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Interview with a master weaver

Swahlee creates a handmade capsule wardrobe of clothing essentials made ethically in India using sustainable production and natural fabrics.

Winding the warp on the drum

Originally published 28 March 2019

Each time I have visited the weaving unit where our fabric is hand woven, I am further amazed by how intricate and detailed the handloom process is. It’s surprising how many people are involved in the process to bring these beautifully crafted fabrics to us. The best person to share about the weaving process is Sankar Das, the Master Weaver at the fair trade company where we have sourced the fabric for Swahlee’s first collection. Recently I sat down for a phone call with Sankar to learn more about handloom fabrics:

How did you become involved in this craft? Were you always interested in weaving?

My grandfather, father, and uncle were all carpenters. We had financial difficulties, so in class 7 I started weaving. I continued studying and starting weaving at the same time to earn money for studies. I enjoyed weaving, it was my passion.

In 2009 I took a course at the Weaving Service Center in Kolkata. After that, I taught weaving to villagers. In 2014, I started working here at this fair-trade company.

How long does it usually take to train a new weaver?

Teaching the weavers on the looms was a long process. First, they only learned weaving, then they learned drafting and drumming. Drumming is a very physical process so it was the last process they learned.

It takes three to four months for a new weaver to learn to weave double count. To learn single count, it takes six to seven months.

One thing I was surprised by when visiting the weaving center is how much work is involved before the yarn is on the loom and ready to be woven. Can you describe the process of getting the yarn and looms ready to weave?

First, we need to know the length and width of the fabric required, as well as the pick count. Pick count is the number of times per inch or centimeter the single yarn of the weft is pulled across the warp with the fly shuttle. With this information, we are able to calculate how much yarn is needed per color.

After ordering the yarn, a dye test is done to approve the color. After the color is approved, it takes seven days to ten days to dye the yarn.

If it is a finer fabric (single count only), it then needs to be starched, which takes another seven to ten days.

After these steps, the yarn is ready to come to the weaving center.

The yarn is first wound onto bobbins. From the bobbins, the yarn is wound onto the drum according to the length and width of the warp. (The warp are the yarns running lengthwise on a fabric). For example, based on the composition of the fabric, you may need 8 white yarns, then 10 black, etc. according to the pattern. If a fabric is plain, drumming takes one day. If a fabric has a pattern, for example, Swahlee’s white & indigo varied stripe pattern, drumming takes two days.  

The next step is drafting, which is when each individual yarn of the warp is pulled through the heddle eyes on the reed beater. This takes one to two days, depending on if there is a design in the fabric.

After this, the loom is set up, a process that takes one to two hours, and then weaving can begin.

Swahlee creates a handmade capsule wardrobe of clothing essentials made ethically in India using sustainable production and natural fabrics.

Weaving by hand

Our Swahlee dresses have three to seven meters of fabric per dress, including lining. How long does it take to weave this amount of fabric for a single dress?

It depends on the yarn count of the fabric. Our weavers can weave about 9 meters a day of the thicker fabrics, like the black and the pink. Of the sea glass, about 5 to 6 meters a day. Of the brown and white stripe and the white with indigo stripe, 4 to 5 meters a day. Of the black lining fabric, which is very fine and is single count, our weavers can weave 3 to 4 meters a day.

What is the difference between handloom and machine loom fabric?

Handloom means many hands are weaving. The weaver’s hopes are in the fabric. It is made with love.

This short video from our fair trade fabric producer shows this beautiful process in action:

Special thanks to the Master Weaver, Sankar Das, for participating in this post.

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