Few people are aware that the pre-spinning technology of cotton yarn making is damaging to cotton. After cotton from the fields is ginned in ginning mills, it is baled in steam presses for transport to spinning mills. Baling compresses trash such as bits of seed coat or leaf into the cotton and makes the soft lint into a hard, compact mass, like a block of wood. This hard mass has then to be unbaled and brought back to its original soft, fluffy state which in the spinning mill is done through the blow-room. By the time the delicate fibres of cotton have gone through these violent processes they are no longer springy but limp and lifeless and have lost a large part of their good qualities. A group of us realized this some years ago, and took up an experiment to spin cotton on a small scale in a way which would cut out some of the damaging processes and which would make yarn specifically for handloom weaving.
Indian cotton cloth was famous throughout the world from at least Roman times, and was the most important source of India’s fabled wealth: Pliny, the historian of Rome, complained in the 1st century A.D. that India was draining Rome of her gold. It is perfectly possible today to produce cloth of a comparable quality, building on a combination of Indian strengths – the millions of small cotton farmers, the number of different local cotton varieties, the vast pool of handloom weaving skills. No other country has this particular combination, this set of circumstances, and the climatic conditions that make it possible to grow desi (indigenous) cottons with minimum resources. India’s primacy in the making and export of cotton cloth continued until the early nineteenth century, when textile machinery was invented in the Industrial Revolution. While today weaving in India is done on machines (86%) and on handlooms (14%), the yarn used by both (except for khadi, which is 0.01% of the country’s production) comes from spinning mills.
The entry of large spinning mills into the textile chain in the 19th century has distorted the small-scale economy of traditional Indian artisanal cotton textile production. It has separated the weaver from the source of his main raw material and put the small farmer family at risk. Growing cotton for large-scale spinning is putting a huge strain on Indian soils and Indian farmers, the soils are fast depleting and we read every day of cotton farmers’ distress and suicides. To supply cotton for the spinning mills, farmers must grow varieties that can withstand the rigours of machine processing. The quality of cotton is now judged by how well the fibres perform in the machines, not how good a cloth is produced from it. Because of this single fact, and because mills need large quantities of uniform fibre, the growing of hundreds of desi varieties, of the genus gossypium arboretum, which produced the fabulous Indian fabrics of the past, and which grew as rain-fed crops without chemical fertilizers, has been given up, replaced by American varieties, gossypium hirsutum, which have a longer, stronger staple, but which need irrigation and fertilizers. Humidity produced by irrigation increases pest attack, and so the cotton farmer is locked into a high risk cycle, praying his harvest will cover the high cost of chemical fertilizers and pesticide, with no safety net if it does not.
What about our weavers? Weaving on the handloom is still today the largest occupation in the country after agriculture (I’m not going to waste time and space here rebutting the tired old cliché that the handloom is unviable because of its ‘low productivity’). The abundance of our handloom weaving skills is a great advantage that we do not seem to value. In each of hundreds of weaving regions in the country cloth with a specific regional identity is woven. No other country has anything like this phenomenon, a tremendous asset in the age of mass-production where differentiation of product is rare and highly prized. But the mill-spun yarn which handlooms use dilutes this differentiation.
Mill yarn is spun with the high twist need for machine weaving, and the same yarn is wound from cones to hanks for the handloom. The handloom thus is reduced to the status of a poor relation of the mills, because it has to make do with yarn that is specifically geared to mass-production. While on the one hand the handloom is forced to pay the high cost of high-twist yarn which it does not need, on the other, by using that yarn handloom fabric loses its inherent advantage over machine-woven cloth of carrying through into fabric the qualities of cotton that are retained in slow-speed processing – durability, elasticity, absorbency, colour-holding, drape, feel and lustre. To build on the advantages of slow-speed weaving on the handloom it needs to be linked to slow-speed yarn making. If each weaving centre were to be supplied with its own special and specific yarn made from locally grown cotton, regional differences would be emphasized, new varieties of cloth would emerge and the quality of handloom fabrics would improve, giving them a huge boost in the market. People all over the world want to know where their clothes come from, and with malkha they would be able to tell – who hand planted the seed that grew the plant that the cloth is made from. An exciting prospect, well within our capabilities to achieve.
It was the Congress of Traditional Sciences held by the P.P.S.T. (Patriotic & People-oriented Science & Technology) Foundation in 1993 at the Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.), Mumbai, that ignited the interest of some I.I.T. graduates to take up research into the history and modern practice of cotton processing. As the senior member of Dastkar Andhra, I contributed my experience of handloom weaving to the group.
We learned that baling and unbaling, part of cotton processing today, had been 19th century additions to pre-spinning, and were unnecessary, energy intensive and damaging to cotton fibre. Then we realized that the stress on the cotton fibre in mill-spinning destroyed its valuable attributes that were preserved through slow-speed spinning. We read 19th century reports of the East India Company’s determined and eventually successful effort to de-link Indian cotton cultivation from indigenous cloth making, to suppress the local industry in favour of the newborn Lancashire mills. Based on the insights that emerged, Dastkar Andhra and Vortex Engineering a few years later took up work on developing small-scale systems for cotton-to-cloth production. The core of the programme is a set of machines – a carder, draw-frame and flyer-frame matched with motorized domestic ring-frames – that takes small lots of fresh ginned cotton from the fields and makes it into yarn in the village.
The technical development of the machines began in 1998 at the P.P.S.T. Centre at Anna University, Chennai, with the reconditioning of a set of rusty disused pre-spinning machines bought from a khadi sanstha. The following year hand-spinning on motorized ambar charkhas was initiated in Chirala in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, where we eventually wanted to set up the machines. At the same time work on a new carder was begun in Chennai. Field trials of the carder began at the end of March 2002 at the premises of the Guntur Zilla Khadi Sanstha, who helped us to source raw cotton and introduced us to a local testing lab. The carder was moved to Chirala on Gandhi’s birthday the same year.
Using the new carder the number of breaks in the sliver during spinning to begin with was very high. But our group of spinners persisted, and the breaks were gradually reduced through adjustments to the carder and the charkhas by our field team who have consistently shown remarkable engineering ingenuity. Recruited from local unemployed youth, the development of their problem-solving capability is in itself a great achievement. The second carder, which was a much more sophisticated machine than the first, was installed in October 2003, and with this the main problem of frequent breakage of the sliver was solved.
Making the yarn into warp for weaving was an important step forward. Since the yarn has less twist, it is more difficult to size with starch to make the warp. This crucial step was accomplished in Chirala again through the persistence of our local spinner group, who cajoled and persuaded local warp makers to cooperate. Once this bottleneck was passed weavers began to weave the yarn into cloth.
Today, to any interested observer, the small-scale fibre-to-fabric process looks perfectly feasible: ginned cotton goes into the chute-feed of the carder, sliver is produced, yarn is spun and woven into cloth for which there is a good demand. Nothing of the struggles that have been waged in the last 8 years, or the obstacles that have been overcome to reach the present stage, are visible. Many processes when they were initiated were considered impossible, but were eventually solved through persistence and application. In this, once the unit moved onto the field, the contribution of the machine operators and spinners was substantial. At present one such unit is running, producing about 600 metres of cloth per month, a medium weight slubbed shirting fabric which we call ‘malkha’. In the next two years we plan to expand the number of units to 8 in different locations, each weaving their own version of malkha from locally grown cottons.
The establishment of a rural textile chain of cotton to cloth is working its way step by step towards becoming a reality. The spread of the idea, besides the actual setting up of the process, will be one of the important achievements of the initiative, and will in the future we hope, inspire many more such efforts.