In southern India, clusters of artisans still weave with natural fibers such as banana fibers, elephant grass, bamboo, and napier grass.
These materials are commonly found in the region and grow abundantly making them an environmentally-friendly option. In the 19th century, with the rise of synthetic fibers, these fibers fell by the wayside. Manmade fibers were cheaper, could last longer, and could be manufactured in larger quantities quickly. Yet natural fibers have been woven into textiles since 36,000 BC.
Just outside of Erode, Tamil Nadu, groups of handlooms still exists. Artisans work meticulously transforming natural fibers into fabrics, decorative items, mats, and more. Fibers are harvested, cleaned, bleached, and the fat content is removed leaving them with strands suitable for weaving. But handlooms have been facing some serious competition from mechanical looms.
That’s where Rope, a social enterprise, stepped in. Established by Sreejith Nedumpully who felt that small, rural enterprises are the pathway to better economic livelihoods, he connected big companies with smaller manufacturers. This cottage industry approach has been complemented with local self-help groups run by local men and women who are responsible for managing the finances and operations of the groups. Today, Rope works with about 250 to 300 artisans at any point.
Handlooms sustain families. A husband wife team, for instance, have been weaving for over 20 years from their small home. Down the dusty alleys, women, draped in their sarees, sit outside their home in a shaded area, weaving these beautiful creations. Despite the hot, humid air, they sit comfortably on their patios, orchestrating handlooms as if they were musical devices, peddling with their feet and sliding yarn after yarn into intricate patterns.
Last year Dipali Patwa, Mela’s chief designer, ventured to Tamil Nadu to meet with these artisans in person. In an effort to elevate the designs from their muted natural shades to brighter, more modern patterns, she blended Ikat designs in black and red. Woven with banana fibers and sea grass, using an Ikat warp, the fibers are first dyed and then strung together.
What Rope realized is that designs needed to be updated. Some of the designs had been ongoing for the past 20 years, and originated from weaver groups. But with Mela, the effort has been to modernize and bring more inventive designs to the weavers. Hence, the Buna collection.