The covid-19 pandemic has brought handloom/handmade back into the limelight. This is a story of five individuals who chose to do it by hand.

As the world adjusts to "the new normal," this normal has given an impetus to online, touchless, contactless selling. The silver lining to the dark coronavirus cloud has been that many entrepreneurs not hitherto very active on online platforms are now making their presence felt.

This has also served as an eye-opener for many towards the work being done by them. In the plethora of WhatsApp groups created to promote textiles, handloom, craft and the like, there are a few very interesting entrepreneurs doing work at the grassroots level and yet running their business/organisation professionally-with that profitable bent.

The common thread among these entrepreneurs is that all of them are professionally qualified people who gave up their well-paying jobs to grow a business based on sustainability, yet with a business thrust towards profitability. It is their way of "doing the business differently."

Doing it differently

The five entrepreneurs vetted out for this article are spread across the country- Anandi Enterprises, based in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu founded by R Balagurunathan, a textile technologist; Prasanna, theatre director-founder of DESI and Charaka based in Heggodu, Shivamogga in Karnataka; Bharat Jain, an engineering graduate with a fledgling Gyan Vidya Hastashilp at Ajmer, Rajasthan; Saumar J Sharma from NIFT 's Indian Weaver's Alliance at Guwahati, Assam; and Chandrakant Patel of Udyog Bharti, Gondal, Gujarat.

They all focus on generating employment in the rural sector, and that too at the micro level. Call their's social enterprises, sustainable enterprises, or whatever else, but those seem the way forward. The businesses range from working with farmers to producing better variety of cotton and weaving sustainable fabrics on handloom.

What sets them apart is that despite working at the grassroots, the focus is on cost competitiveness. Saumar is working on a project that will come out with natural dyeing that will cost ?60 to a metre. And "if the product becomes affordable for the middle and upper middle classes, I can replace 30 per cent of their home fabric requirement with handloom. Besides, I can provide employment to nearly 13 lakh weavers."

Prasanna echoes something similar: "Our natural, dyed fabrics are cost competitive with the chemical dyed ones. Our focus is production, and to become self-sustainable. Let designers sell the garments at fancy prices." Chandrakant gushes with pride, "Our organisation is the only one where the turnaround of capital is 1.75 times a year. In most other khadi organisations, it is less than 1 a year. We have our own sales outlets, and supply to mills, brands and designers. We work with the primary motive to provide employment to a greater number of people, especially omen."

It is this focus on costs to bring down the sustainable and natural fabric line to an affordable level that makes their work so interesting. Unlike wanting to extract a premium for handmade, their focus is to increase the demand so that more employment can be generated, and more production and in turn sales take place. Business with social objectives is a difficult balance to maintain.

Anandi Enterprises: Making it from waste

This new start-up by Balagurunathan in 2017 along with his daughter deals in the entire chain of sustainable textiles-from fibre to fabric. The product range includes organic cotton, recycled yarn, farm recycled natural fibres, Surabhi 33mm organic cotton, Suvin 39mm organic cotton.

Bala, with palpable excitement reveals, "We are reviving Suvin (39 mm), the world's longest cotton, again in India. We had done trial production, spinning, weaving in the last year getting seeds from the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). This year, our first commercial production of organically grown Suvin cotton will be available in January 2021."

This is being done with 50 farmers in the Dharmapuri- Salem belt, and the cotton is being cultivated over 47 acres of land. Another project involving 3,500 farmers is on for Surabhi (33 mm) organic cotton, which is a summer crop and not water-intensive.

Bala adds, “We are open to all kinds of partnerships for Suvin and Surabhi with fibres, spinning, yarn, weaving, fabrics and even apparel through our Ecoelate brand for organic cotton.” The strength of Anandi is their yarn, given the diversity, ratio and innumerable permutations and combinations. Then, there is Recca yarn made of recycled cotton.

A very interesting range of yarn offered is broadly referred to as natural fibres, but is actually a farm waste recycle project. Waste banana stems, areca nut shells, aloe vera and hemp outer covers are blended with Surabhi organic cotton fibre to get a banana-cotton yarn. The ratio of farm waste to cotton is roughly 30:70. What is unique about this blending is that unlike the pulp method of yarn making where the natural properties of the plant are lost, here little bits of the plant are spun along with cotton in the ring spinning process.

DESI and Charaka: The need to dye

DESI and Charaka are the largest producers of naturally dyed handloom fabrics in the country, with a capacity of 30,000 metres, scalable up to 50,000 metres a month.

Informs Prasanna: “Our brand DESI is our strongest point. We work with over 800 people through cooperatives and other modes. We have 15 DESI shops which sell our products.” Impressive, but when Prasanna moved from Delhi to Heggodu, the famous theatre village, 30 years ago to work in theatre, the ground reality was different.  But as he today says, “This area is not a cotton-growing region; hence, there were no skilled traditional fine weavers. We started spreading technologically; first tailoring, then weaving, and then dyeing. We began making thick cloth which was suited for men’s kurtas.”

