Dyeing, winding, warping, beaming, reeding, joining, filling, weaving. Throughout India, craftspeople have refined the process of textile creation over the past five thousand years . Generations of tradition inform the people who make fabric for a living. A system of instruction and apprenticeship sustains weaving as it does many other crafts . But mechanical advancements of the industrial revolution and computerized advancements of the information age allow machines to produce imitations cheaply and quickly. Forced to compete with mill factories, weavers and other craftspeople now struggle to make a living on their skills.
Block Printing in Ranthambhore, photo by Shaumyika Sharma
Shaumyika (author of this blog) has a personal connection with Indian textiles, as her mother studied a Master of Textiles and worked in the industry for a time. She has always wanted to open a building dedicated to textiles, and with architectural skills to contribute, she realized there is no reason to wait. One way to help struggling weavers is to improve their built environment, which is the job of an architect.
A major trend in architecture nowadays is to focus on problem solving. At the Architecture Biennale in Venice this year, many exhibits sought out ways to “improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life,” per the guiding statement from Alejandro Aravena . As the director of the Architecture Sector in the 2016 Biennale, he hoped to see exceptional cases where architecture “did, is and will make a difference in those battles” . Moving away from the notion of the starchitect, there is opportunity for any architect to choose projects with a cultural or social agenda. To begin this process, the architect needs an extensive knowledge of the community they are trying to help. So, about weaving…
Weaving, at its core, is a simple pattern of interlacing two discrete threads at right angles in order to construct a cloth. Lateral weft threads are passed above and below the longitudinal warp threads. But a vast knowledge base and skill set enables only craftspeople to weave intricate patterns, colors, and textures.
Twenty-three million craftspeople in India depend on their skills for livelihood, despite the fact that most artisans have moved on from tradition towards more profitable contemporary industries . Preservation is a natural urge in many ways – we preserve the ancient architecture of Greece and Rome, ceramic bowls from Chinese empires, and Indian textiles as well. But in this case curating textiles only solves a problem of nostalgia. With millions of people that still depend on the sale of their weaving skills, India is now faced with a problem of excess labour, and those labourers struggle to resist obsolescence in the face of mechanized mills.
Contemporary Indian Weaving Mill, image courtesy of The Textile Magazine
Trade secrets are crucial to weaving craft. They are often only taught to family members through inheritance . A craftsperson may be the only one in their community who knows the proper techniques for production. Such specificity gives value to their labour, but only if that specialty leads to a specialized demand. When community members stop desiring custom-made craft and settle for milled textiles, their craft loses potential for profit, and their children lose desire to learn and pass on those skills .
The industrial revolution and Britain’s imperialism disrupted ancient Indian crafts. In the pre-independence era, little attention was paid to the consequences of modern textile mills . When mills first gained popularity, the British marveled about their potential to cheaply and quickly mimic hand-crafted textiles. No concerted effort was made to develop the handloom industry, so craftspeople were forced to try to compete. During the second half of the twentieth century, the state of India began to massively support production and technical improvements in traditional crafts such as weaving .
But in the twenty-first century we expect technology to evolve faster than we can predict. Mechanical weaving machines continue to replace the loom and hands of a weaver. Computerisation takes things a step farther by enabling superfine, complex patterns to be digitally construed then mechanically executed. With machines and computers and international marketing, hand-weavers have more problems nowadays than just mechanical limitations. In many ways, weavers are totally alienated from fashion trends and potential markets both in India and abroad .
Countless weaving societies face similar challenges despite hugely differing crafts. One common challenge is the time required to produce the fabric. In the Patan region, patola textiles woven with selectively dyed warp and weft threads carry ceremonial importance. Pregnant women receive them during the srimant, or seventh month of pregnancy . Often featuring beautiful tiger and elephant motifs, the dying process for these textiles utilizes three craftspeople and spans up to 75 days. Two craftspeople then simultaneously work the same loom to weave a sari, which takes another 25 days . Though such time-consuming processes lead to rare, highly-valued products, it is difficult to generate substantial demand with so few patola textiles produced by any given community.
Right: Handmade in India 
Another common challenge is changing tastes of the community. Community members sometimes favour mechanically produced textiles regardless of ceremonial valuation. In the Surat District, the handwoven cotton patku was traditionally presented to a bride when she first visited the groom’s house. Changing tastes and cheaper alternatives led locals to stop wearing the traditional patku with a preference for screen-printed fabric made in a mill. As a result, craftswomen resort to weaving lace .
Traditional Patku weaving, image courtesy of Handmade in India 
Weaving communities also face challenges from within, namely to employ and empower women. Women represent half of the potential workforce but, historically, lacked opportunities to learn craft skills from a male-dominated weaving industry. Taking strides towards equality will have profound benefits not only for women but for the community as a whole. When women work and make a living, they can educate themselves and their children, which elevates the community in the long term. In recent years, craft in India has been a significant means of social and financial independence for women .
All of the aforementioned problems persist (and worsen) despite constant monetary and policy aid from the state since the 1960s. Clearly such aid isn’t a complete solution. There has to be some way to provide a centralised location for weavers to collaborate with each other, produce demand for their products and find markets, all the while farming food and sending their children to school. We hope that architecture can provide an avenue towards this end.
