Monday, 30th October 2017

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The Handmade tale

A fabric’s journey from the Phulia loom to the fashion ramp

By Smita Roy Chowdhury
  • Published 15.04.18
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The process of weaving begins with dyeing the yarn in the required colour, as the yarn comes kora (devoid of any colour). The cotton yarn used to traditionally come to Phulia from Tamil Nadu, but now a major part of it comes from China, while the linen yarn entirely comes from Rishra. The Samity gets its supply of cotton yarn from the National Skill Development Corporation.  There are various steps in the dyeing process itself, starting with making the dye and ending with washing the dyed yarn thoroughly under running water till the water runs clean. The yarn is then starched using rice starch. 

LORE OF THE LOOM

He looks like a regular village guy in his early 30s, his Bengali accent needing you to strain your ears. Then he starts speaking about his work. He knows what designer Rajesh Pratap Singh showed this season at Lakme Fashion Week and what was special about Abraham & Thakore’s collection at the last Amazon India Fashion Week. You fall silent and stare at him; he tells you he works with them all and various other top fashion designers of the country. 

We met Ramen Basak on a trip to Phulia a couple of weeks ago, a village 85 kilometres north of Calcutta in Nadia district, which is traditionally famous for its weaves. What was once a weaving hub known for the quintessential Bengali taant-er sari has now got a new character, thanks to the influx of fashion designers and export houses that have discovered the talent pool of the Phulia weavers. It is this new avenue of work coming into the village that explains Ramen’s in-depth knowledge of the high-end fashion world. We set out to explore the village, particularly a few weavers’ homes in the neighbourhood of Basakpara where almost all the residences house a family of weavers and every second house has looms of their own. This is their story — told in warp and weft. 

 

The next step is to reel the thread into bundles, which is usually done by women. This is often the only step in which women work, because weaving it is mostly a man’s job, at least in Phulia. 

Who’s sourcing fabrics from Phulia?

Export houses and retail chains place bulk orders for yardages. Brands like Fabindia, Shagun Overseas and Associated Exports get their fabrics woven here. “We get a lot of export orders, but that doesn’t come to us directly, that comes through exporters. We work with 20-25 export houses and brands and these are big orders. The volume of the work varies, some order fabrics worth Rs 5 lakh, some Rs 10 lakh and some place orders for Rs 1 crore… yardages, saris, dupattas. Like Fabindia gives us work through the year. See that room over there, it’s full of only Fabindia fabrics,” points out Binoy Basak, the manager of Nutan Fulia Tantubay Samabay Samity, a society with a cluster of weavers operating for 25 years.

Individual fashion designer labels who get their fabrics or saris woven in Phulia regularly are many, and some of the names that Ramen rattles off are Abraham & Thakore, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Payal Pratap, Anita Dongre, Dhruv Vaish, Payal Khandwala, Crow (Ahmedabad), Tahweave (by Sweta Tantia and Priyangsu Maji) and Abhishek Dutta (who was our guide on this trip).  

“We have had a long association with the weaves of Phulia. We started working in the ’90s, for saris as well as fabrics. I think there’s something special about them… the fabrics are extraordinary, the textures are beautiful. It’s fascinating for us to see the transformation from the paper design to the final product,” says designer Rakesh Thakore of the Delhi-based duo Abraham & Thakore, one of the first designer houses that started working in Phulia.

 

How does it work?

The process works in two ways. A designer can choose a ready sample made by the weaver and place an order. Or, a designer can give their own artworks and specifications for the material to be produced, exclusively for them. 

“The designer and our technical staff sit together and decide on the design, the colours. We have our own dyers. Sometimes we mail or WhatsApp them our designs, they choose and place orders. We discuss the details of weft and warp, the size of the bootis. Then we make samples and send them for approval. Once that comes in, we get on with the work,” says Binoy.

“Designers like Rajesh Pratap and Abraham & Thakore always give their own designs. They just take my advice on quality, what count of thread is needed for what kind of clothes,” says Ramen, who has been in this field of work for 13 years.

