This is a post written as part of the series “Textiles of the World”, which aims to explore some of the history and stories of textiles worldwide so we can learn more about them together and increase our appreciation for the places and hands they come from.
Today, I’d like to tell you about Khadi. Khadi, which simply refers to a handspun and handwoven textile from a natural fiber, is one of the many Indian textiles. While khadi often refers to cotton, you’ll also find khadi wool and khadi silk. Traditionally, it makes NO USE of any external power for the machinery that creates it—definitely eco friendly!
Growing up in an Indian-American household, I’ve been surrounded all my life by the vast number of Indian textiles, from hand printed cotton fabrics to intricately woven and embroidered Banarasi saris with gold thread. Given this immersion, it’s no wonder that I became a sewist!
Indian textiles have a long and deep history over thousands of years. The origin of Indian textiles can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, about 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, which was known in part for its handicraft practices. Fragments of woven cotton and bone needles have been found at excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Textiles are also described in the sacred Hindu Sanskrit hymn Rigveda, the famous Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Buddhist scripts.
Indian cotton in particular has had a long history of trade. Roman and Greek traders secured trade with different dynasties on the subcontinent around the beginning of the Common Era. Inventions such as the cotton gin in the Delhi Sultanate around the 14th century enabled the expansion of existing exports. By the early 18th century, following the diffusion of the spinning wheel, the incorporation of the roller cotton gin, and agrarian reforms under the Mughal Empire, Indian textiles held a 25% share of the global textile trade.
One of the most sought after cotton cloths came from Calicut, also known as Kozhikode, in Kerala. This fabric was called calico, a name quite familiar to us now! Chintz, a calico textile with a printed design, became incredibly popular as well. These textiles became so popular that both France and Britain banned the import of Indian cotton textiles. After India formally came under direct British rule in the 19th century, raw cotton was exported to Britain, where it was manufactured into textiles and exported to India for sale. High tariffs were placed on Indian textile workshops, causing the decline of Indian textile creators and India to become a captive market for British cotton goods.
Mahatma Gandhi and the Fight for Indian Independence
As part of the boycott of British goods in the early 1900s, Gandhi encouraged the boycott of foreign cloth. Due to the decline of the Indian textile industry, handspun yarn had become expensive and of poor quality. Gandhi advocated for the resurgence of spinning on a charka—a type of spinning wheel—to establish rural self-employment and self-reliance for textiles as part of the greater Swadeshi movement. In 1925, Gandhi founded the All India Spinners Association to propagate, produce, and sell khadi.
Gandhi argued that swaraj, or self-rule, could only be achieved if India became self sufficient. He saw khadi as a means of economic liberations of the masses and a social equalizer. Gandhi began wearing the traditional dhoti—a type of sarong outwardly resembling trousers— from cloth he spun and wove himself, as a rejection of Western culture and identification with the poor. The return to hand spinning and weaving was not a rejection of modern technology, but rather a rejection of the exploitation, control, and economic entanglement in the Indian textile industry.
Today, khadi remains an important part of the Indian textile industry. There are cooperative societies, country-wide regulation, and research dedicated to the production, promotion, and preservation of handloom.
So you’ve decided you’d like to buy some khadi, great! These days, you can find three varieties: khadi, handloom, and mill cloth. Khadi is both handspun and handwoven. Handloom is a fabric created with either the spinning or the weaving process done with a machine requiring external power, like electricity. Mill cloth is a fabric created with both spinning and weaving done by machine. How can you tell what you’re buying? Here’s a quick checklist you can run through to determine what type of khadi you have.
- Due to the weaving style, the ends of khadi are usually soft and loose compared to machine woven cloth. Twist the cloth in the direction of the yarn. Do the threads tighten? If so, what you have is khadi. Do the threads come loose? Your fabric is handloom or mill-spun.
- Look at your cloth through a light source. What can you see? If you see differences in density and transparency, you have khadi. If the fabric is opaque, but has non-uniform density, you have handloom cloth. If the fabric is both opaque and uniform in density, you have mill cloth.
- Touch your fabric! Handwoven and handspun fabrics are very light and soft compared to machine spun and machine woven fabrics.
- If you’re new to khadi, don’t be afraid to ask the store! They may be able to give you details on the weaver’s collective or center they purchased it from, which is a good indication of authenticity.
- If you’re thinking about purchasing directly from a weaver’s collective or khadi center, the material you buy will come with a Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) logo along with a batch number. It might also have the weaver’s name and location. There are currently 2525 registered khadi institutions, and each is listed on the linked government website.
- The Victoria & Albert Museum
- The Better India
- The Gandhi Research Centre
- “Spinning for India’s Independence” American Journal of Public Health by Theodore M Brown and Elizabeth Fee
- The Mughal Empire by John F Richards
- “Cotton Textiles and the great divergence: Lancashire, India, and shifting competitive advantage, 1600-1850” International Institute of Social History by Bishnupriya Gupta and Stephen Broadberry
- Khadi and Village Industries Commission
- Monitoring the World Economy, 1820 – 1992 by Angus Madison
- “A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India” Oxford University Press by Uzramma Meena Menon
- Indian Textiles: Past and Present by Shukla Ghosh and G.K. Ghosh
Ceci currently lives in Phoenix, where she works as an analyst. She shares her sewing projects on Instagram under the handle @thesecretsewist.