The Indian handloom sector is proof of the diversity and pluralism that is characteristic of the subcontinent. With a legacy as ancient as the Vedic period itself, it has undergone multiple waves of change in terms of technology use, production, design and in terms of the status of the weaver communities. The way forward for the handloom sector is to boost entrepreneurship among the traditional weavers of the nation and do justice to their potential.

By Mayank Tiwari, Founder and CEO, ReshaMandi

The Indian handloom sector currently employs 4.3 million weavers and artisans and is the second largest employer of the economy. In terms of exports, the sector contributed to US$223.25 million worth of export portfolio in FY21 with markets in France, Australia, the United States of America, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the sector was on the cusp of a significant revival with the change in consumer preference towards sustainable clothing. Multiple factors including limited digitization, reduced remunerative potential for the weaver communities, displacement of handloom units as a result of power loom use, limited opportunities for skilling as well as gaps in the supply chain have led to an overall slowdown in the sector. These factors necessitate the revival of a once vibrant sector with immense potential for growth, international expansion, advocacy among a diverse domestic demography and customer retention.

Understanding the Complex State of Affairs
Handloom exports have seen a decline, amounting to a Compounded Annual Growth Rate of -11% from 2013-14 to 2017-18. The Exim Bank attributes this trend to the sector’s limited capabilities in positioning itself in the international market as a strong contender with immense potential. The period also witnessed India’s import reliance on neighbouring countries such as China and Bangladesh.

According to the Handloom Census 2019-20, India’s textile production rate has seen an increase whereas the number of weavers has decreased to 35.25 lakh in 2019-20 from 43.31 lakh in 2009-10, marking a 19% decline. Weaving in India faces certain challenges owing to the generational nature of the craft and its limited potential for economies of scale. The dearth of financial aid (23.3% in terms of banking penetration) for small- scale businesses has also proven to be a pain point.

The Census also brings to light that 67% of the weavers in India earn as low as `5,000 per month, making the craft an unviable mode of sustenance in comparison to the remunerative potential of the unorganised sector. The emergence of Cooperatives has not sufficiently supported the weaver community or enhanced their earning potential. Thus, a bulk of the community is put in a position wherein alternative sources of financing with higher interest rates become the only accessible means to sustain operations. The financing of Cooperatives has also witnessed a reduction owing to the same reason.

The sector also faces a conundrum in terms of raw material sourcing as weavers procure a bulk of inputs from the open market and are unable to make profits. Lastly, the highly localized nature of weaving activity coupled with poor marketing limit the scope of handloom sales at a national and international level. Given the prevalence of e-commerce channels, it is imperative to utilise them and amplify the scope of sales beyond the locality of production.

Visualizing Solutions
As reforms begin from the ground up, it is imperative for the sector to promote the entrepreneurial spirit among individual weavers. This can be achieved through aggressive up-skilling programmes, knowledge sharing initiatives, quality financing options as well as ample opportunities for individual visibility among the customer demographic. Furthermore, the role of Cooperatives should be expanded to include Research & Development (R&D) facilities and linkages to banks for financing opportunities. As part of an initiative to increase interest among consumers, museums dedicated to handlooms could be developed in collaboration with weaver communities.

The highly localized nature of weaving activity coupled with poor marketing, limit the scope of handloom sales at a national and international level. Given the prevalence of e-commerce channels, it is imperative to utilise them and amplify the scope of sales beyond the locality of production.

Recently-introduced government schemes such as the SAMARTH scheme will look to empower individual stakeholders from the weaving and spinning fraternity across 65 artisanal clusters. The initiative has allowed for the establishment of 63 training centres with the resources to acquaint participants in technical skills and soft skills as per the parameters of the National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF) Handicrafts courses. Once trained, the participants will be able to access diverse markets and modernise the production process.

The highly localized naturof weaving activitcoupled with poor marketing, limit the scope of handloom sales at national and international level. Given the prevalence of e-commerce channels, it is imperative to utilise them and amplify the scope of sales beyond the locality of production.

