This week Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha that almost 70% of the 31.4 lakh handloom worker households in India earn less than Rs 5,000 a month as per the 4th All India Handloom Census 2019-2020. Households, not each worker. A decade ago, that figure was an even more abysmal 99%. That is truly a damning statistic, given that India has been known worldwide for millennia for our fine handwoven textiles.

Another telling figure is that in the decade since the last such census, the number of households engaged in the sector has risen from 27.8 lakh to 31.4 lakh, while at the same time India’s population has increased by 17 crore. Clearly handloom is not seen as a very lucrative profession by too many people even though many handloom revivalists and textile designers have stepped in to help weavers innovate and upgrade their products.

And the reason is apparent. Handloom had become a preserve of the elite, and those relatively better off by the 1980s. And when liberalisation brought in international brands, daily wear for a crucial section of consumers, especially the younger ones, shifted to western apparel. Traditional Indian clothes—the lifeblood of spinners, weavers, dyers, printers and even tailors—were relegated to a category I consider condescending: “ethnic”.

Most of us will immediately blame the government for this dismal state of the handloom sector. After all, inefficiency, sloth and corruption is endemic in all government programmes. But there is a bigger culprit. Us. A quick survey of the daily wear of most Indians today would reveal that very little of it is handloom. There are many excuses: ‘ethnic’ wear is not suited to today’s lifestyle, they are hard to maintain, they are expensive…

While the first gripe is debatable, the other two are certainly true. Handlooms often mean handwash too, as certain colors run and weaves and seams can get warped by the rigors of machine rotations. And good handloom—whether cotton, silk, or wool—can be very expensive. But then, what skilled “hand” work is cheap these days? Hairstyling? Food? Carpentry? Surgery? We are willing to pay for those, but not handloom products.

We are often wary of middlemen too, especially when buying handlooms in cities. Getting sarees or yardage “directly” from weavers is seen as more virtuous, though the lower pricetag factor cannot be denied. Getting a weaver’s mobile number and placing orders was the new lockdown ‘thing’. Of course, there was no way to verify whether the voice at the other end was a weaver or a middleman unless an NGO certified their bonafides.

The government should do more for handloom, no doubt. But technologists also need to resolve ‘maintenance’ issues, designers and brands need to rethink how handloom and everyday fashion can go hand-in-hand. And we need to understand and respect the skill and dignity of the people who put their heart and soul into handloom products—like the man and village behind the cloth masks. Only then will India’s great textile legacy survive.


Rohit Shankar