How Traditional Indian Fabrics Are Reinventing the Wheel of Sustainability

How Traditional Indian Fabrics Are Reinventing the Wheel of Sustainability

Photograph by Vikram Kushwah and Peden & Munk / Trunk Archive


Words by Bandana Tewari

As the world continues on its course of over production and hyper consumption, Bandana Tewari turns her attention to two Indigenous fabrics that are the antidote to the resource-depleting, oil-based textiles that make up today’s fashion industry.

This story was published as part of a wider series that delves deep into the fast-developing world of material solutions. Discover more from Fabricating Change here.


It is often said that the history of humanity is a history of excavation; of mankind violently pillaging and extracting oil, coal, gold, diamonds and more from Mother Nature. But if we trace back our steps, it wasn’t always so. Indigenous communities all across the world have shown us the deep wisdom that comes from honoring the interconnectedness between humans and nature. 


Historically, fabrics that clothed the body not only had deep cultural significance, they were the rewards of the land if natural resources were harnessed with the ethics of mindful consumption, respect, and regeneration. In fact, even today if you go to any craft village—whether it’s the ikat weavers of Sumba, Indonesia or the khadi weavers of Gujarat, India—the spinning wheel of the weaver, the waft and weft of a handloom, are profound symbols of non-violence. Non-violence or Ahimsa, which Mahatma Gandhi said applied to “thoughts, deeds and actions.”  He said: “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.” In this same vein, the seamless reciprocity between clothing, creativity, and reverence for nature’s bounty has been the bedrock of every Indigenous community.


Today, this wisdom needs to become a powerful transmitter to overturn the hallowed customs and traditions of a “modern” world hurtling into over production, hyper consumption, and monumental waste. And revisiting the historical narratives of hemp and khadi—two organic fabrics that can serve as the antidote to resource-depleting oil-based textiles—is imperative. 

Hemp: An Environmental Hero

Hemp is a wonder crop. 


In India, hemp—or Cannabis sativa—is commonly referred to as Bhanga, or better Vijaya, which means “victorious” in part because it is the palliative to many diseases. Historians tell us that its native land is Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent that skirts the Himalayan range from North India to Nepal, Bhutan to Myanmar. Here, hemp was always grown for a variety of products that included fabrics, food, and medication. In fact, the plant’s healing potency has been known to India for centuries. Hemp is perhaps as old as the Indian Ayurvedic discipline referred to in Sanskrit as “the science of life,” which dates back more than 5000 years. This medicinal practice, seen as the “mother of all healing,” has hemp playing an integral role in the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and spiritual wellbeing. Within this tradition of Ayurveda, hemp is considered one of the five sacred plants enumerated in the ancient scriptures, Vedas,  wisdom which has been passed down from generation to generation. 


Hemp is the super crop with  one of the longest and strongest plant fibers in the world, making it resilient and hardy. It can grow almost anywhere in the world, on poor soil, without the need for pesticides or insecticide; it doesn’t require a lot of water compared to similar crops; and it is great for replenishing the soil with valuable nutrients and so is often used as a rotational crop. Hemp has extremely fast-growing cycles meaning farmers can harvest higher yields multiple times per year. And above all else, hemp is a plant. This means it absorbs CO2 while it grows through photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the very start of the growing process. In short—the environmental credentials of hemp are second to none. 


For instance, hemp requires around 50% less water than cotton, saving 1300 liters of water per T-shirt, and the crop will produce between 200% to 250% more fiber than cotton in the same space of land. Cotton accounts for only 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land, but uses 16% of the world’s insecticide use, more than any other major crop. Unlike cotton, hemp requires less pesticides or insecticides in order to grow. Hemp textile fiber is hypoallergenic and has natural antimicrobial properties. It is an insulator in cold weather and breathable in warm weather. This fabric is so durable, it can last a lifetime.

And yet, the hemp clothing market size was valued at just $2.29 billion in 2021, a fraction of cotton’s $38.54 billion.

The hemp plant, which can be used as a biomaterial.

At a time when the fashion industry is creating irreparable damage to the environment, the significance of hemp fabric cannot be ignored.

In India, this ancient and revered plant was heavily stigmatized in part because it is in the same family as marijuana. During the early years of British rule in India, many laws were passed to criminalize this powerful plant. For instance, the International Opium Convention, signed in The Hague in 1925, banned the export of Indian hemp, which in turn led to a decline in production.


In China, a country with a rich history of hemp production, it was industrialization that led to hemp’s unpopularity. Ancient Chinese texts and archaeological discoveries of rope and burial cloth all point to the extensive use of high-quality hemp especially during the Western Zhou dynasty. But by the 18th century, hemp production was in decline in favor of cotton, gin and industrialized farming. It’s only in the last decade that China has once again become the biggest producer of hemp in a bid to supplant cotton with less environmentally-taxing textiles. And in countries like India, there is immense anticipation that industrial hemp farming will take off. 