Delhi-based designer Rajesh Pratap Singh’s association with Phulia textiles goes back to 20 years. “Earlier we had somebody who would ship it from there, but it was fairly basic quality fabrics. Then about 12 years ago we got into our own design intervention there. We found one or two good vendors and we started doing both the sampling and manufacturing in Phulia,” he says.

Thakore, who works with the Samity as well as individual weavers, loves to make the occasional trip to Phulia to see his ideas take shape. “Earlier it was far in terms of connectivity, but now it’s pretty easy working with them. We send them the designs and with the long understanding we have of how they work, it’s easy now. Then they come up with new ideas too, it’s nice to see that. The interaction is very, very important. They need a lot of ideas,” adds Thakore.

Field trips aside, most designers get the work done over WhatsApp and mail. “They are all very well-equipped with computers and smartphones,” says Sweta Tantia of Calcutta-based label Tahweave.

The dyed thread is readied for a loom by wrapping it around a wooden drum-like structure. The entire yarn that would be required for weaving a particular design in a particular colour combination is wrapped before the weaving begins. For instance, this guy was wrapping yarn for 40 saris. In a day he can wrap the yarn required for maximum two saris, he said.

What do designers love about Phulia weaves?

It’s the softness of the fabric. “I think it’s very, very pure, it’s very soft to the skin, the lived-in feel is what I love. It’s comfortable and breathable. You can hand-wash it at home and the more you wash it, the softer it becomes, whether it’s cotton or khadi or linen. If it’s a silk mix, you have to handle it with care, but otherwise these hand-woven fabrics are easy on maintenance,” says designer Payal Pratap, whose summer 2018 collection is entirely woven in Phulia. 

Sweta agrees on the comfort factor. “The Phulia fabrics are very soft, very usable. It’s versatile, you can wear it during the day and also in the evening,” says she. 

Singh draws attention to the technical superiority of the weavers. “What Phulia is doing right now… the way they do their sizing (of thread count) is exceptional. The way they handle medium to fine counts of single yarn is pretty good. That is the most important thing about Phulia weaves,” he says.

 

The weaving process is a time-consuming affair. A metre of jacquard fabric takes up to five-six hours to weave and a day’s work would yield about two metres. For a plain fabric that would be four metres in a day. The weavers are paid per sari basis. “We pay our weavers Rs 600 for a sari; they weave one sari in one-and-a-half days, so two saris in three days. We have five looms in our house and our weavers stay here day and night,” says Dipesh Basak from Priyasmita Handloom. 

What are the weavers still lacking in?

The prime peeves of the designers is not sticking to deadlines and failing to be consistent. “It’s a challenge that is there with the whole handloom sector, not just Phulia. It’s about maintaining quality and consistency,” says Singh.

Menswear designer Dhruv Vaish from Delhi, who started getting his weaves from Phulia last year, feels there’s room for improvement in quality and the intervention of fashion designers is actually raising the bar. “Working with various designers, they have been improving their quality. That’s very important, because though it is handloom, being in luxury wear you have to maintain certain standards. So how this has helped them is, when there are more people asking for higher quality, it boosts their morale. There is more effort. So it’s about creating the demand for better quality,” says Dhruv, who doesn’t mind the delay in deadline. “It takes longer than you expect, but you have to take that because it’s handwoven, especially if the design is complicated,” he adds. Issues like shrinkage of fabrics, not getting the colours according to specifications are things that need to be worked upon, he adds. 

Sweta says that once you understand their delay pattern, you have to time your order accordingly. “If they said 20 days, it often came down to 25 or 30 days initially. But once we understood them, it became easy. They are smart people, and the thirst they have for learning is incredible. They have a sense of design because they have been doing it for so many people and the talent that is there is unbelievable.”

 

Aren’t the weavers weaving Tangail saris anymore?

Yes, they are, though linen, khadi and blends like silk-cotton and silk-linen have greatly eaten into the demand for the traditional Tangail sari. “During the lean period of two-three months in a year, we do our own production and sell them to retailers and wholesalers. We have made a display room for our own work,” says Binoy. 

