Save the Loom’s Olam, a new line of contemporary kasavu saris, is an attempt to help Kerala’s handloom community often disrupted by recurring floods and now, the pandemic
At Dhoby Khana in Veli, Fort Kochi, nothing much has changed in routine since the first Tamil washerfolk were brought in by the Dutch 300 years ago. The clothes are still starched stiff using rice water, and dried in a particular fashion. So, when Save The Loom Founder Ramesh Menon approached them with his saris and requested that they wash and unstarch them, they were surprised. Why give clothes for unstarching to a community famous for its “stiff finish”? Because Ramesh wanted a luxurious feel (of cotton fabric) and hoped that all work could be done in and around Chendamangalam. It has resulted in Save The Loom’s Olam (wave) line, which features 12 designs in 24 variants (colour, reversibility and so on). Another line, in association with actor and founder of Clothes Without Borders, Amalda Liz, features a range of floral prints on saris and textiles, naturally dyed from flowers sourced in Kerala. And as it was with his conceptual space, One Zero Eight, during Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, Menon is counting on the stories to drive these collections.
- The team has a vegan certification for their fabrics, in association with PETA.
- “This might sound a little unusual, but people were asking us these questions, and we explored the possibility,” says Menon.
Starting at the loom
Weavers work hard at the looms and create yards of fine fabric, which are picked up by others in the design chain and transformed into high-fashion garments worth a fortune. But how much does the weaver benefit? Olam and Amalda focus on this aspect of the creative chain, and on gainfully employing more local communities, be it to unstarch or tie simple tassels.
Both lines are made of fabric that is 94% cotton (kasavu (zari) makes up the rest) from Chendamangalam, which bore the brunt of the 2018 floods in Kerala and is the home of the Chekutty dolls. The collections are a follow-up to the philosophy of Save Your Loom: it’s not enough to just fix broken looms and get them running; there is a need to mainstream the artisans too. “It helps that Chendamangalam has a huge cultural relevance too. Just six years ago, you could hear the clacking of thousands of looms when you entered the place; now, the number of weavers has reduced from 6,000 to just about 430. The need is to not just sustain weaving but also make it aspirational. The issues are many and we wanted to tell multiple stories, we wanted to sustain the revived interest,” says Menon.
Museum in the making
- Kochi-based architect Vinu Daniel is working on designing a crowd-funded modern museum-cum-weaving centre in the hamlet, expected to open late 2021.
- “I think this centre will trigger a sense of belonging and ownership in those who buy the fabric,” says Menon.
The happiness project
Menon believes that only a happy weaver, assured of at least basic needs, will create happy handloom. “Else, it is not worth creating this product by hand. The human being involved must be in a safe, content space,” he says. For the exhibition at the 2018 Biennale, Menon sent the traditional khadi thorthu and mundu from Chendamangalam to leading Indian designers who created garments that were new age and unusual. “We know we have a great product, but the things that bring in value addition are done in other States (cotton yarn from Tamil Nadu, zari invariably from Surat, post-weaving processes in Tamil Nadu. Now, we are seeing if the 28 days of processing cotton to yarn to weave can take place in Kerala. It will also increase the number of people finding employment.” Ironically, the funds for this upskilling exercise came from Tamil Nadu Foundation, created in 1983 by a group of Americans of Tamil origin.
Stripes and blooms
While the Olam saris come in uncommon stripes that accentuate the drape, it also minimises kasavu to a large extent. “So, the sari is not ornamental, but can be worn on a regular basis, in everyday life,” says Menon. Meanwhile, each piece in the second line, Amalda, is one of a kind, decided by time and how flowers stain the fabric. “There are a lot of people experimenting in the natural dye space. We have over 4,500 varieties of flowers in Kerala, 900 of which have medicinal properties. Amalda Liz has involved herself in textile explorations using natural elements in Kerala to engage people in the tribal belt,” adds Menon, sharing plans to work with Kerala Agricultural University.
The Kodi Edit
- Meanwhile, Sreejith Jeevan of Rouka has launched The Kodi Edit, borrowing from the term for new clothes one gets for Onam.
- The idea, he says in his design note, is to look at the kasavu sari in a modern light. How can we open up the question of what is Kerala and Modern into the Chendamangalam handloom scene, he asks.
- Kasavu has been used in contemporary ways but yet not compromising the minimal aspect of traditional handlooms. Colour has been added to the otherwise ivory-gold palette but with conscious restraint.
They are also exploring if floral waste generated by temples can be upcycled and used in textiles. Collaboration increases possibilities for both the craft and the improvement of human lives. “A couple, could, for instance, want the leftover flowers from their wedding to stain a fabric, as a keepsake,” observes Menon. But for now, this update to the traditional kasavu sari comes just in time for one of Kerala’s most important festivals, Onam.
The Olam collection is priced between ₹4,500 and ₹6,800, while Amalda is upwards of ₹7,500.