The Production Linked Incentive (PLI) aimed at increasing the domestic production of Man-made fibres (MMFs) across apparel, technical textiles and fabrics is expected to boost raw material production. If implemented effectively, the sector can transition from a cotton-dependent group of industries into a globally competitive space. Aspirational districts from States including Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu have been chosen for the implementation of the programme. It is imperative to ensure that policy benefits are extended to the handloom sector and not the power-loom space alone.

Targeting the luxury segment through the branding of handloom products can also help break the pattern of handloom sales restricted to certain localities. Schemes should aim to transcend the traditional public sector by tapping into niche private and international markets. This would entail efforts towards acquainting weavers with newer weaving techniques and e-commerce platforms. As weavers do not necessarily have access to market intelligence, Cooperatives could function as agencies that study domestic and foreign markets, and work towards disseminating crucial information to the weavers.

On-boarding weavers onto e-commerce platforms will come with its own set of challenges owing to predatory practices. Currently, the industry is structured in such a way that middlemen and brands often come in the way of weavers having direct access to customers and earning substantial profits. Relooking this approach will warrant the inclusion of amenities for customers to become more aware of the weaver profile; hours spent weaving the fabric and technique used to make the garment. As a good part of the modern-day consumer demographic is keen on procuring ethically sourced products and garments, steps such as the aforementioned could resonate well with the conscientious demographic, and translate into improved personal branding and remuneration for weavers.

Handloom Success Stories
Two remarkable examples demonstrating the grit and tenacity of the weaver community and their potential to resuscitate the sector come to mind. The traditional weavers of the Pochampally ikat style were faced with a major threat to their craft in the mid-2000s when their designs were copied and mass manufactured by commercial entities. This affected the weavers’ incomes, cash flow management and access to quality inputs. Taking matters into their own hands, 33 weavers from the community sought help from the Andhra Pradesh government to institute a handloom unit at the centrally accessible village of Kanumukkala. Once instituted, the unit could be easily accessed by members of 22 weaving villages and 500 looms were set up to support the weaving process at league scale. The weavers contributed towards the working capital required for the setup and the government supported the unit with the infrastructure and building costs. Thus, the Pochampally Handloom Park was born in 2007, empowering weavers to proactively adapt to the needs of the market, improve cash flow and expand to newer markets through multiple marketing strategies. However, governmental financial support for the Handloom Park can play a pivotal role in helping the Handloom Park expand the scope of their operations.

The story of Chungkham Rani of Wangkhei Lourembam Leikai, Manipur is yet another resounding success story in terms of possibilities for the future of the handloom sector. She embraced entrepreneurship at the age of 27 and experimented extensively with new designs and dyes through her passion for the region’s Wangkhei Phi garment. After close to a decade of experimenting, Rani created the iconic ‘Engineer Phi’ or ‘Rani Phi’ which introduced contemporary designs and revitalised older designs such as the Samjin Mayek, Luhong Phijin, Namthang Khuthat and Khamen Chappa among others. She subsequently received recognition from both Central and State governments, and showcased her work at prestigious fairs like the Surajkund fair and the India International Trade Fair. Rani has successfully passed on her passion for the craft through the Rani Handloom Industry since its founding in 1975. Her efforts have helped amplify knowledge about Manipuri handloom and lent contemporaneity to an important craft that was extremely localised prior to her intervention. However, patronage and support from the government could elevate the scope of the very labour of Rani’s love.

Contemporary designers like Anita Dongre and Abraham & Thakore are redefining the role of the weaver in the handloom value chain. The ‘Grassroot’ project initiated by Anita Dongre makes the case for bespoke slow fashion that is helmed by the traditional women weavers across the nation. Weavers are creatively empowered, well compensated and given the requisite visibility with every unique garment created by them. Designer duo Abraham & Thakore partner with artisans to teach them contemporary weaving styles and designs to help them better adapt to the requirements of the Indian market.

The way forward for the handloom sector is to boost entrepreneurship among the traditional weavers of the nation and do justice to their potential through access to quality raw materials, contemporary designs and opportunities to up- skill. Government policies aimed at strengthening the sector and opening newer avenues for export and business can help radically transform Indian handloom as we know it.

<< Previous The Future is at the Mercy of Technology
Next >>Time to Accelerate Sourcing and Supply Chain in Fashion Manufacturing