A look around the display room revealed traditional Tangails to be few and far between, with modern innovations ruling the racks. The Tangail saris are woven to meet demand from Tantuja, and some wholesalers.

“In the past two-three years, handloom fabrics like linen have come to the mass market; it has become extremely popular among the upper middle classes. The weavers have benefited from it majorly, because in these fabrics the profit margins are high compared to Tangail saris. They have done many interesting blends for me too, like combining linen with lurex and lycra,” says Abhishek, who has been working with the weavers for eight years.  

Payal Pratap

What’s the biggest threat that hand-weaves are facing? 

Power loom. And synthetic yarn. While a handloom weaves a fairly simple sari in two days, a power loom would weave four similar saris in a day, scoring on time, labour and scale. “Cotton toh ekhon Phulia-y nei bollei chole, sob synthetic hoye jachhe. Power loom e synthetic suto bona subidha,” says Mintu Basak, who also works for the Samity. 

To prepare the cotton thread for the handloom is a long and tedious process that involves dyeing, starching and reeling. Then follows the strenuous process of weaving that demands immense co-ordination between the hands and legs of the weaver. To set up a new design in a handloom is a month-long process; then that can be replicated. If it is a very intricate design, one sari can take up to two weeks to be woven. Synthetic yarn comes with ready colours, ruling out the dyeing and starching processes. And while a particular silk yarn costs 

Rs 5,500 per kg, the synthetic yarn with the same look costs Rs 300 per kg. 

Convenience and cost-effectiveness have lured most of the houses in Basakpara to switch to the power loom. Pinky Basak, of Priyasmita Handloom, whose family has been in the profession over generations, says, “Power loom has taken over our neighbourhood. Since the costing is low, it’s easy to sell and most customers don’t understand the difference. Viscose thread is being passed off as khadi and even jamdani is being woven in the power loom. In my father’s days jamdanis would come for Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000, but now you get these jamdanis for Rs 1,800 because they are woven on power looms.” 

Singh, however, feels both handlooms and power looms have their own place in the textile industry. “The problem is not with the power loom. To sell something that is coming out of a power loom as handloom is wrong, I have a problem with that. When handloom weavers try to make something that can be easily made on a power loom, I have a problem with that. Both have a role to play in the industry and it is very short-sighted to write off either of them,” he says. Any fabric in which one needs a lot of regularity, or anything that can be mass-produced should be done on the power loom, feels Singh. “And anything craft-based should be done on handloom.”

Rajesh Pratap Singh

Do customers pay a premium for handloom fabrics?

“If you do craft-based fabrics which are meant for handloom, people will happily pay a premium for it. If you make regular, average quality, or textiles which can easily be done on a power loom, why would people pay more for it? We have to make sure to use the virtues of handloom, not compete with power loom,” says Singh. 

Thakore agrees that customers are ready to pay the price for handloom fabrics. “They understand the value of hand-woven, hand-spun, the sense of luxury. That encourages the weavers to continue. And what’s special is what people call defects… maybe in the dyeing process or the weaving process... that’s part of the character of the fabrics and that one has to make the customer understand. People are now appreciating it,” he says. 

With the global movement towards sustainable and slow fashion, there’s a great demand for handwoven creations. “Internationally, the moment it’s handloom, they value it far more,” says Sweta, who has taken Tahweave to markets in the Middle East, Europe and is headed for a trade show in Paris. 

Abraham & Thakore

How has life changed for Phulia weavers?

“The main difference is that earlier we couldn’t reach the customers directly, we had to give the saris to mahajans in Burrabazar or Gariahat. Twice a week maybe the stuff was sent to them, and payment was always much delayed. We were at their mercy. But now we are getting the clients directly,” says Pinky.

The online shopping boom has been a blessing too. “I’m selling majorly online. Through Facebook or through friends, we are directly reaching the customers — individuals as well as wholesalers, retailers and boutique owners. I am getting online orders, they’re transferring money to my account, I am couriering the products to them,” adds a 
tech-savvy Pinky.

A look around the neighbourhood shows signs of prosperity, with most of the houses being modern two-storeyed buildings. Some have retained the old mud huts built especially with a dug-in area to set the looms in the traditional manner. 