Prasanna continues, “This region is known for areca nut production, whose extract was used as dyes in the paint industry. Thus, grew an idea to dye our own cloth using natural dyes.

It was also a protection against the powerloom onslaught as handwoven natural dyed will stand out on its own. We started procuring yarn, dyeing them with natural colours, and getting it woven in the north Karnataka region by the Charaka women’s cooperative.”

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He is pragmatic, “Our natural dyed fabrics are competitive with the chemical dyed ones. When we experiment with a colour, our first priorities are bulk and scalable. We do not look at niche colours produced from expensive dyes.” The new project is called Sacred Fabrics.

As Prasanna explains, “Karnataka has around 3,000 monasteries belonging to different sects. Our study showed that they needed 300–400 metres of kashaya vastra every year. If we can supply them, our production and marketing is taken care of. We will devise a system of sales and re-dyeing of last year fabrics. Thus, it will be a win-win situation for everyone.”

Indian Weavers Alliance: Scaling up from the micro level

The first thing Saumar did when he started his business was to put in an ERP system “so that we can have real time reporting. Everything is online, transparent and can be controlled easily.”

The Indian Weavers Alliance’s forte is sustainable fabrics—kala cotton, organic cotton, linen, wool, hemp, muga tussar, mulberry with of course a special place for Eri silk. Saumar says, “After understanding the nuances of business, I wanted to do something which would make a difference to the people at the ground level, and yet be professional and competitive. I chose Guwahati because Assam is my home state and the maximum number of weavers in India are in Assam.”

So was born this organisation, with an almost Jeeves-like person Vikash Maheshwari as the first team member. “Vikash was persistent in sending me images, and those drew my attention to their interesting work.” Saumar continues “Assam produces nearly 80 per cent of the global Eri silk, but still the quantum is not sufficient enough for the number of silk spinning mills to sustain on a daily basis. We discovered that weaving has not been a primary source of income even today in Assam.” Saumar promised them 240 days business, technical expertise, training, raw materials and equipment.

It is this model which has been replicated in Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. They have 84 handlooms in operation, and the looms used are specially created wooden and jacquard looms.

Saumar adds, “The units everywhere are managed by micro entrepreneurs who have a will to scale up and work with us. Our focus is on a model which can be scaled up and we can do bulk orders.”

Udyog Bharti: As large as it gets

They have just got an order for weaving 12,000 metres of handspun organic cotton and indigo denim fabric on the handloom for Patagonia through Arvind Mills. There is another order for 24,000 metres of shirting material too. The project will run for a year, says Chandrakant Patel with pride.

And proud he should be as he runs the largest khadi spinning and weaving institution in Gujarat set up in 1957. It is also called a model khadi unit among the range of Khadi and Gramodyog institutions across the country. The trust was started by Chandrakant’s father Hargovindbhai Patel.

“We work with over 1,150 persons. Our operation is spread across 35 villages. We deliver yarn to the weavers for weaving and roving to women for spinning. We have over 200 handlooms, with a capacity to make 30,000 metres of fabric every month.”

As Chandrakant adds, “We make cotton fabrics from count 10 to count 200. The fine muslin count cotton is also made by us. Twisted yarn is used. It is long lasting and does not tear fast. We have also been making fabrics from organic cotton for the last eight years, for which the cotton is directly purchased from the farmers.” They were the first to introduce poly vastra in 1978.

Gyan Vidya Hastshilp: By answering a call

One is familiar with wave twills, twills, honeycomb weaves and denim weaves used for apparel and furnishing, but rare is that one finds saris or stoles woven in twills. What more—it is further block-printed, dyed with shibori or even done little embroidery as well as patch work. The block printing is done using ajrakh, dabu, bagru and sanganeri prints. It makes the sari different, and yet affordable.

The brand is called Hastkaar by Bhartesh Vaibhav and the person behind it, 27-year-old Bharat, is electronics engineer who worked at a corporate office in Jaipur when the religious beckoning of Guru Vidyasagarji made him go and learn so as to help rural people generate their own livelihoods.

As he says, “At the Madhya Pradesh ashram, we saw handloom for the first time and realised what went into making cloth. I learnt nearly all aspects—from constructing a loom to weaving. I worked at their units, helped them set up handloom units to generate employment.” He was hooked.

Bharat adds, “At the end of 2017, I was able to set up my shed. At the moment, I have nine looms and enough space for more.” Bharat trained local youth who did not know weaving and started the looms. The looms, explains Bharat, “are different, in that those are made of metal. Those are frame looms with slotted angles and pedals.  They can be adjusted, which makes the production faster. My engineering background proved useful in remodelling the existing looms.”

At the moment there is a capacity to produce 980 metres, but as Bharat says, “We can scale it up.” Another strong point with Bharat is his focus on cost competitiveness.

This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of the print magazine.