Let’s start at the very beginning
Before the big machines came, handloom cotton was made on a tiny scale, some steps of the cotton making process, such as spinning, were practically an individual enterprise, done in homes and in town squares, when people had time. They used locally grown cottons, bought and sold from each other and perpetuated essential cotton making skills within families and villages. Diminutive as this cotton making model seems, it was robust and resilient. Not only had it survived for millenia, it had made India the world leader in cotton fabrics for thousands of years.
Then the giant spinning machines and power looms came and along with them came chemical dyes
And they changed everything. They required the cotton to be beaten into bales. Their voracious appetites could not be satisfied by small village farms and individual spinners and painstakingly made natural dyes. They drew people away from their homes and villages to live beneath the enormous shadow that the machines cast. Spinning and weaving skills, handed down from generation to generation were swallowed by the machines. Local economies, kept vibrant by small trades and barter between farmers and artisans, faltered and eventually faded. The machines even changed what cotton we used, demanding a longer strain American varietal that drained the Indian soil and depleted the diverse local strains. They fed the chemical dye industry, that pollutes the rivers, sky and earth.
Moving on to a new beginning
While returning to the old way of making cotton is utopian in today’s world, restoration of a local, robust and resilient handloom cotton industry is decidedly not. Malkha combines thousands of years of Indian cotton making and natural dye expertise with modern engineering skills. Think of it as intentional technology.
And herein is the (r)evolution.
The Malkha process replaces large-scale spinning units with small-scale yarn-making units with machines that do not require the cotton to be compressed into bales, thereby preserving it’s intrinsic softness and bounciness. These small scale units provide the missing link in a fully rural cotton textile industry using local raw material and local skills. They restore spinning as a viable rural occupation. They enables farmers, spinners and weavers to benefit from each other. They create an incentive for cotton making skills to be passed from generation to generation.
The Malkha insistence on using natural dyes, rejuvenates an interest in the complex art and science of natural dyeing. At the core of it, cotton is a finicky material, and so are natural dyes. As one Malkha member puts it, the combination of cotton and natural dyes is “... mind-blowingly capricious. Depending on the season, temperature, wind direction, the alignment of the stars, and the mood of polar bears, you get differently coloured and shaded fabrics. So achieving any kind of uniformity or consistency is not possible. No wonder hardly anyone sticks exclusively to natural dyes”. But we stubbornly do. And in doing so, we embrace not just the vibrancy and brilliance of natural dyes, we embrace the fickleness of nature and the challenge of restoring a dyeing [sic] art - the making of natural dyes and the elaborate preparation of cotton that is required for bright, permanent, washable colours.
All in the fabric
Over and over again, we hear the same message for Malkha customers. Awe at the vibrancy of the colors. Surprise for the way it drapes and swings. We believe this tremendous response to Malkha is a reflection of people’s intuitive appreciation for its unique qualities – the swing, the drape, the ability to breathe, to absorb, to hold colour. Each step in the Malkha process - spinning, weaving, dyeing and printing - plays a big role in imparting these qualities to the fabric. By handling the delicate cotton fibres gently, by avoiding the force and violence of conventional processing, it retains the springiness of the live fibres all the way into the cloth.
Spinning is what turns the lint of the cotton plant into yarn.
Cotton lint is first put through a carding machine, where trash is removed and a loose blanket is formed, called a lap. Loosely twisted, the lap, now called carded sliver, moves to the draw-frame, where it is thinned down (drawn), the fibres straightened (parallelized) and equalized. This drawn sliver is taken to the fly-frame which twists and winds the cotton, the sliver, now the thickness of a pencil, onto large bobbins. Transferred to a ring-frame, which consists of any number of spindles, the sliver is finally drawn and twisted into yarn.
Malkha spinning is different from conventional spinning in three ways:
First, it saves the lint from the enormously damaging steam-pressing known as baling, where the lively, springy, loose cotton fibres are compressed into a wood-like block, followed by the equally harmful bale-opening, where the blocks are torn apart again by metal saw-toothed rolls, and blown with force in the blow-room, back into individual fibres. Doing away with baling and unbaling not only saves quantities of valuable energy, but also allows the Malkha yarn to retain the absorbency, bounce and lustre that is natural to cotton.
Secondly, Malkha yarn-making is small in scale, providing work for village folk in their own neighbourhoods.
Finally, Malkha spinning makes yarn specifically for handlooms, as part of a textile process designed to retain all the good qualities of cotton.
The yarn produced by Malkha spinning may be woven into kora (i.e. non-dyed) fabric (or saree or dupatta) on handloom, or it may go through the intermediate stage of natural dyeing on its way to a coloured handwoven cloth.
Weaving is the process of passing a thread cross-wise (the weft) through alternate lengths of thread (the warp), creating the fabric.