The awareness about sustainable fashion has made some of the designers take notice of the need to give back to the weaving society. “When we wanted to do Tahweave, we decided to explore the place. And once we went into the area, we literally went deep. We spoke to them, and we found that their working conditions needed improvement. So we decided to try and give back... in terms of proper shelter, good flooring, something that improves the living conditions. Basically, fair trade,” says Sweta.

The state as well as central governments, too, have undertaken various initiatives to ensure that the weavers remain a robust community and are not forced to leave the trade. The centre and the state have set up training units, with looms, gota and jacquard machines and other accessories, apart from also offering stipends to trainees. The master weavers are brought in as trainers. 

The state government unit offers Rs 150 as stipend for a 10-day training period, while the central government unit offers 45-day training with the same daily stipend. Anyone with knowledge of weaving can come in for training. “Once they are trained, we absorb some of them, while some work on their own and others with mahajans. We have trained 2,500 people in the last three years,” says Binoy.

Like in all labour-intensive industries, retaining and nurturing talent is the biggest challenge here too. The complex process of hand-weaving is a wonder and a legacy that is the pride of Bengal. And one can only hope that the hand never stops loom-ing. 

A Soumitra Mondal creation

Soumitra Mondal, Fashion Designer

I have been working in Phulia for the past 12-13 years. The first big plus, and one of the main reasons for its popularity, is its accessibility. You will reach Phulia in two-and-a-half hours from Sealdah. The Phulia weavers do a lot of experimental work, compared to weavers in the adjoining areas. That’s another plus. 

Since 1993, they have been working on export orders, for scarves mainly. As a result of which they are ready to experiment; they know that if they don’t do sampling, they won’t get orders. 

In the adjoining areas, the weavers don’t want to do sampling, they just want orders for production. They will tell you, “Ei design ta toh amra saat bochhor dhore korchhi.” This problem is not there in Phulia. 

I have 350 looms working in Phulia, exclusively for me. Apart from my fashion label, I have a company called Bunon Textile & Co that only manufactures fabrics. I give work to a lot of young people who are just starting out, so that they grow along with me.

From this year, my initiative is to open two of my own units in each of the weaving villages. In my first unit in Phulia, I am setting up eight looms from which I will be able to give you authentic handloom fabric. So I can guarantee my customer 100 per cent authenticity, which otherwise is becoming difficult to maintain. 

For a number of reasons, weavers were leaving their trade; only those who genuinely love weaving were sticking to it. If you look at history, a sizeable portion of the fabrics manufactured in India were produced in Bengal. In recent times it had declined to two or three per cent. 

Today there is a boom in demand for handloom. People are talking about sustainable fashion. Now every designer is doing handloom. But then you have to see how many people are getting their exclusive fabrics woven and how many are buying ready yardage.

Also, sustainability means you have to get into the lifestyle of the weavers, which not everybody is doing. But when I am talking about sustainability, I have to see whether I have been able to bring about a change in the quality of their livelihood.

When I talk about bringing in a change, I don’t mean increasing wages out of proportion. I think giving them the right wages is more important. Most important is maintaining the work flow, so that the loom does not stop, so that it keeps weaving throughout the year. Some new people entering the market are offering unjustly high wages and spoiling the market. 

The handloom boom has its pros and cons. One of the most important benefits of this is the weavers are getting constant work. The impact of designers is to educate them about modern lifestyles and make them manufacture products accordingly. The cons are, since many people are doing it randomly, the quality of the products and hence the market are deteriorating. After a certain period,  there will be a saturation. 

If you go towards Shantipur, and even parts of Phulia, the power loom has invaded. And that stuff is being sold as handloom. But yes, if you look at their quality of life, it has improved drastically. Phulia is the poshest part among the adjoining areas. Because from all over India people come to Phulia to buy handloom fabrics; because Phulia has been marketed very well. I can tell you the names of four other weaving villages who do good work, but nobody goes there. If you go to Murshidabad or Burdwan, you will see weavers are still in poverty