The skill of the handloom weavers is visible not only in museums and collections all over the world, but in everyday life and practice in India. Whether it be a length of Khadi woven with handspun yarn, a complex, mathematically precise double tie-dye Patola ikat, a Benaras brocaded metallic gold weave, a mesh of cotton and silk threads from Maheshwar and Chanderi to the light as air muslins of Bengal, they represent but a small fraction of the vast repertoire of craftsmanship of spinning and weaving.
Using material as varied as wild silk to cotton, hemp, jute and linen, the weaving tradition represents technical virtuosity and adaptability. With a history that stretches back over the millennia, excavations at Indus Valley sites (2300 – 1750 BCE) have revealed spinning implements and a fragment of madder dyed cotton, evidence of an advanced and ancient textile culture. Further on in time, sculptural, painted and literary sources reveal details on clothing and their making, the textiles exported to the known world, both East and West. The unknown Greek traders log book the Peripilus of Erythrrea dated to the first century A.D listed textile exports from India, further on in time detailed evidence from the Mughal period and records of the Dutch, the British, French, and others provide continuing evidence of the acumen of the weaver in producing textiles for diverse markets.
Weaving continues to be practised across the country with regional variations based on textile usage and cultural underpinnings. Knowledge and technology transmitted orally across generations through the guru-shishya parampara—the mentor-student tradition. Patterned, dyed and woven unstitched lengths of fabrics taken straight of the loom continue to form the main garment of traditional wear. Textures and sizes are woven to suit conventional usage with weights and densities varying according to the form and function of the drape. Known by diverse region specific names, women’s straight off-the-loom woven textiles includes the sari and odhini (head mantles ); while the dhoti, lungi, gamcha and pagdi form unstitched men’s wear.
With the largest number of handlooms in the world, varying in complexity from the draw-loom to the back-strap loom, and over 4.3 million weavers (2012 handloom census), the challenge remains the sustenance of skills and craftsmanship and the building on the legacy through innovations that continue to sustain.