Each craft and technique used to create Seek Collective clothing has its own unique value and heritage. Since I was young, I have been in awe of India’s legacy of textiles and craftsmanship. That is what first brought me to work in India, and I have immense respect for the craftspeople and their skills. When I began, I knew I didn't want to just hand off my designs to a factory, but rather to work directly with the various communities already established and specialized in different techniques. Part of being sustainable for me has meant not being the cause of people leaving their homes to scrape by in a large polluted city. As a result I have always partnered with people, collectives, and NGOs to bring work to communities where artisans already reside and support them there.
The tradition of handloom weaving in India is ancient and is closely linked with Indian heritage. Different regions of the country are known for specific types of weaves. Even within one state there are various areas with distinctions in materials and designs. Weaving is one of the largest undefined trades behind agriculture, and is therefore also a big source of rural employment. Weaving fabric is the second biggest income generating source in India. The industry was highlighted by Gandhi as he made Khadi (fabric that has been hand spun and handloom woven) a symbol of the freedom struggle and of self-reliance.
Something that contributes to the sustainability of handloom weaving is the fact that no electricity is needed to operate it. This has obvious positive results for the environment. It causes a great deal less strain and requires less resources than powerlooms. While the process is slower, the minimums are lower so it’s easier to produce only what you need and have less waste at the end of a season.
Over the last several decades, the livelihood of the handloom weaver dwindled as mechanical looms took over. Middle men would come into the communities and would only give jobs to those willing to do the work for the lowest price. (This type of bidding for the lowest price has affected the block printing communities as well.) While this is still happening quite a lot throughout India, there are more and more organizations truly looking out for the weavers’ best interests. The weaving group I do most of my work with now is an NGO run by a man named Hemendra who cares deeply about the tradition of weaving as well as the people in these communities. He set up his collective in an area of Madya Pradesh where the weaving knowledge had been passed down for many generations, but was in danger of dying out.
Over time, the type of weave native to this region had become less popular than other types known in different areas of the state. People had either given up on it or had moved elsewhere to do work with a more desired weaving method. