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India's Cotton Textile Industry

Updated on August 15, 2011

It is a characteristic of many great nations that they leave their imprint on specific industries and crafts so that thoughts of one are immediately associated with thoughts of the other -- silks with Japan, batik printing with Indonesia, wood carvings with the Philippines, tea with Sri Lanka and cotton textiles with India.  Some are the result of geography, others have been developed because of the ready availability of materials--but all bear the individual stamp of a country's genius and a peculiar relationship to the people and their history.

India's woven textiles are famous throughout the world. Delicate colors and distinctive patterns have been hallmarks of the Indian craftsmen for centuries past; the beautiful cotton materials shown above are typical examples. Photo by mckaysavage@fli
India's woven textiles are famous throughout the world. Delicate colors and distinctive patterns have been hallmarks of the Indian craftsmen for centuries past; the beautiful cotton materials shown above are typical examples. Photo by mckaysavage@fli

History

The cotton cloth weavers of India have been known since the earliest days of recorded history.  A fragment of madder-dyed cloth found in the Indus Valley excavation in northern India showed that weaving and dyeing were flourishing arts over 5,000 years ago.  They were skills that were to increase and diversify down the centuries, attracting wider and more lasting acclaim.  The Roman historian, Pliny, bewailed the flight of Roman gold to India because of the Roman passion for Indian fabrics.  St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible (4th Century A.D.) quotes the ancient patriarch Job as saying that wisdom was more enduring than the dyed colors of India.  Arab travelers in 9th Century India reported that "...they make garments of such extraordinary perfection that nowhere else is their likeness to be seen..."  Marco Polo observed that the art of embroidery, as practised in Gujarat in the 13th Century, was incomparable.

It was not only the technique of dyeing that made India's textiles famous. The fabrics were embellished with scintillating designs which India alone could offer. There were some of which every thread of warp and weft was dyed before being placed on the loom; a design appeared as the weaving progressed and was identical on either side. It was the craft of the individual artist who inherited his skill from his forbears and who gave his own aesthetic conception to the products he made with his own hands.

The need for change

Then it all changed.  The 19th Century brought with it the industrial revolution and the era of mass-produced goods, versatile and cheap but with the impersonality of the machine.  Hand-woven products, rich and warm as they were, became costly luxuries.  The Indian textile industry--unchallenged for nearly 30 centuries--had to adapt to the new age or perish.

A humble beginning was made in Bengal in 1818 with British patronage but the real foundation of the India's modern cotton mill industry was laid 36 years later in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay).  On 2nd February 1854, the Bombay Spinning Mills started functioning with 20,000 spindles.  It was the beginning of an era, not only in the sphere of textiles, but in the entire industrial world of India.

Thus the new foundations were firmly laid; there was no looking back and despite upheavals, booms, depressions and all the uncertainties that have marked the last 156 years, the industry has gone further ahead, growing at the rate of an average of four mills a year over that period.

The pioneers of the Indian industry were men of purpose, vision, integrity and devotion who were able to graft modern industrial techniques on to the inherent genius of the Indian textile craftsman.  In spite of the many challenges they faced--notably from the long established and vigorously promoted cotton textile industry of Lancashire--these men never wavered in their belief that the Indian industry could lead the world.  Had they been alive today they would have seen their dreams abundantly fulfilled.  The cotton textile industry is the cornerstone of India's industrial progress held in esteem for the superiority of its products the world over.

The modern industry

The use of modern techniques and equipment in the latest processes has made possible increased manufactures of finer fabrics in a variety of mercerised, bleached, dyed and pre-shrunk textiles.  With the growing demand from overseas countries--bigger populations, sophisticated ideas--all possibilities are explored to include the widest range of finished fabrics--twills, drills, sateens...prints, drapery fabrics, osnaburgs and ducks...broad cloth, poplins, towelling--the whole range of materials right down to industrial garments.

Today, textiles are the largest organized industry in India.  It employs more than 35 million workers, and has more than 34 million spindles and 2 million looms.  It produced the enormous quantity of 3,052 million kilograms of yarn and 42,109 million square meters of cloth in 2004, and this does not include the 27,945 million square meters produced by the hand-loom and power-loom weavers.  More significantly it is one of India's major sources of foreign exchange, being the second largest exporting industry and accounting for about 20 per cent of the total foreign exchange earnings of the country.

Indian textiles are exported all over the world.  The traditional gray goods have gradually given way to meet the colorful demands of the modern consumer.  In fact, the marked increase in the export of finished goods and garments is the most noteworthy and encouraging feature of the Indian cotton industry's emergence on the world's markets.

So a timeless industry continues, taking new shifts in direction but never changing, being as unmistakably Indian as ever it was in its long history.

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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi, Nemingha! Have not visited one of your hubs for some time. This was lovely and so informative. Indian fabrics, even the cheap ones, are so beautiful. My LR curtains are made from Indian bed spreads - maybe a bit too collegiate for someone my age, but they just work.

    working

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