In January 2018, I paid a visit to a Not-For-Profit weaving company that Seek Collective had begun working with called Kala Swaraj, located in the central state of Madya Pradesh, India. The group is organized by Hemendra (seated in the middle of the top featured image), who I have worked with for years now. He’s incredibly passionate about not only reviving the craft, history, and future of handloom weaving, but also equally passionate about the support and livelihood of the weavers, their families, and their communities.
Hemendra originally started the company in the Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh, which has a history of a high-quality, fine durable cotton handloom, but this quality had waned in recent decades. One estimate shows there were more than 160,000 weavers active there in the late 1800s, but today only 500 families are actively weaving out of the existing 7,000 weaving families.
Weavers in the area stopped getting paid fair wages for their work as the power loom gained popularity. Their special skills were once required for high quality textiles, but demand for these skills and quality decreased with the machine being an easier and cheaper alternative.
Hemendra wanted to bring the jobs back to this region. It took some time to convince the weavers to go back to the fine cotton weave that had once flourished here, as it takes more time and skill to do than other types of handlooms. Hemendra started with just a few weavers, but soon many more followed as they saw there was now demand for this work and they would be paid 20 times more per meter doing it. As this happened, some weavers in the region traveled several miles to ask to be a part of this weaving group.
The day I spent at Kala Swaraj was packed with house visits as most weavers work out of their homes--their large looms often taking up a huge portion of their living rooms. One of my favorite moments was spending time with a family of five brothers who all live together in a 150 year old house with their spouses and children. Their family has been weaving for several generations. Large, ancient-looking looms sit in front of their home. The oldest brother, Manoj-ji, has a masters degree in physics but has now come back home to weave as he’s able to make such a good wage through the Kala Swaraj. It also allows him to work from home and spend more time with his family and young daughter, things he values. Not surprisingly, he has a reputation of being the best and fastest weaver in the region!
Driving through remote roads between villages, I saw sprawling cotton fields with people (mainly women) bundling up all the cotton they’ve picked for the day at dusk. It’s an area where you can bear witness to the entire process--the cotton being grown, picked, spun into yarn, and then woven into fabric--of what later gets stitched into your clothing.
Shop all garments created with Kala Swaraj fabric here.