Spinning Forward

Cotton in India Today

When you visit India your head keeps turning to take in all the splendor, and sometimes squalor. It is a heady mix of beauty, confusion, and calm. One of the things you can’t help but marvel at is the fabric. Both the men and women are swathed, knotted, and wrapped in copious amounts of colored cloth in adherence to ancient traditions.
 
 
The women wear saris, which are an elaborate wrapping of typically six yards of fabric. It’s a look that is so elegant even the street sweepers in Mumbai resemble royalty trotting off to a gala ball in the Western world. The men often wear the traditional lungi or dohti, a fabric wrap that can be a long or short—a skirt-like substitution for traditional trousers. They also wear turbans or pagri, another topping of glorious wound fabric (again six yards) all attached and perched as if by magic. The turban is a symbol of respect, and it’s often offered to honored guests.
 
 
Shagzil Kahn, a cultural specialist with Far Horizon in southern India, explains, “When civilization started to weave cloth thousands of years ago there was only cloth worn as clothes. Nowhere else in the world is the population still wearing traditional unstitched cloth as clothing the same as centuries past.” 
 
 
When you look at the people of India, at work along the canals of Kerala, selling tea in Darjeeling, dancing to charm snakes, cleaning the street, or tending babies, most are wearing traditional cloth spun and wrapped. There are no seams or hems to bind. The sari is wound to suit the woman, and each man has a style to his turban or lungi as it has been for thousands of years.
 
 
I couldn’t stop gawking at the women on the road crews in Jamba in northern India. There they glowed in magenta, and lime green, punctuated by tangerine or raspberry backed by the dull dune-colored sands of the Thar Desert, resembling guests going off to the opera until you notice their hoes or shovels and the intensity of digging to build a water trough or create the foundation for a new school. 
 
 
Fabric, especially cotton, has had a long history in India. Gandhi’s struggle with British rule took as its symbolic center the fact that the British Empire bought raw cotton from India. The British, however, shipped back to its factories in Manchester to be spun into cloth. Thus the nexus of a non-violent strike and self-sufficiency for Gandhi and his supporters for independent India was homespun cotton or khadi. In fact the simple spinning wheel—charakha—was the logo for Indian Independence.
 
 
Today cotton cloth is everywhere in India. It is dyed blue and worn by children in the rural schools. Giddy young teachers wear saris made from home-spun cotton. India’s fabric is on constant display. At the Southern Health Improvement Society’s eye clinic in the Sunderban islands, which ring the southern coast of India, the nurses wear cotton-candy pink saris of homespun cotton. The women doctors proudly wear sky blue, and the patients come clad as their ancestors have for generations in a blur of color, patterns, and intensity. 
 
 
Cotton in India is also woven to create bedcovers, high-end 600 thread count sheets, thirsty and lush towels, and fabric for men’s shirts. At the laundry in Mumbai, visitors can watch as the industrious washers and wallahs gather bedding from the finest hotels and beat it against the sides of ancient stone basins. The sheets hang like bleached banners in the bright light wafting the aroma of chlorine and sunshine in the back streets of one of the world’s busiest cities. 
 
 
When I inquired endlessly about fabric and cotton I believe I finally wore down my intrepid guide Sanjay Saxema. As we pulled into Jodhpur, he quietly announced that he thought he had found what might satisfy my fabric lust. He did not disappoint me. We headed out of the amazing Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel at dusk and into the center of Jodhpur. Nothing prepared me for the crush of cows, carts, cars, people, motorbikes, and rickshaws. I stayed close to Sanjay. I felt as if I was playing a lethal game of home free all, and every street crossed was a prize.
 
 
We traipsed up a flight of stone steps and entered Ali Baba’s magic castle of fabrics. The walls were lined ceiling to floor with fabric jewels. There was a bevy of young men toting bales of iridescent silk and hand embroidered cottons gleamed in the dim light. The owner Chitranjan Jain introduced himself, “Tell me what you want, what you are dreaming of and I will lay it out here at your feet.”
 
 
There were panels of quilts, there was cotton woven for the likes of Armani or Hermes and carted home in trunks by movies stars like Richard Gere. Jain was proud of his high-end clientele, but he was prouder still of the women and men who were weaving for him in the little towns and villages across India, continuing a tradition.
 
 
When I came back through Kennedy airport in New York City my bags were carefully stuffed with yards of multi-colored cotton intended for a turban, but I envisioned a table runner in my downtown loft. I carted cotton for curtains and a white and ecru cutwork bedspread for a bride-to-be. I had scarves and whisper thin white cotton blouses. When the customs agent at the desk asked what I had, I demurred, “Oh just a big bunch of cotton.” And I unzipped the bag containing the roll of fine khadi. She waved me through. I bet she didn’t know that fabric had fueled a revolution.

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