Already the value of hemp is being revisited by several Indian states—while Uttarakhand is the only state that cultivates hemp for now, research is taking place in Jammu and Uttar Pradesh. Soon many other states, including Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Manipur, are expected to follow suit.


At a time when the fashion industry is creating irreparable damage to the environment, the significance of hemp fabric cannot be ignored. And there is hope, says Chirag Tekchandaney, cofounder and CEO of Bombay Hemp Company and a leading advocate of hemp production in India. Despite its comparably humble size, the hemp clothing market is projected to reach a valuation of $23.02 billion in the next 10 years—that’s a compound annual growth rate of 27.1% from 2022 to 2031. Cotton’s is estimated at just 2.74%.


“Consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of their clothing choices, and there is a growing demand for sustainable fashion alternatives,” Tekchandaney said. “Hemp fabric aligns with these trends, making it an attractive option for both conscious consumers and fashion brands aiming to meet sustainability goals.” 

Khadi: The Non-Violent Cloth

The iconic image of a frail Mahatma Gandhi wrapped in a frugal loincloth as he marched the streets of India, inspiring millions of Indians to stand-up against British colonization, continues to be one of the most powerful images of non-violent protest that changed the course of history. That loincloth was khadi, a disarmingly humble handspun fabric made on a handloom. But to understand the trailblazing significance of what was later called the “revolutionary cloth” we must first revisit a powerful socio-political movement in India.


Historically, khadi fabric was hand-spun from cotton fiber, slightly rugged in texture but with the ability to keep people warm in winter and cool during sweltering Indian summers. 


Before British colonization, the Indian economy flourished because traditional methods of textile production like this were the norm, and almost every village across India had its spinners, dyers, and weavers—the foot soldiers of a thriving village economy. But with colonization, the British acquired Indian cotton at cheap prices, and exported them to Britain where cotton was woven into clothes in English factories. What can be comparable to the fast fashion industry of today, machine-made, mass-produced clothes from England were shipped back to India and sold at hefty prices to locals, only to profit the British. With this, the rich and diverse local textile industry was rapidly put out of business, and the true strength of India—the village economy—devolved from wealth to penury. 


Gandhi started the Khadi Movement to restore the livelihoods of millions through economic self-reliance. He asked an entire nation to discard and burn the clothes from the mills of England as an act of civil disobedience. He urged every person to spin their own yarn and weave their own cloth as an act of nonviolent resistance. The nation responded. Thousands of villages across India started weaving their own khadi, making the mills in Britain come to a grinding halt. This was the nation’s call for dignity of labor through Swadeshi or self-reliance. The spinning wheel or the Charkha became the symbol of economic freedom, political independence, and Ahimsa or non-violence.

“I keep asking myself: What’s next? And I keep coming back to khadi.”

Sabyasachi Mukherjee
Indian Designer

The Khadi Movement played a pivotal role in India eventually gaining independence from the British. Never in history has a piece of cloth played such a paramount role in shaping the destiny of a country. 


Today this “revolutionary cloth,” is not only an alternative for environmentally harmful fabrics based on fossil fuels, it plays a key role in the upliftment of rural India by generating employment —for women in particular. Khadi has a low carbon footprint because it requires no energy for its manufacturing. A meter of khadi fabric consumes three liters of water, while one meter of mill-produced fabric requires 55 liters. It can be manufactured from silk and wool because of its popularity amongst eco-consumers. And so striding innovation has lifted the fabric from being coarse to luxurious with the help of high-production capacity spindle machines developed to spin fabrics with better quality and blend. 


This is why government organizations like The Khadi & Village Industries Commission have been giving the textile a serious push, showcasing the cloth internationally and signing memorandums with designers and fashion institutions. This humble fabric was the subject of an exhibit by Issey Miyake in Tokyo and has been actively promoted in countries like South Africa, Russia, and the U.S. High-end Indian designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Rahul Mishra, and Sanjay Garg consistently use khadi, the “poor man’s cloth,” in their demi-couture collections. “I keep asking myself: What’s next? And I keep coming back to khadi,” said Mukherjee, who recently opened a colossal flagship in New York. “For me, it is the equivalent of wellness and mindfulness, and nothing can be more luxurious than that.” 


The value of establishing an “economy of permanence” rather than a system which is based on reckless destruction of natural resources has been heralded by many, not least the pre-eminent Ghandian economist, Dr J.C. Kumarappa. Khadi is imbued with the ethics of sustainability and Ahimsa—a deep commitment to be non-violent towards people and the planet. It is for this reason that the image of Mahatma Gandhi spinning the wheel must remain forever etched in our memory as a powerful symbol of responsible creation and consumption.

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