The story of an RmKV sari doesn’t just span yards, but generations. We’ve been privileged to watch our customers go from twirling around in pattu pavadai sets as little girls to selecting graduation saris and wedding silks as young women. Indeed, our women customers have been the driving force ever since we started as a small business in Tirunelveli in 1924.
Yet, the stories of our saris don’t begin with those who wear them. Perhaps the beauty of a handwoven piece is that it carries traces of the person who made it – their influences, the deftness of their fingers, their eye for detail, and the scale of their imagination. Anything handmade is a continuous human narrative, passed on from weaver to wearer.
Celebrating this generation of women artisans, and encouraging the next
In the case of woman weavers, the handloom isn’t just a tool of expression, but empowerment as well. In an endeavour to give them a wider platform, we partnered with SEWA – an organization owned and managed by thousands of women weavers –to conduct an exhibition and sale of products handcrafted by women from across South East Asia. On display were crafts as wide-ranging as delicate Jamdani from Bangladesh, the discontinuous tigma weave that’s a signature of Bhutan, the intricate and colourful Baluchi Kandahar joshi embroidery of Afghanistan and mirror embroidery from Gujarat.
Yet, there aren’t enough women working on the handloom in India, and the number seems to be dwindling with each passing generation. The physical strain of using the handloom necessitates that the men of the family take up weaving instead of the women.
In a traditional handloom, for example, the weaver lifts a 25kg weight every time he puts his foot on the pedal to change the jacquard card containing a fragment of the sari’s design. There are hundreds of jacquard cards for each sari, and if the design is a complex one – such as a Kanjivaram bridal sari – the weaver could end up lifting a 50kg weight for every step of the weaving process. Often, it takes more than one person to operate the loom.
A modern innovation for an ancient craft
In a bid to encourage more women to become weavers, we pioneered the Modern Pneumatic Handloom (MPHL), which substantially reduces the physical effort of using a handloom.
The MPHL comprises two game-changing innovations. The first is the pneumatic loom that uses compressed air to raise the weight that lifts the jacquard cards; the second is an electronic jacquard controller that eliminates the tedious process of changing the cards manually.
The benefits are numerous and far-reaching; while the pneumatic technology does away with the heavy lifting, the electronic jacquard controller has a database of 3,000 designs, which allows for more experimentation with motifs while ensuring that there’s never a thread out of place. This enables even a beginner to try her hand at the loom. Moreover, a weaver typically makes 2-3 saris a month; with the MPHL, she can craft 5 saris, which increases her earnings five-fold.
We’ve started training our first batch of women weavers in how to use the MPHL, and hope to set many more women artisans on the path to weaving their own story.