Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Cloth That Changed History

By Supriya Savkoor

Author's Note: We ran the following post on October 12, 2011, but it fits perfectly with our topic for this week.

One of India’s most popular crafts is also its most visible symbol of patriotism, independence, and freedom, part of every fiber of the nation’s being – from its flag to the enduring fashion among its politicians, and a part of its history’s most important chapter.

Khadi is a type of handspun or handwoven cloth – usually cotton but also sometimes silk or wool – that is made from organic, raw materials (as opposed to synthetics) into a coarse, stiff fabric that is typically starched to keep its shape. Not surprisingly, it was Mahatma Gandhi, known as the father of India, who started the Khadi Movement in the 1920s as part of his non-violent freedom movement. 

Mainly peasants and artisans wore khadi earlier, but Gandhi latched onto the idea of the Indian public boycotting, even burning, machine-made British cloth sold in India and only wearing homespun cotton khadi as a way for the colony to assert its independence from its colonizer.

If you couldn’t spin the individual slivers of yarn at home yourself, using the spinning wheel known as a charkha, you’d buy the material from locals in your own community rather than from the British.

Gandhi’s goal was two-fold: one, to create employment for the locals and, two, to get the English out of India through economic means rather than by fighting them. In fact, the entire “non-cooperation movement” was the beginning of the end of the occupation. Gandhi convinced Indians at all economic levels of Indian society to stop buying British products, boycott their courts and schools, resign from government service, and foresake any British-imposed titles or honors. Surprisingly, it met with huge success, even among the elite classes, and the movement shook up the entire economic and political structure of the British government. It would be another 25 years or so before the British finally ceded, but it was a turning point.

The main source for cotton for the British prior to India had been the United States, but once the American Civil War broke out and supplies from the former British colony began to dry up, the British Raj began exploiting Indian cotton. Literally exploiting, that is. The Brits went so far as to ship cotton from India to England to be stitched in their mills (providing both material supply and employment in England) then shipping the finished products back to India to resell there at a premium. Not a bad deal for the colonizers. This practice continued for about 60 years, during which time, Indian soldiers fought alongside the British during World War I. Soon after the war ended, the British, reacting to agitation for independence in various parts of India, enacted a law that allowed them to imprison any Indian without a conviction or a trial. By the time the Prince of Wales made a visit to India two years later, the Indian public was outraged, and Gandhi’s non-violent movement had begun.

When some of his followers complained that making khadi was both too expensive and too labor intensive, Gandhi began wearing the loincloth to make a point that no sacrifice would be too much to shake off its imperial shackles. Today, the flag of India is supposed to be made only from the khadi fabric (though you’ll find knockoffs made from synthetics outside India). In the initial design, an image of the charkha, the spinning wheel, was emblazoned in the center of the flag to symbolize India’s goal of self reliance. However, just a few days before Independence, the Constituent Assembly replaced the emblem with a different wheel, the Ashoka Chakra, to symbolize both the eternal wheel of law and the dynamic wheel of change.

A decade after its 1947 independence, the Indian government formed the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which allows only micro, small, and medium artisan businesses in rural areas to develop government-sanctioned khadi products. There are only 15,000 such businesses in all of India today, and they sell mainly through government-owned outlets called khadi bhandars, or cotton bazaars, which sell a large variety of artisanal products other than just khadifrom soaps and stationary to traditional artwork, brass lamps, and handmade furniture. As well, these rural entrepreneur-artists are the only ones legally permitted to produce Indian flags. 

Today, what was once a political statement has made a comeback as a fashion statement. “Ethnic” clothes are all the rage in India again, especially among celebrities and the young and urban who admire its casual elegance. Khadi cloth is even a much sought after commodity by the country’s top designers, sold in upscale shops and exported to new markets. In some cases, khadi has again become too costly for many Indians. Kind of a reverse khadi movement, you could say. (What would Gandhi think of that?)

I recently learned that own my great grandfather used to obtain cotton yarn from his local khadi bhandar and sit under a tree in his yard, spinning cotton each day just like Gandhi himself. The womenfolk, mainly my great grandmother and one of my great aunts, would then use the cloth to make shirts and pajamas for the household. For a time, the family didn't purchase these garments from shops, wearing only the ones stitched at home. More work, yes, but talk about independence.


  1. My ancestors had left India a while before Gandhi and other freedom fighters started their campaign, but I am told that like most East Indians living here they eagerly anticipated news of India's fight for Independence. The news arrived late and I can imagine it was quite watered down. Khadi or as it is known locally "Indian Cotton" is viewed here as being superior to other types/blends and is much sought after!

  2. Interesting, Geets! It hadn't occurred to me how the diaspora would have viewed the freedom movement back in India, other than those Gandhi knew in S. Africa. Gives me an idea for a story...

  3. Totally just used this in my NaNo! Thanks guys :)

  4. Oh, you just made my day, S.T. Shelly Brown! Thanks for the comment and for the follow. (And love your name. Didn't you used to be an MTV VJ? ;)

    Good luck with NaNo!