A Love Affair With Fabric

Posted by Fiona McAlpine on

If you would have asked me what I knew about textiles one year ago, I would have been able to sum up my knowledge in just a few sentences. A little more than a year on, fabric occupies my every waking moment, and even visits me in my dreams. Fibers, textures, weaves - silks and linens and cotton - the sound of the looms clacking – fabric and everything about it has become more than my job – it is a love affair.

When we first dreamt up The Fabric Social, our mission was simple: find a market for the hand-loomed products women across conflict affected Northeast India create.

Having spent some time developing projects that provide resources, equipment and training to marginalised women weavers, it became clear something was missing – no one was selling anything. The local market was a glut of the same products well meaning NGO and government programs had aided women to create. Women would spend all day on a loom, sit through endless training programs and still be rationing meals for her family.

But in the face of a market wrecked by constant insecurity, and corruption, and poverty, and loss and everything in between – Northeast India’s women have never laid down. They work all day, putting their hand to whatever brings the chance of a small income. They pick up the pieces when family members are lost, or disabled through pointless violence. They take to the streets with torches at night to protect and keep watch. They organize protests in whispers and text messages. Some even tire of state abuse and indifference and join the armed struggle.

So, I guess it would be fair to say that our mission was a serious one. I wanted to do something that genuinely helped to create an opportunity for the women I knew who worked so hard, and had so much strength and for who something as simple as selling the fabric she made would mean so much. For the fabric itself, I had little idea how important it would become.

That all changed one year ago I when moved to Assam, India with nothing but an idea and about ten changes of clothes. Since then I have been completely immersed in fabric - but still endlessly inspired by the women who make it. 

My affair with fabric started when I met Kaberi Beidu, seri-culture expert, master community mobiliser and also one of only two woman involved in the ongoing Peace negotiations between the United Liberation Front of Assam, and the Indian government.

With Kaberi, I spent months travelling between Guwahati, the capital of Assam, and the picturesque rural villages where tea, rice and silk are the life-blood of the local economy. We met with weavers, and I learned the delicate complexities of using the great wooden looms used to create the fabric. I visited silk producing villages, drank countless cups of tea, and chatted with the women who nurture the silk worms and spin the silk yarn. We sat and talked around great big tables piled with rolls and rolls of fabric. I got to know the native silks of the Northeast – the fine gold muga silk, the tough ghisa waste silk, and my new love – eri-silk. 

Eri is soft, and cottony, and unlike any silk I knew. Eri is a kind of ahimsa silk – meaning ‘compassion’ and ‘non-violence’ because it uses sustainable and non-violent production methods. Tended like precious babies, the eri worms are protected and cared for right through to metamorphosis. When they finally transform and spread their wings, the discarded cocoons are bundled up and taken away to be spun into silk.

As I got to experience the entire process of creating eri-silk, I also got to know the women behind it. The women who nurture the little eri babies in unassuming mud-thatch houses, and in bedrooms, and anywhere they can be kept safe from predators. The women who plant and tend the castor tree plants the eri eat. The women who cut and spin the yarn by hand, and of course, the women who weave it. The entire process takes months and months of hard work and care, and supports countless livelihoods.

Over the months sitting with those piles of yarn and fabric, and with the help and expertise of the women who produced it, we underwent trials and errors until we finally developed the fabric featured in our very first collection.

Taking the softness, and texture of hand-spun eri we blended it with a fine khadi-cotton – a yarn born out of the Swadeshi movement against British rule and a national a symbol of peaceful resistance and self-reliance. Two soft creamy coloured yarns, steeped in India’s rich histories, and peaceful traditional practices – cultivated and finally woven together by the incredible women of Assam.

We decided to call our very first collection Bija, which literally means seed, but describes re-birth and metamorphosis. Bija is a beginning, but it is one inextricably tied to history. It is an opportunity for renewal, for small acts of creation to usher out too many decades of destruction.

Back when The Fabric Social was just an idea, conceived and teased out on hot, dusty Delhi evenings – we knew we wanted to create with a beautiful story. I could never have imagined just how beautiful that story would be. Our mission still feels as serious as it did way back when, the only difference is now it is lightened by the simple joy that spending everyday with textiles brings.


Sharna is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here

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