Reviving the rare 'kala cotton' of arid Kutch

New Delhi, Nov 19 (IANS) Kala cotton, a rare species indigenous to the arid region of Kutch, was left in a forlorn state for financially better option of genetically-modified cotton varieties. But a British-based research project has helped in reviving this traditional craft, renewed the livelihood of many families and promises to make it global.

To protect this unique traditional skill and encourage creative innovation, Alison Welsh, head of the department of apparel at Manchester Metropolitan University, is working with Bhuj weaver Shamji Vishram Vankar for her project "Field to Fashion".

The project has been pioneered in conjunction with a Gujarat-based NGO, Khamir, which works for the development of craft heritage in Kutch.

What Welsh is exploring with this collaboration is the possibility of creating a niche for organic, sustainable cotton in the international market and raise awareness about this stretchable fibre which is often used in denim.

"This is a research-based project without any aim at generating revenue from it. What we wish to do is to spread the word about this rare cotton through exhibitions and my classes at the university," Welsh told IANS in an interview during her visit

to India.

"I have built up a knowledge base of this fabric and tested it in advanced testing machines. It is a wonderful fabric that becomes smooth with each wash," she added, saying durability and longevity are its USP, but agreed that it being an expensive fabric acts as a deterrent.

The association has given a new lease of life to this niche group of high-skilled artisans who weave for national and international fashion markets. According to Vankar, there are around 1,200 families in different villages.

The farming community in Adessar, in the easternmost corner of Kutch, is one of the few that cultivates the region's indigenous variety of cotton that is also identified by its long strands. Its cultivation doesn't require any pesticide or genetic modification and is drought- tolerant.

The platform has thus opened the gates of cultural exchange where both groups are learning about new methods and are fusing Indian and Western sensibilities in their final product - the garment.

"We were exposed to a different culture when we went to Britain. There we saw people wearing dull colours, which is unlike Kutch culture where everything is so colourful. When people wear colours like white and beige we say he has become old," said Vankar.

"But they advised us to make our product commercially viable; so we have to keep the colour tone sombre and subtle," he added, saying this piece of advice has been helping local artisans to understand the global market.

For Welsh, the strength and durability of the fabric was what caught her eye, and its striking resemblance to linen - a fabric popular among Britons.

"I want to take this experiment slowly and hope the garment balances east and west sensibilities. So I am interested in mixing Indian pattern cutting methods to traditional western pattern cutting methods," she said.

Traditional weaving practices and local partnerships have vanished ever since cotton mills and industrial textile machinery were introduced to get better financial returns.

Thus, the production of kala cotton was slowly abandoned as local farmers attempted to meet the incessant demands of the international market.

But Welsh feels such challenges can be tackled with smart thinking.

"We do appreciate craftsmen and crafts in Britain, but sometimes we too neglect our own craftsmen," she pointed out.

"Both countries have suffered from the rise of mechanisation. Although sometimes you see how smartly some design houses or designers combine machinery with craft, and create a very commercially viable product," she added, saying the trick is to "balance".

"The only way these native crafts can flourish and grow is by smartly combining machinery and craftsmanship. They might be expensive but all good things come with a price tag and they are worth every penny," Welsh added.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at shilpa.r@ians.in)