Bringing the handloom back to life

Weave together 1960’s idealism, leadership and vision, and a great love for everything India, and the fabric you get is Sally Holkar, the force behind WomenWeave, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of women weavers in rural India.

Holkar came to India after she married college sweetheart Richard Holkar, the son of the extravagant last Maharajah of the princely state of Indore, Yeshwant Rao II Holkar. Unlike her father-in-law who spent lavishly on houses, gems, and cars, the young, altruistic Mrs. Holkar was ready to save the world. She set her sights to bring back to life her new home land’s weaving tradition.

Maheshwar, the original capital of Indore, was once a thriving supplier of fine cotton sarees to all of central India. The Maheshwaree saree style was popularized by Devi Ahily Bai Holkar, the widowed ruler of Indore state in the mid-18th century.  These special sarees were of pure cotton and measured nine yards in length. The traditional saree was a nau wadi, worn wrapped around and through the legs then pulled tightly across the body and draped over the shoulder. The most elegant nau wadis had a fanned tail of pleated fabric which trailed behind the wearer. Patterns were most often of fine checks and in rich jewel tones. Its borders were of very narrow proportions with discreet geometric designs inspired from nature.

When Holkar arrived in Indore, weaving was almost extinct; there was little access to quality dyes, materials or design, and no market. Holkar applied and obtained a grant from the Social Welfare Board for a year’s training program in weaving. The result was the founding of the Rehwa Society in 1978. The first new looms built in 16 years were installed in a section of an abandoned fort and 12 women sat down to learn weaving—a feat in itself since traditionally it was a man’s job, and women had done only the secondary work of bobbin winding and warping.

Resuscitating a near-vanished craft wasn’t enough for Holkar. She incorporated a health, education, and housing component to help the Rehwa’s weaving community. The program has been an enormous success–approximately 500 children have been educated; housing has been built for weavers near the Rehwa center, and a complete health program has been established.

But Holkar still wants to do more. In the late 1990s she began to reach out to other rural communities across India to see whether handloom could provide similar economic, social and cultural benefits in other places.  That was the start of WomenWeave—founded in 1998—an extension of Rehwa that teaches women weaving techniques across other rural communities in India.

There were challenges at the start — notably in forging relationships with numerous groups of women spread out across the country. And then gender politics came into play. Men in India still hold too much influence over the women. Holkar says, “So often [the women] are pulled away or discouraged from work with WomenWeave, which tends to represent a long-term commitment of training first and income later as opposed to the instant gratification of employment with to a ‘master weaver’.”

However, there are no shortage of women who want to earn an autonomous income and this can be seen in the new partnerships WomenWeave has formed with numerous handloom groups, most notably in the Maheshwar, Kotah, Chanderi triangle, but also extending to Uttaranchal, Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh.

Through collaborations between these groups WomenWeave is able to create a varied product collection with the raw materials from one region joining the weaving techniques and designs of another.  For example, with its Gudi Mudi project, WomenWeave linked organic cotton farmers of Nimar District in Central India with dozens of women weavers to create a unique handspun, hand-woven and naturally dyed textile.

WomenWeave also inspires other organizations to create training programs for women. For many of the projects, the organization either purchases or forms joint ventures with suppliers or farmers for materials. For the Khadi Project, WomenWeave purchased organic cotton from a neighboring collective of 7,500 farmers, and with WomenWeave’s encouragement, the farming group began their own program to train farmers’ wives to spin their own organic fiber into yarn. Says Holkar, “That project has been immensely successful; we buy that organic yarn directly from them. And there’s an added bonus—now our own trainees have learned to spin non-organic yarn from the local cotton harvest.”

Despite the huge leaps WomenWeave has made, fundraising for an NGO in a weak world economy takes too much time away from the training work. Holkar says, “Support for handloom is not as attractive as to the average donor as child care, or health or disaster management, but strong support for rural income earning activities such as handloom can have a myriad of positive results over time—cultural, aesthetic, and monetary. It’s a question of finding the organizations and people to hear and understand that message.”

In the end, Holkar is positive that handloom will survive in these areas where there are other few employment opportunities, and as she says, “where there are few distractions of urban and semi-urban life and a lower cost of living, which will support the prices at which handloom can ultimately be sold at market.”

For more about WomenWeave, visit www.womenweave.org.