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Featured Supplier – Women Weave

The Fight to Save India’s Textile Women

Pushed on by a burgeoning textiles sector, India is one of the world’s most prominent emerging economies. But the central Asian nation is littered with the exploitation of female textile workers, mistreated on the grounds of being a woman – a disability from birth under a male-dominated society.


India’s economic growth model the last two decades has been to provide people with employment, driving this highly impoverished country forward. Its textile industry is the second largest employer in the country after agriculture, providing around 45 million jobs and making up 4% of India’s GDP and 13% of exports in 2014. Women have found their place in the textile market as weavers, sewers and cutters. Much of this $42 billion a year export industry is located in western Tamil Nadu, referred to as the ‘Textile Valley of India’.

Across all the Valley districts – Namakkal, Coimbatore, Tirupur, Karur, Erode and Salem – more than 2,000 processing and dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories can be found. They employ a staggering 300,000 people – mostly women. Feeding the West’s insatiable hunger for cheap, fashionable clothes, it’s in India where female workers weave yarn into fabric to be made into clothes. These are then picked up in an American mall or British high street only weeks later by a bargain-savvy shopper.

As the competition between India’s garment factories heats up, productivity and increased margins are the ultimate goal. Unfortunately in many cases, ethical practice suffers.


According to a recent blog post by LiveAction, textile factories are duping young female workers into working long hours in squalid conditions, for minimal pay and little rest.  Owners of the factories are paying agents up to 2,000 rupees ($30) to visit Dalit communities – India’s most impoverished, uneducated and low-caste group – in search of families with unmarried daughters.

The girls are in need of an attractive dowry – money given by a girl’s family to the groom and his parents at the time of marriage. While the dowry has been officially banned under the Dowry Prohibition ACT of 1961, the custom still occurs in “open secrecy”, says LiveAction program officer for India, Gamathi Palanikumar.

After being scouted, an employment agreement is reached. The employer promises to provide a lump sum payment to each garment worker at the end of her three-year stint, explains Palanikumar.

“Temporary accommodation, holidays twice a year, regular leisure time, and clean and safe working and living conditions are additional verbal arrangements,” says Palanikumar.

Factories offer 30,000 to 60,000 rupees ($470 to $940) for three years’ work. However, women who have come through the employment stint are said to receive only partial amounts, after meal and lodging has been covered.

Even more disturbing, around 200,000 of the ‘apprentices’ are kept in closed hostels, overworked and abused. The women are seen as a resource in a mill focused on mass production, and their humanity is squashed.

India’s historic handwoven market – once the pride of the nation – is also suffering from the monopoly of mass-production garment mills. Handloom operatives are loosing out, placed in competition for raw materials, markets, and government-lead development schemes.

The Handloom Census taken back in 2009 revealed that the handwoven sector has experienced an 18% decrease during the past two decades and that handloom operatives are struggling in the current market.

Giving the thread back to India’s handloomers, WomenWeave is a charitable trust organization run out of Central India. Found in Maheshwar in the region of Madhya Pradesh, WomenWeave is a 26-hour drive from the famous ‘Textile Valley’. But it’s having a positive impact on the lives of female textile workers.

Helmed by Sally Holkar, WomenWeave serves to better the lives of “the shadow poor”, women not necessarily begging on the streets but those who are highly marginalized due to their gender and inability to provide for themselves.


WomenWeave has been on this journey since it first opened in 2002. Teaching women hand spinning and weaving is at the forefront of its ethos. This is provided through different operatives in Central India, including the Gudi Mudi branch and The Handloom School.

Unlike some of the unethical practices in the south, which isolate and intimidate female garment workers with the promise of a dowry, Holkar and her team have built a flourishing community for female workers with a focus on handwoven fabrics.

“Our objective at WomenWeave Gudi Mudi is to give work to women in remote, marginalized areas, where there is truly no other form of employment,” explains Holkar.

“Meanwhile, our objective at The Handloom School is to enable young, talented weavers to interact directly with the market.  With both objectives, we are making great progress and discovering more and more potential every day.”

The progress is evident. Men are shifting their attitude toward women in the region, spurred on by fathers wanting a better future for their daughters, as opposed to a dowry-dependent marriage that forces girls into unfair working environments.

“Fathers formerly never taught daughters anything pertaining to weaving. Daughters were to be married and sent away,” explains Holkar. “Just recently I witnessed a father coming to The Handloom School. He spent three days teaching his teenage daughter how to set up her own loom and weave on her own.”

Commerciality is essential to the WomenWeave concept, generating selling opportunities for the women and initiating market connections in India and abroad.


“There’s satisfaction in knowing that our excellent team has built a global market for our handspun, handwoven products and we can service that market from our doorstep.”

Providing an income is essential, too.

“In the early days, we had difficulty getting wages into the hands of the women who had actually earned them,” explains Holkar. “Men used to stand outside our center on pay day and harass the women as they came out holding their hard-earned cash.”

The great moment, according to Holkar, was when the women began inquiring about opening their own bank accounts. They would bank part of their payment and take the rest home for their family.

“Most of the women we have taught to weave use their income to pay for their children’s education,” adds Holkar.

Dedicated to fair value for labor and women’s rights, WomenWeave ultimately marries a care for people with the uniqueness of India’s handwovens. Yarns are handspun from organic cottons, dyed with 100% natural dyes and loomed with the utmost care and attention. Intrinsically bespoke, the fabrics are delicate, colorful and incredibly beautiful; made from a single skilled set of hands from any one of the

100 women that take part in the WomenWeave program.

It’s an artisan process that is rich in emotion and culture, something felt most deeply by those working with the women, explains Holkar.

“There’s intense joy in watching a young weaver take pride in her work, the pride one feels when watching a young person take charge of their life,” explains Holkar.

The joy in seeing the finished fabric is equally cathartic and expresses the beauty of the ancient art.

“I can immediately envision the hands that have woven it, the eyes that have watched every meter of fabric, as threads mold into cloth,” adds Holkar. “Those visions lend a beauty to the fabric which may not be apparent to others.”


But change is the ultimate motivator and progress comes in the little things, the steps that continue to be taken.

“Today, there is a silent revolution in Maheshwar,” says Holkar. “The media has more of a role to play in exposing the unethical industry practices in India. Meanwhile, online marketplaces such as Le Souk are important in providing avenues in selling handloomed materials to designers and consumers.”

This will enable prospective buyers of handwoven cloth to identify and purchase handwoven cloth.”

Written by Benhamin Fitzgerald, courtesy of Le Souk

Website: www.lesouk.co


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