Chapter 2 - Weavers and Shakers
So here I am in Hyderabad, Telengana, a city of 9 million people in the middle of India, famous for Biryani, pearls and ikat fabrics. While the first two things can be found on every street corner, the ikat takes a bit of hunting down.
I have been here before and already have a supplier, but I really wanted to see the weavers in action so I had to go a bit further afield.
My destination was a family weaving unit 100kms from Hyderabad. A quick trip you may think, but it takes about and hour and a half to get to the outskirts of the city. I kept receiving anxious phone calls from my host to find out when I would arrive. More than 3 hours later I turned up on their doorstep after a harrowing drive through holiday traffic.
I was greeted by Srikanth, a lovely young man who was now in charge of the family business. Of course the entire extended family was also there to receive the Madam From Australia, along with a reporter from the local newspaper who photographed my every move.
The main source of income for this family is actually the manufacture of dhotis (a sarong-like garment that men wear) with decorative borders. Ikat fabric has become very expensive for them to make due to the labour shortage caused by the younger people moving away from the village to more lucrative jobs in the city.
Traditionally, ikats are produced by a family unit who have their own distinctive designs. Usually, the women do the warp and weft tying and dyeing, while the men weave the fabric on a handloom, an extremely slow process. It takes 2-3 weeks to weave 50 metres of fabric by hand, a job which can be done in 2-3 days on a power loom.
For this reason, most single ikats (the pattern is dyed on the warp only) are now produced on a power loom. Double ikats (the design is dyed on the warp and weft) must always be be woven on a handloom to allow the weaver to adjust the weft thread on every pass of the shuttle, which produces the classical feathered ikat pattern.
So we toured the village. they were loading bobbins, warping, tying and dyeing and finally, I got to see them weaving. Just one catch...I had arrived in Hyderabad at the beginning of a week-long festival and the handloom weavers had already gone to visit family in other villages (insert my unimpressed face here). But still, I got to see the power looms in action. Surprisingly it still requires a lot of human interaction since the looms need to be attended to, and adjusted throughout the weaving process. The weaver told me that each loom has it's little idiosyncrasies and needs to be watched over like a child.
Then, just as I thought I'd get to look at the actual fabric, there was lunch. It was 4.30, any thoughts of lunch had been replaced by dreams of dinner for me by now.
More family members had been conscripted to organise lunch for me. This is how it unfolded - Madam and the menfolk sat on the floor. All the women of the household rushed around with their designated bowl of food, serving us. This was a home cooked Telugu meal of rice (a serve about the size of my head), spinach, mint curry, mango chutney and what looked like Twisties(?).
It was huge and delicious, and while I tried to look as elegant as possible sitting on the floor, eating rice with my hands, with the entire family watching, I don't think I did a good job of it. From previous family lunches, I've learnt never to finish the food on your plate, otherwise you will be given more. In this case I was told, if you don't have second helping, it means you didn't enjoy the food. Then half a bowl of soup was slopped over my remaining rice, a difficult task for the novice, I assure you.
Then finally, the fabric. I learnt a lot about thread counts, weaving techniques and fabric finishing which was all fascinating, but in the end, it's the colour and texture of fabric that seduces me every time. I didn't really need any stock, I was just trying to find an alternative ikat source and learn more about the production process, but I'm a sucker for ikats. So yes, I bought some. Coming home on the slow boat from India to a fabric store near you.
Next stop, Bhubaneswar in Odisha, where they combine two of my favourite things - ikat and silk. Or possibly they'll still be on holidays and I'll leave empty handed, who knows?
Oh, and news from my Gujarati family - we're still in touch every couple of days and are meeting up in Ahmedabad in a week or so. I think I've found my Indian forever home!