the-south-asian.com June 2004
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South Asian Cotton Textile Industry
Cotton Caravans & Empires.
The cotton plant was domesticated in four different geographical regions of the world as far back as 5000 B.C. There have been four distinct botanical species:
Organically cultivated, naturally pigmented cotton is one of the oldest industrial crops of humankind, and still survives as a backyard plant among many peasant and indigenous peoples of the tropics.
Revival of Organic Cotton in India
Large apparel companies such as Timberland, Nike,
PuddleBeach, BabynMore, Green Babies, BellaOnline, Patagonia, Levi , Gaim,
and Esprit and several European companies have started to buy
"environmentally friendly" cotton -- that is, cotton that is
chemical - free. Cotton farmers use approximately 23 per cent of the
world's insecticides and 10 per cent of the world's pesticides to combat
pests such as the boll weevil. U.S. cotton farmers use almost 35
percent of the world total, making them the greatest consumers of cotton
pesticides; Indian producers use the second greatest amount, nearly 11 per
cent. The cotton plant has to be sprayed 8-10 times before it is harvested.
Dyeing the cotton again involves use of toxic synthetic dyes.
Maikaal bioRe Ltd, which claims to be the largest organic cotton venture in the world, in Bheelaon, Madhya Pradesh, has over 1,000 farmers involved in organic cotton production. The production of organic cotton started in 1991 as a private initiative of Mrigendra Jalan, Managing Director of the spinning mill, Maikaal Fibres Ltd, and Patrick Hohmann, Managing Director of the Swiss cotton yarn trading company, Remei AG.
A pilot project  with a few farmers on 15 acres was expanded to 1,000+ farmers and 7,600 acres in 80 villages of Khargone district. Remei developed partnerships with manufacturers to produce a whole range of quality, fashionable, ecological-social garments made of Maikaal bioRe's organic cotton. The entire supply chain was integrated in 1995 when Coop, the retailer joined. Coop is Switzerland's second-largest supermarket chain and Europe's market leader in ecological-social products.
According to Hohmann this was the world's largest project on organic cotton, from cultivation to marketing and sale stages. There is active/ aware participation of farmers, spinners, retailers and purchasers. Every year since 1993 at the open house in the ginning factory, hundreds of farmers meet their production partners from abroad, apart from designers, researchers and others involved in this cooperative venture. Research carried out by Swiss agriculturists and the above cotton farmers shows that initially there may be a decline in production for a year, but the long-term organic farming outperforms current high-pesticides and fertilizer inputs farming. Organic cotton gets a 10-20% higher price in the world markets; the higher price translates into just about a few dollars extra in the price of a shirt. The cost-benefits to the world’s cotton farmers and people living everywhere in terms of the long-term quality of life /earth/soil is therefore very positive.
Natural Cotton Colours –Peru & Mexico
Before they were bred in predominantly creamy white strains centuries ago, cotton plants were well known for producing an array of colours. But following the advent of the cotton gin and inexpensive industrial dyes, white cotton became solely dominant. Coloured plants were marginalized, surviving only in seed banks kept by a few agricultural bodies around the world and in small, traditional communities in a handful of places, including Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. These coloured cottons have undergone a revival recently and many people are now familiar with them as well as with organically grown white cotton. But few people know the story of cotton in its original colours that began 5,000 years ago in the Andes. Currently the native Peruvian cotton is the focus of a project by the Micro Finance Unit of UNESCO and also an NGO called SICAN .
The Mochica Indians [100B.C.– 600A.D.] some 2,000 years ago, cultivated cottons of different hues and colours primarily ecru [beige, light brown, unbleached linen], deep chocolate and many other shades of brown, rust and even mauve. Their remains lie along the north coast near the city limits of Trujillo. Trujillo was called "Chan-Chan" or Great Sun in Mochica Language, and was the capital of the Chimu Empire [12th-13th century] and still has Egyptian style necropolis pyramids. Naturally the Mochica Indians guarded their plants jealously. In 1971 James Vreeland was carrying out research on archaeology and came across these various cotton types.
Natural Dyes - Mood Indigo:
The stories and poetry of textile dyeing are once again steeped in ancient South Asian texts, literature and poetry. Kabir the weaver-poet, wrote that God was the Supreme and General Dyer in the colours of life.
The art of natural dyeing has come full circle – essentially due to the bans being imposed on synthetic dyes by European Governments. As a result of health risks from synthetic dyes, there is a new interest in natural dyes. Once again the ancient textiles and dyers of South Asia are coming back to haunt the modern day textiles.
This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. Indigoferra Tinctoria, the most fabled, ancient plant for the indigo dye also grew in abundance on the banks of River Indus.
Natural vegetable dyes such as indigo, madder, pomegranate, lac, walnut, tea and katchu have become significant. This is due to European Union countries laws to restrict synthetic colours, which are found to have serious harmful effects on the human body. Cruel irony, that Germany the country that discovered azo dyes, became the first to order a ban on the import of certain azo dyes in 1996. The popularity of azo dyes had destroyed the traditional dye market in India. Today Germany wants to promote traditional colours.
Dyeing is a water intensive process. One kilogram of dye requires 20 litres of water.’ Chemical effluent treatment is expensive.
Off Jet Looms & Handlooms:
Most of the ancient and organic weaving tradition is lost in the warp speed technology of jet looms and air looms. The names of Toyoda, which is Toyota Motors original calling, Sulzer, Murata, are the new names of the technology of weaving, spinning, knitting.
There was a time when the rhythms of daily live and labours were in harmony with the rhythms and seasons of nature. Carpets and clothes were woven without regard to time taken. Today the imperatives of cost –benefit seem to have overtaken every aspect of human endeavour. The age we live in reflects this headlong compression and acceleration of time. For a brief period of history of about a 100 years, between 1850 and 1920, the Indian Master weavers and handloom craftsmen suffered a decline due to British colonial policies of sending the cotton from India back to Lancashire and Manchester textile mills.
India has led the return to Handloom weaving with its large village population base of craftsmen. Mahatma Gandhi famously led this charge. There has been a complete rebirth of India’s handloom industry of which we shall present in a later article.
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