On a handloom, this is done by hand rather than being driven by electrical power. Sitting facing the length of the warp, the weaver pulls the cord that controls the shuttle, simultaneously pulling the moving sley towards her. The first action throws the weft yarn through the warp (hence the term throw shuttle ), and the second sets the weft yarn firmly in place.
A hand-operated loom can be a pit loom or a frame loom. In the former, the supports of the loom are set into the floor facing a pit in which the pedals of the loom hang, while a frame loom is entirely self supported and sits above the floor. To weave Malkha cloth, both kinds are used. Kora Malkha cloth is woven on handloom using plain (non-dyed) yarn, while a combination of naturally-dyed coloured yarns (and kora yarn, if required) go into the weaving of coloured handwoven cloth.
However, cotton yarn has to go through several stages before it is ready for the loom.
Let us look at these steps meant to strengthen the yarn and arrange it in a position suitable for weaving.
The warp is made up of cotton threads (yarn) arranged length-wise, stretched on the loom towards the weaver. To make the warp, yarn is wound to the required length on a warping wheel.
The prepared warp is treated with starch and oil to make it stiff and smooth enough to withstand the rigour of weaving, a process known as sizing. Sizing is done by hand for pit loom weaving, for which the warp is stretched along its length on a bamboo frame. Natural starch is used, made from local staples like rice or millets, sprayed onto the stretched warp, then brushed with a sizing brush to spread it evenly and ensure that each thread is coated. For frame loom weaving, a hand-operated arrangement of bobbins with a drum performs a combined warping and sizing process. In this setup, brushing of yarn is eliminated.
The weft yarn that passes across the fabric width is wound onto small bobbins by hand. A water-soaked yarn-spindle is subsequently loaded into a shuttle. The warp and weft yarns, strengthened and suitably arranged, are then set up on the handloom. In case of weft yarn, this merely involves placing the shuttle in its position on the loom, while in case of warp yarn, this involves an elaborate process called end-piecing, in which each thread of the warp is joined by hand to an end of a thread of the old warp still situated on the loom. The stage is now set for weaving of the yarn.
Malkha yarn is woven into cloth on handlooms by both men and women. The weaver sitting at a handloom plays a far more decisive role in cloth making than the robotic activity of a powerloom operator. Bamboo or millet stalk reeds used on handlooms weaving Malkha are flexible, allowing the slubs of Malkha yarn to come through in both warp and weft. You will notice both directions, vertical and horizontal, of the slubbed, coarse-and-fine yarn in Malkha fabric. The slow speed processing of different stages of hand-weaving of cotton avoids the heat and stress created by electrically-powered weaving. Thus the handloom treats Malkha yarn with respect and ensures that the natural qualities of cotton retained during yarn-making are also preserved in the cloth. The handwoven Malkha fabric or the saree or dupatta may be directly available for sale, or it may go through the next stage of natural dyeing or printing.
And finally there is dyeing and printing.
Natural dyeing using plant-based dyestuffs produces a variety of beautiful dyed fabrics with no environmental pollution. In ancient times, it was the brilliant and permanent dyeing of cotton, in which India was unrivalled. The Indian genius in natural dyeing lay in their mastery of the pre-treatment of cotton, enabling the production of bright, colour-fast, and washable fabrics.
Cotton needs a complex series of pre-treatments before it absorbs any dye except indigo, with which it bonds naturally. Dyeing begins with the extraction of colouring matter from the vegetable dye material. In the second stage, the fibre to be dyed is mordanted, creating a bond between the colouring matter and the fibre. The yarn or fabric to be dyed is well scoured to remove natural oils, pre-treated in various ways, then heated in the extracted dye at different temperatures depending on the dye material, usually for about 30-45 minutes, for the dye to take on the fibre for a long-lasting effect.
Natural indigo is the only dye that bonds naturally with cotton fibre, so it does not need mordanting. It is also the only dye that is done in a cold process and not in a hot bath. The traditional South Indian method of indigo dyeing involves fermenting the dye bath with a mixture of lime and the seeds of Cassia Tora, a complex process which takes several days. The yarn or fabric to be dyed is dipped into the fermented vats several times and allowed to oxidize between dips.
A variety of plant-based products go into the dyeing of Malkha yarn: Indigofera Tinctoria for indigo, Acacia Catechu for brown,Terminalia Chebula (harda) and Punica Granatum (pomegranate rind) for yellow, and Onosma Echioides (kasimi) for grey. Red, made of non-toxic alizarin, a by-product of coal tar, is the only Malkha dye not of vegetable origin.
Printing of Malkha cloth is done using blocks carved out of seasoned teakwood. For natural dye printing, the cloth to be printed is prepared by mordanting with harda, dried in sunlight and then washed. For the actual printing, the fabric is stretched on a table and stamped with the blocks with one colour at a time. Each colour in the design is printed with a different block, and there can be several colours, and therefore blocks, for a design. Malkha prints are designed exclusively for Malkha by artists and designers, carved by expert block-makers and printed by traditional block printers.