Handcraft practices are a great footprint of the traditional and evolving cultures of any country or region. India has been a country of diversity for centuries with many cultures and subcultures in practice. They have evolved over time under influence from other parts of India and the world.
Traditional handcrafted textiles in India have a large range of community expressions practiced over centuries, also using different manufacturing processes, tools and craft techniques. As a result, they are put to various uses such as apparels, home textiles and community use. For instance, there are more than 350 documented ways of creating and wearing the traditional saree, a 6-meter long woven and unstitched garment draped by women in India.
Besides the craftsperson’s inherited skills, craft techniques and creativity; tools and equipment have a unique and distinctive place in traditional handcrafts. These equipment and tools are always made with the locally available materials, mostly of wood, cane-bamboo and metals.
Looking at durrie (flat woven rug) weaving traditions across India, one finds an amazing diversity of looms and tools with varied pre-weaving processes, and corresponding ways of working on each of the different looms.
In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Bhawani durries (Jamakkalm) are woven on a four-pedal handloom where the weaver sits on the plank next to the cloth beam. The weaver operates the loom using footwork and weaves beautiful glowing stripes of mostly primary and secondary colors, mainly in cotton.
Figure 1- Radiant weft striped Jamakkalam of Bhawani Tamilnadu Photo courtesy ‘The Hindu’
Adjacent to Tamil Nadu is the state of Kerala, with its tradition of coir weaving craft, big lengths of matting are woven on large-sized looms. The weaver has to stand next to the cloth beam and operate foot pedals to weave, while inserting wefts by hand to achieve exaggerated textures like basket and twills, forming large stripes. These mattings are commonly used in churches, temples, weddings, and other public congregations.
Figure 2- Exaggerated weave structured coir matting woven where weaver stands and operates the loom. – Photo C Bheda
The town of Navalgund in the south-western state of Karnataka has the tradition of weaving Jamkhan durries and Jainamaz (Islamic prayers rugs). Using vertical looms erected from a pit, the weaver sits on the floor of the pit next to the cloth beam to weave her rug. An L-shaped jagged metal claw is used as the weft beater, and inlay technique is used for patterning. Jamkhans with vividly colored dice boards (pagadi atte) and peacock motifs are popularly used by people to sit on and play. The dice game is believed to be a precursor of chess, and similar to the one referred to in antiquity in the Indian epic Mahabharata.
Figure 3- Woman weaving Jamkhan and Saraf family seated on Jamkhan playing the Pagadi Atte, the dice game – Photo C Bheda
Weavers from the same region also make warp-faced and rib-textured and striped floor coverings. These are hand stitched together after weaving looped stripes on a typical floor loom, which is reassembled after every strip is woven. The weaver sits on the woven part of the strip and hand-weaves the warp faced structure by beating the weft with the help of a metal plate. Pegs along the floor and ropes from the ceiling ensure the tensile nature of this loom!
Figure 4- Guddar weaving in Karnataka, side profile drawing of the loom and stitched striped textiles often used for tents – photo C Bheda
Warangal town in the south-eastern state of Andhra Pradesh has pit looms used for weaving patterned rugs. The warp is stretched on the floor, and the weaver sits in the pit, operating four pedals with his feet. He makes weft-faced weave structures and inlay patterns derived from rectangular grids using a weft inlay technique.
Figure 5- weaving of durries on pit loom in Warrangal – Photo courtesy Bina Rao and thenewsminute.com
In the western and northern parts of India, across many districts of Rajasthan, the Kutch region of Gujarat, and in the Mirzapur belt of Uttar Pradesh, woven durries of camel and sheep wool and cotton are made on floor looms stretched across pegs on the ground. The weaver sits on the plank running across the width of the warp, and slides back and forth as the weaving progresses.
Figure 6- Large size durries being woven on a floor loom in Tonk Rajasthan and Samat Tejasi weaving Kharad in kuchchh Gujarat
Also in Rajasthan, there is a charpoy (bed made of woven cords) weaving tradition with Ankada fiber (Calotropis Procera), extracted locally from the weed growing throughout the arid desert. The charpoys are handwoven on the frame of the bed itself, using ropes made from residual textiles and the Ankada fiber. Hand-wound warp and ribbed deer horns are used to grip the rope while creating the interlacements of breathtaking patterns.
