Looming dangers for India’s handloom technologies

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Telling a story is an Irish way of life, and I got to hear several about druids, Celts, Vikings, and the ‘leprechaun’, a mischievous fairy in Irish folklore. So, here is mine – about a British textile loom that headed to India, but ended in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains.  I found it in a corner of Ireland’s oldest working wool mill in the village of Avoca.

The loom’s travel itinerary as it left England in the 19th century, was presumably altered by rough seas and would not have led to a ‘diplomatic incident’ as both countries were then ruled by England. And so, the old ‘Hattersley’ loom —  a power loom for textile weaving to replace hand weaving – came to Avoca.

I was curious about Avoca because I wanted to see how traditional weaving survived against the onslaught of sophisticated textile technologies, mass-produced goods and branded wear in these days of globalisation.

A man using a handloom in India (Flickr/jankie_SquareCrop)

Indian weavers, whose families for generations spun by hand some of the country’s best known (at home at least) products – from the famous Benaras (Varanasi) silk brocade saris to ‘pochampally’ (a typical bright hand-woven pattern) silks and cottons — were, and some still are, in dire straits. Their plight was highlighted by multiple suicides by poor, debt-ridden weaving families  a few years ago,  as their modern power looms took over in India’s newly liberalised economy.

Avoca long ago switched to power looms, albeit the older ones, and has retail chains of its products that are now advertised as traditional crafts. The old loom operated by hands and legs, though working, is more of a ‘touristy’ attraction, than the norm.

Sadly, scientific studies on improving traditional, less energy-intensive technologies are few as they are not recognised as ‘frontier’ science, capable of finding a place in high-impact journals or boosting one’s one scientific career.

Or maybe some  leprechaun or fairy will, one day, help organise conference sessions on how innovation can help traditional technologies survive.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

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