Handloom Textile: Story of Fineness of Bharat

For many centuries, India was both the centre of the world's textile production and the source of fashion trends. It was responsible for the largest share of textile production and for much of the finest kinds of cloth. India had sophisticated methods for weaving cotton into the light, breathable textiles, and vibrant, long-lasting natural dyes that gave these fabrics dazzling colours.  

From the middle ages to the early 19th century, Indian cloths were one of the most popular global commodities. Indian producers developed special trade lines for export to Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, adapting to local demand.

The Fascinating Indian Cloth

One of the finest Indian cotton cloth was known as muslin. The muslin weavers used to receive royal patronage and muslin became a favourite among the rulers and nobility alike. It was referred to in poetic terms as abi-rawan (flowing water), baft-hawa (woven air) and Shabnam (evening-dew). It became one of the most lucrative exports with the best valued over 1600 silver pence.

Owing to the extreme fineness of the muslin that was believed to be so fine that a whole sari of 6 yards would pass through a ring and when a muslin cloth was held under running water it would become almost invisible.

There is a wonderful description by French jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier. He narrated, 'A Persian Ambassador on returning to his country gifted a coconut to his Emperor. It was a gold coconut the size of an ostrich's egg, studded with precious stones, and when it was opened, came out a whopping 60 meters long fabric, so fine that you would scarcely know what it was that you held in your hand.'

Tavernier also gave some interesting observation about the muslin fabric. He said "This gorgeous material is so smooth that it barely makes its contact felt. The fine embroidery is so intricate that it is challenging to minutely observe it with naked eyes. He further added, 'similar finesse and intricacy can be noticed in Calico of Sikanj. This fabric is so exceptionally fine and fluid that it would reveal the unadorned natural persona of the bearer.'

Sir Thomas Munro, the governor of Madras Presidency and East India Company army officer wrote, 'I have used an Indian shawl for seven years, I have found very little difference in it after that long use'; while with regard to imitation shawls produced in England, he added 'I have never seen a European shawl that I would use, even if it were given to me as a present.'

In 1835, Sir Edwards Bains wrote, 'Over the ages, the Indian textile industry has shown unparalleled workmanship and artistry and successfully maintained supreme quality standards. Certain clothes of the pure muslin were so fine, as though they were crafted by some superhuman forces, say elves or butterflies.'

Not so Free Trade with Indian Cloth

From the 1680s there started a craze for printed Indian cotton textiles in Europe mainly for their exquisite floral designs, fine texture and relative cheapness. Rich people of Europe including the Queen of England wore clothes of Indian fabric.

The East India company had to purchase cotton textiles in India by importing silver and gold. By the early 18th century, worried by the popularity of Indian textiles, wool and silk manufacturers in England began protesting against the import of Indian cotton textiles. In 1720, the British government enacted a law banning the use of printed cotton textiles in England, called a Calico act.

However, Indian textiles continued to dominate world trade until the end of the 18th century. While the ban was in force, tens of thousands of pieces of Indian cloth were smuggled into Europe meeting to the local demand.

The imposition of taxes, banning of Indian textiles in other markets and physically abuse of Indian weavers by British Raj caused the death of Indian textile industries. Once British rule began in India, Britain's cloth manufacturers wanted the superior Indian weavers out of the picture. The East India company smashed the fabled looms of the Bengali weavers and smashed the thumbs of those men so they would never be able to weave again.

Lord William Bentinck, the company's administrator writes, "the bones of cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India". Remaining Indian textiles were slapped with an 80% tariff so that their export was no longer viable.

This article was only the glimpse of the great Indian textiles. There is even more to it which you can only feel when you have a Khadivadi cloth with you!


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