Figure 7- Stages of Ankada fiber (Calotropis Procera) extraction and deer horn used as a tool to ensure grip of rope while weaving charpoy – Photo C Bheda
Figure 8- in Shindharani village young girl is spinning ropes with fabric residue and Pattaram of Daisar villageBarmer Rajasthan showing his work. He is an expert charpoy weaver with Ankada and residual ropes – Photo C Bheda
In Sangrur town of Punjab, bridal rugs are woven on a metal pipe frame which looks like a charpoy. A new warp is put up for each durrie, and geometrical patterns are weft woven by women as bridal rugs. They use a range of motifs from floral geometrical patterns to war scenes with tanks and guns.
Figure 9- Bridal rugs in Balawar Sangrur Panjab are woven on a frame loom and have interesting tassels making skills – Photo courtesy Sangeeta Sen
In Nagaland, in the north-eastern part of India, the coarse fabric is woven on back-strap looms. The warp is a looped strip that keeps sliding till it is fully woven, and then cut. The body weight of the weaver and her pull with the help of a strap around the waist ensures the tensile position of the warp, creating beautiful hand-woven striped patterns.
Figure 10- Women weavers of Nagaland, the North eastern India, working on a back strap loom where weavers body is a part of loom structure offering required stretch strength to the warp. – Photo courtesy Margaret Zinyu
When I look at all these looms and methods of weaving, I notice some interesting features in each method. In some cases, a woven warp is wound but the weavers sit in one position. In others the warp slides due to loop formation till both ends meet, while in yet others, the warp is stationary but weavers move as the weaving progresses. Weavers sit on the floor or on planks in some techniques, while in others they sit with feet in the pit or on the floor and use their bodies as a part of the loom. In larger widths, multiple weavers are engaged and work simultaneously pick by pick!
Figure 11- Local sheep wool Dhabda rug woven by Shamji Vankar in Bhujodi Kuchchh, westerns part of India with handpicked extra weft faced patterns has similarity in terms of technique if not material with cotton rugs woven in Khunti Jharkhand the eastern part of the country with a distance of 2000 kms in-between – Photo C Bheda
Having travelled across India to most of these regions on product development projects I had a wonderful opportunity to interact with the weavers and understand their tools, techniques and weaving processes in great detail. I also got the opportunity to provide them alternative tools to improve their efficiency, to expand their creative capacity and for product diversification.
When Devi Art Foundation invited me to work on a novel and innovative textile project, I used the opportunity to go off on a tangent and weave a new structure. I created a curved durrie fabric – the Flying Rug – in collaboration with weaver Mahendra Singh and his team of weavers for the show Fracture: Indian Textiles New Conversations. To make this dream possible I designed and created a new loom with curved beams, without reed and shedding mechanism. The warp was not parallel, and the weft hand inserted in a curvilinear manner. The grid of the fabric is not rectangular and is constantly changing its density due to the radial structure, defying the established norm of weaving fabric. The distortions in the black and white patterns are the inherent character of the modified weaving technique. The outcome was a striking sculptural textile suspended from the top to give it the feel of flying. Moving on, I continue to work further on the idea of spatially curved textiles!
Figure 12- The Flying Rug shown at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur during exhibition ‘NEW TRADITIONS: Influences & Inspirations in Indian Textiles, 1947-2017” August 2018 also seen here is the newly designed loom on which the rug was woven. Photo C Bheda
Chandrashekhar Bheda prolific textiles and handicrafts product designer and artist has in the last 33 years been discovering new possibilities for the textiles and handcraft industry. Alumnus of India’s premier design and art schools, the National Institute of Design (AEP 1988), Ahmedabad, the Sir J.J. School of Arts, Bombay (1982), and a stint at NIFT Delhi 1989; Chandrashekhar currently leads several design projects with key commercial and developmental organizations for the creation of marketable textiles and handicraft products both for the domestic and overseas markets. His familiarity with the traditional as well as high technology textiles and craft techniques has allowed him to realize path-breaking concepts and scintillating creative expressions in his work.