Mahatma Gandhi spinning khadi on a charkha might have been an icon of the Swadeshi movement, but the fabric is no longer the humble, coarse, dull-beige sack-cloth of the history books.
It’s bold, bright, soft and wrinkle-free. And in these new weaves, it’s made its way to runways in India and beyond, as well as to bridal trousseaus, red carpets and movie sets.
In 1918, when Gandhi started his khadi movement, the material was symbolic of self-reliance, self-governance, austerity and national pride.
It was meant to be hand-spun in a loose weave; the small errors and rough feel were part of its character.
The khadi movement was a protest against the British textile industry that paid negligible rates to Indian farmers for raw material grown here; then processed that raw material either in Britain or in British-owned units that underpaid workers. The cloth was eventually sold in local markets at many times its actual cost — with the revenues immediately spirited away overseas.
Today’s khadi is grown here, woven here, styled and worn here too, and it reflects a modern India proud of its heritage and its place in the world. Think bright colours, flowy silhouettes, fusion collections that merge east and west.
“Khadi has found its way into almost everything — jackets, palazzo pants, crops tops, sarongs and even trousers,” says designer Purvi Doshi who has been experimenting with the fabric for her eponymous sustainable-fashion label, for five years. “I love working with tassels and mirror work to give contemporary cuts and silhouettes a nice traditional feel.”
The fabric has made a particular comeback over the past decade. “The chain of Khadi Udyog Bhavan stores was given a revamp by the central government and designers were encouraged to experiment with new ways to use the handloom,” says designer Anju Modi.
Just before the national revamp, in 2007, Modi presented her first khadi Sufi Anarkali collection at the Hyères fashion festival in Paris. “It was an instant hit because everyone loved the raw feel of the fabric,” she says. “Top quality soft khadi with a high thread count of 500 per inch [the original khadi had a thread count of 60] is actually a luxury product that takes several man days to make, and can cost `1,000 a metre.”
This kind of khadi falls and drapes beautifully, making it perfect for saris, kurtis, skirts and tops. “It also easily soaks up natural dyes very well, letting you play with colours,” says Doshi. Most important, for the modern everyday user, is its breathability. “It’s versatile and easy on the skin especially for a country with a humid, tropical climate,” Modi says.
Millennials have also taken to the fabric because of its low carbon footprint. “Textiles created by hand also have immense possibilities for innovation, because you get to play with textures and can create something new at every step,” says designer Anavila Misra, of the brand Anavila. “I particularly enjoy working with it because it is a beautiful textile that naturally lends itself to comfort clothing.”