To design, build, and set into operation a space where craftspeople can work, where their families can live, and where their children can go to school, with the objective of giving the craft and the community more visibility, thus creating greater public awareness; and contributing to the larger goals of empowerment of women, economic growth, and better education for the children in the community.
— Mission Statement for Weaver’s Co-op Project, Courtesy of Shaumyika Sharma
Architecture characterises the usage of spaces. For a room to enhance a weaver’s workshop, it must have an appropriate number of looms, ample light and manoeuvrable space, a washing area and a dying area. With each of these characteristics centralised in one location, the workshop has the power to reinvigorate workers and equip them to efficiently practice their craft. Now expand that principal to the entire co-op. The goal of the architecture is not to force a weaving community to change their approach. Rather, the goal is to provide a space with desks, bookshelves, and chalkboards to make basic education convenient and accessible; to provide a showroom or museum to display beautiful textiles and attract demand from community members.
Building a weaver’s co-op is not an intervention. It’s not a way to invalidate a community’s customs and tradition. Rather it’s a hope that architectural skills can serve the community to further its subsistence. By centralising high quality weaving facilities with educational facilities, a space for collaboration, and a space for display of the goods, architecture has the potential to make certain activities more attractive. In some cases, this model has proved highly successful.
Dastkar, for instance, established a craft coop in Ranthambhore over 25 years ago. After the new national park displaced local craftspeople, Dastkar worked to provide stations for block printing, cushion cover production, and tie-dying . As a result of those resources, the unskilled workers, who were trained in textile crafts, found an outlet for their work. Women in the co-op maintained financial independence so they could in turn send their daughters to college. Dastkar Ranthambhore grew to the point of expansion, when architecture really came into play. Added rooms included a “production center, raw material store, office, sales outlet, a training workshop, and a place for group interactions.” These spaces were so accessible that they in turn “changed the attitude of the villagers towards society, caste, marriage and purdah” . The community adapted to the changed role of women, seeing the family benefits of women working properly and earning their own money. Shaumyika visited Ranthambhore to learn about the society, and hopes to place her work in its context.
Women making Quilts in Ranthambhore, image courtesy of Dastkar Ranthambhore 
Another upcoming example is Varanasi, where the NGO Nest is collaborating with renowned architect David Adjaye to build a community center for weavers. The design of the centre draws from local architecture and will attempt to augment community relations. Women will assist the weaving process by having their own workspace to increase their craft skills. Space for social and health services will aim to promote mutual respect between Hindu and Muslim weavers .The Varanasi Project, images courtesy of Nest 
In the context of a self-initiated project, an architect has the privilege of choice. Once past the hurdle of funding, an architect can decide where looms and washrooms will go, how many classrooms there should be, where people should congregate, how visitors will navigate and observe the space, etc. But this choice is also a burden. An architect must constantly avoid “playing God.” In this case, they must learn the ins-and-outs of daily life and the problems that weavers face in detail, to provide spaces which ease the weaving and selling process. It will be important to hear every voice, especially those of women, who could benefit most by such a development.
In exercising this caution, I realize that a designed space will not immediately solve the problems of a craft community in India. Hopefully, the space can facilitate ways for the community to solve the problems based on their own knowledge and skill sets. For example, a textile production group in Kyoto named Hosoo revamped their process to appeal to a high fashion audience. They began in the 1600s weaving traditional kimonos. Today the demand for those kimonos has diminished 90% . To combat a lack of demand, they digitized and modernized the process with the aid of custom spaces, machines, and software. An artist will design a pattern which is then analyzed on a pixel-by-pixel level. Computers assist the production process which still features skilled craftspeople on handlooms. Hosoo got hired to produce specialty textiles for labels including Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Chanel .
Kyoto Weaver’s Space, image courtesy of Hosoo 
Will Indian weaving societies follow a similar path to stay relevant? Is the craft being preserved despite that kind of change? Is innovation the key to survival, or is there a way to market traditional textiles to new markets which appreciate the craft? Moving forward, these questions must be considered and discussed with weaving communities in order to design spaces suitable for their future.
- “The Handloom Weaving Cluster: Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh”, UNIDO Cluster Development Programme (March 2003): 2-6,10,16-17,21,23-26
- “Traditional Craftsmanship,” UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Accessed 11 July 2016. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/traditional-craftsmanship-00057
- “Alejandro Aravena appointed Director of the 15th Intl. Architecture Exhibition 2016,” La Biennale Di Venezia. Accessed 15 July 2016. http://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/news/18-07.html
- Anubha Sood, “Crafts as Sustainable Livlihood Option in Rural India.” CraftRevival, accessed 25 Nov 2015.
- Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, ed., Handmade in India (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, 2007): 427, 440
- “Dastkar Ranthambhore,” last modified 2012. http://www.dastkarranthambhore.org/ourjourney.asp
- “The Building Project,” Nest. Accessed 12 July 2016. http://www.buildanest.org/projects/varanasi-india/the-building/
- Tilly Macalister-Smith, “Inside Hosoo, the 327-Year-Old Textiles Mill Supplying Chanel and Dior.” Business of Fashion, 2 July 2015. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/global-currents/inside-hosoo-the-327-year-old-textiles-mill-that-supplies-chanel-and-dior