Handloom Futures

Teaching young weavers the art and business of hand-loomed textiles

At 18, Bhavna is already a highly accomplished handloom weaver, taught by her father and grandfather.  Clad in jeans, she explains, in quiet confident English, that she feels weaving is a “very very noble profession.” A lot of young traditional weavers would not agree with her.

The latest official census shows that seven million families in India earn their daily bread weaving cloth by hand. This makes handloom weaving second only to agriculture as India's largest income-earning activity. But very few traditional weavers of Bhavna's age aspire to pass their lives at a loom, nor do their parents encourage this. Weaver parents need their children to have a formal educational degree of some sort and to earn more than they feel is possible as a weaver. Across the country, low wages, poor working conditions, and low social status cause an escalating dropout rate amongst young weavers.

If these young people had other job opportunities in the many small rural areas where they live, this dropout factor might be less disturbing. Sadly, they do not. So there is an increasing number of weaver youth who, unlike Bhavna, have not learned traditional weaving skills from their elders because they sought an educational certificate that, unfortunately, qualifies them for nothing. They enter the ranks of the unemployed as “cool, dissatisfied kids.” Like unemployed youth the world over, they have their cell phones, fast bikes and expensive jeans. They are full of dreams, but they have no viable income earning skills and no way to afford their new habits.

This may be the generation in which centuries of inherited handloom skills are lost to the world, as elder weavers fail to pass them along and children are discouraged from learning them. Traditional weaving clusters adjacent to urban areas will be the worst affected.

Fortunately in more remote rural areas, there are enough young traditional weavers, like Bhavna, who are ideal candidates for reversing this trend by attending The Handloom School, they can look forward to a lifetime of weaving and to being viable world citizens as well. Like Bhavna, they wish to “help other weaver families.” By taking a one-year course in textile design at a private institute in Indore, Bhavna has already proved herself exceptionally entrepreneurial. Indore is the nearest 'metro' to her own small, ancestral town of Mahdehsar, in Central India. But education in a city like Indore is expensive and very challenging to young people who have grown up in rural environments.

Bhavna's counterparts will have a better option through The Handloom School program, based in Maheshwar. The school will offer a one-year course which includes Design, Textile Technology, Business, Digital Technology, Language, Communication, Ethics and Sustainability.

Small at its inception, The Handloom School will grow to a ten-acre campus with multiple facilities and it will eventually have satellite campuses across India.

Thanks to a scholarship program and a clear mandate to teach both girls and boys on an equal footing, Bhavna will be amongst The Handloom School's first graduates. She is already skilled in very fine count weaving: silk warp, cotton weft and intricate borders of find gold thread. Her fellow students at The Handloom School will be young weavers from diverse weaving traditions across the country. There will be much that they can learn from one another.

Today they know of little beyond their own villages. Their sole link with the outside world has been the “master weaver” or middleman, who commissions their work, supplies their yarns and eventually markets their products, juggling their earned wages against the advance loans they have taken from him to sustain their lives.

When they come together at The Handloom School, these students will represent the full range of India's vast repertoire of weaving: from heavy count cottons and wools to the finest, near invisible handspun khadis; from Benares' rich silks to Bikaner's earthy wools.

As graduates of The Handloom School, these students: Bhavna's counterparts across India—will hold a new place in the world.  They will form a tight team, supported by their newly acquired knowledge, confidence and experience and continuously learning through the links forged with each other and with the world.

A graduate of Stanford University, Sally Holkar married into the former royal family of Indore, hereditary patrons of Maheshwaree handloom weaving. She co- founded Rehwa Society in 1978 and managed it until 2002, when she founded WomenWeave Charitable Trust to support women weavers across India. To support The Handloom School, contact unmesh@sustainabilitycxo.com or women.weavers@gmail.com.

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