK+SHELTER team, producing apparel and accessories in India is a joy. India has a rich history of textile production, and continues to be a global superpower in the fibers sphere today.
That means we can source top-quality materials in the same place they’re made, which saves our client partners from having to pay import fees. Sourcing locally is also the most sustainable option, with in-country transportation leaving only a small carbon footprint.
So we thought it was time to explore the history of textiles in India, and how that legacy shapes what we produce here at WORK+SHELTER.
There is archaeological evidence of the cotton industry in India dating back over 5,000 years, and Indian fabrics have even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Wild! And cotton isn’t the only notable export of the ancient Indian textile industry: Indian silks were traded throughout the regions surrounding the Silk Road in China, and further down the line to western countries.
Fragments of block-printed Indian cotton discovered in Egyptian tombs by Egyptologist Percy Newberry and his wife Essie. (1)
There were many factors that played into the colonization of India by the British Empire, but prominent among them was India’s high-quality, low-cost cotton. England has a centuries-old history of spinning, dyeing, and weaving raw fibers into highly sought-after textiles. But the English climate isn’t suited to growing cotton. So when the U.S. abolished slavery, England had to turn elsewhere for raw cotton fiber.
Under English rule, many Indian farmers were forced to stop their traditional practice of growing small quantities of many varied crops (aka subsistence farming). Instead, they were coerced into producing huge amounts of cotton and exporting the majority of it to England. Those exports, once processed into cloth and clothing, were shipped back to India to be sold to the Indian people–at a premium. “The sought-after Indian weaver and spinner became a destitute farmer, hungry and scantily clad in [British] cloth made from Indian cotton he so dutifully grew,” writes Tara Kashif in the Friday Times. (2)
Followers of Gandhi preparing to burn clothing and household items made of English cloth. (3)
Indian mill owners and activists soon rose up in opposition to this new system. In the early 1900s, Mahatma Gandhi and his followers ignited the Swadeshi movement, whose name translates to “of one’s own country.” They encouraged Indians to boycott English-made products (especially cloth and clothing) in an effort to overthrow their colonial English rulers. Gandhi urged the Indian people to use two “weapons” to achieve this goal: non-violence and handspun cloth.
Gandhi encouraged people to learn to use a spinning wheel, so they could make their own cloth. He himself spun his own yarn and made his own clothes on a portable spinning wheel while he was held as a political prisoner in Pune’s Yerwada jail in the early 1930s. Hand-loomed cloth came to be known as “khadi.” Gandhi felt khadi was a symbol of independence and self-sufficiency and “described it as ‘the soul of swaraj’ (self-rule).” (4) The movement gained traction, and the British Empire’s hold on the textile industry (and the country as a whole) began to falter. This led to a complete re-organization of India’s textile industry, and a re-clothing of the Indian people.
Gandhi spinning yarn at his spinning wheel. (5)
Gandhi’s teachings and traditions have carried on, and weaving remains an important part of Indian culture. Because there is a lengthy tradition of Indians spinning, weaving, and making their own clothing, Indian “fashion designers” didn’t start cropping up until the 1980s, and even then they mainly focused on one-of-a-kind garments.
Economic liberalization and the spread of global pop culture propelled the industry, as did the opening of the National Institute of Fashion Technology by the Indian government in 1986. This led to a more widespread pool of designers and the introduction of “ready-to-wear” clothing around 1990, no doubt spurred by the fact that large U.S. manufacturers were starting to move their apparel production to India.
Today, India is the second largest producer of textile fiber in the world. India’s most common textile crops are—
Perhaps not surprisingly, cotton makes up 60% of India’s textile industry. The tropical climate here is ideal for cotton cultivation, providing temperatures and moisture levels that are ideal for the six- to eight-month growing season.
Silk is the second most common fiber produced here. And the Indian silk industry has a happy side effect: The production of certain silks helps slow deforestation, since the forests where some silkworms live are protected.
The third main fiber produced in India is jute: a soft and durable plant fiber mainly spun into twine, rope, burlap, hessian cloth, carpets, and matting. You might recognize it as the main material of the popular “Apolis Bag,” shown below.
Natural Jute (left) | Black Dyed Jute (right)
In 2000, in an effort to maintain their standing in the global textiles industry, the government of India passed the National Textile Policy. They passed strong legal protections (including high tariffs) against importing fibers from outside of India in order to preserve the domestic weaving and milling industries. This explains why certain fibers and fabrics are difficult to find in India–hemp, for example. 70% of the world’s hemp supply is grown in China, while only two states in India allow hemp production.
W+S CEO Theresa VanderMeer and Finance Director Amanda Dye at a Khadi shop in Rajasthan.
At W+S we tend to work with two types of vendors:
- Artisan groups that do small-batch, handwoven fabrics (more expensive, smaller scale)
- Large mills that may have certifications (better rates but larger scale)
As mentioned above, most of India’s textile output is in natural fibers. However, this doesn’t mean India doesn’t manufacture synthetics.
Synthetic textiles can be:
- Petroleum-based, as in the case of polyester and nylon
- India does produce polyester, but we mostly steer clear of it for sustainability reasons.
- The exception is rPET (yarn made from recycled water bottles), which is plentiful in India. We regularly source knits blended with rPET, and 100% rPET woven fabrics.
- Cellulose-based, or made from wood pulp
- Rayon, viscose, modal, and lyocell are widely available in India.
- We often get requests for Tencel, which is a proprietary lyocell made by Lenzing and flush with eco-qualifiers. However there are other, less well-known producers of eco-friendly cellulose fabrics.
Theresa with longtime friend + current client partner Allyson Dykhuizen at a local fabric market.
Because of its long history, cultural significance, and legal complexity, India’s textile industry can be complicated to navigate. So let us be your guides! We’d love to talk to you about the best options for your order; and we can put together custom swatch books on demand. Swatch books take 4-6 weeks to compile, and are tailored toward your project’s specific fabric needs.
If you have a project in mind that you’re looking to develop or discuss further, drop us a line at [email protected] or schedule a meeting with us. You can also find more information on our website here.
- Susan Bean, “Gandhi and Khadi: The Fabric of Independence,” 1989.