The first attempts by humans to clothe themselves were probably the use of animal skins to protect them from extreme heat or cold. Later in the story of how humans moved towards more evolved methods of living and surviving, a clump of reeds, entangled at the edge of a stream, or a nest made instinctively by a bird to protect its eggs, would have given them the idea of weaving fibrous material into fabric. It is always nature that offers protection – or even destruction – to affect the rhythms and processes of living. Man learned to live with it, cultivate the earth, grow plants and trees, or rear animals to provide themselves with clothing. Once the essentials were met, over time, clothes became representations of wealth, status, communities, countries and then of style. This brought in fashion, design and creativity of a different kind. It also offered pleasure by catering to human vanity. With that began a search for what others decided was luxury.
There is another kind of joy – the joy of the pleasurable tactile sensation we get when we run our fingers over natural fabric. It is something we often fail to notice consciously, but we do consider and mull over the softness of fine muslin, the smoothness of silk, the glossiness of satin, the reassurance of velvet and the warm glow that emanates from soft wool cannot deny that always adds to our feeling of psychological comfort as do pleasant aromas, tasty food or a certain artistic aesthetic. Evolved and enlightened humans always want more than the physical sensations of pleasure. They also want a purpose, a higher reason or a greater good to which they feel related; a social or universal purpose that serves more people than themselves.
It is this aspect of human nature that addresses itself to socially responsible and sustainable development in any sphere, and in this case, we are addressing here the creation of textiles. After a spell of rapid industrial growth across the world, textile technologists married the offshoots of petroleum like polymer, acrylic, spandex, lycra, and nylon to produce a vast number of textiles for clothing and other purposes. Today, polyester is one of the least environmentally sustainable products to produce and yet India uses it widely inspite of it also being unfavourable to the skin in hot climates. Almost all the clothing that is worn by poorer communities in India is made of polyester for its longer lasting and easy maintenance. Yet, women’s saris have caught fire more easily when near flame in kitchens, and manual labourers and truck drivers have developed skin rashes wearing polyester shirts at work. Few are aware that some decades ago, when synthetic textiles were preferred by factory owners and offered as uniforms, workers in a Coca Cola factory in the USA protested against this and demanded cotton uniforms for better heath and comfort.
We are now at a bend in the road, where new realizations are staring us in the face. Among many, but certainly the most significant, are unemployment and climate change. A serious look at natural fibres will perhaps offer equally significant solutions for more sustainable livelihoods on a planet that keeps nature’s balance.
In the west, with its distinct change of seasons, the concept of fashion is expected to change its colours and styles with the season but it has not necessarily associated itself with nature, which alone contains within it the true and organic expressions of these changes of seasons. The fashion industry does not look at the grasses that grow around ponds after the monsoons. It does not see the jute fields of Bengal , the sisal fibre in Kerala, the bamboo in forests everywhere. South Asian countries have created banana fibre, Myanmar makes scarves out of cloth woven from fibre made from the stems of a lotus plant. We have lotus flowering everywhere we have let remain untapped. Meghalya has shown us high fashion can come out of ramie grass and Nepal hand crafts scarves from nettle which showed us the way to do the same. Linen made of flax fibre has reached high fashion for men’s shirts and women’s saris and men. There is a surfeit of pineapple in Manipur. We can make in India what the Philippines does – it clothes its men in colourful shirts out of pineapple fibre. Hemp and nettle are hand woven by women in the villages of Uttarakhand. Nature offers grasses, rushes and reeds in plenty during the seasons when local grasses and trees flourish. Instead, the textile industry developed fabrics that had nothing to do with seasons, but everything to do with oil and machinery and industrial output and mass production, putting up a dividing wall between the people and the environment that offers its bounty without cost.
Recently we are hearing about the most state-or-the art textiles being developed by cutting edge technologies. We are told of fabrics that change temperature according to your body heat, or bacteria resistant cloth. The British – India trade council chief held up a fifty-pound note to a large audience in India at the Textile India event at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, in June 2017 telling them that the note that looks like paper is made of cloth they imported from India.
New technologies are doing wondrous things. But, stop to think for a moment; in India, we know that a pure khadi kurta keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer, indigo dyed fabric made of natural fibres keeps away bacteria and skin ailments, and all natural fibres are in fact best for our health.
Apart from that, in this day and age when many are wanting to preserve the planet and reduce their carbon footprints, anything we use of wear that is made out of fibres that can be naturally re-grown rather than thrown into a pile of non-biodegradable waste is a true service to mankind. Using natural dyes adds to the sense of responsibility towards the body and nature.
Today many designers can lead the way to furthering a movement towards responsible fashion. Fashion can strongly promote the natural and indigenous in fibres, dyes and styles as well. On thought to move away from mass production of synthetic garments is to question the need for standardization. This is an industrial concept conceived by those who push the marketing of their mass-produced products globally. Why should certain standard sizes fit all? Why should ‘bespoke’ be special when our Indian tailors can suit the whims, needs and specific sizes of individual customers? When each human being is different from the other in features, skin colour, size and characteristics, why do we want our clothes to all be the same? Non-standardization can give us greater freedom of expression.
The Meghalaya ramie textile we saw unveiled recently at the French Embassy in Delhi was a remarkable example of what new possibilities and benefits and can come out of a well-integrated collaboration between farmers, women who process the fibre from the formerly waste grasses the farmers can provide, the textile designers who use technology to convert those fibres into yarn and then fabric, and fashion designers who converted this fabric into a variety of high-end fashion garments, upholstery, jewelry, fashion accessories like decorative buttons, and even a fragrance called Ramie Dawn and Ramie Dusk.
When we speak of Made in India and Incredible India, these are the ways to point to the sectors that are truly important. By drawing attention to our vast variety of skills and natural raw materials that cost hardly anything at all, we can draw attention to India as a country that can lead the world of fashion and textiles by applying technology judiciously and involving people and traditionally known skills of the people rather than machines, to show our strength. Our traditional designs and motifs can be regenerated and reworked to offer a truly Indian idiom to both fabric and fashion.
There is no end to human ingenuity. When society finds a way to provide gainful and dignified employment for local communities of farmers and women, a harmonious chain of production, and a path to reach out to world market with fashions that are unique, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, one can truly say that society is evolving towards a better level. If luxury can be termed as what makes us feel at peace with ourselves in mind and body, then the use of natural fibres and colours, produced ethically and sustainably, could be called the ultimate form of luxury in the world of fashion.
First published in 2018 for a monthly journal called FIBRES.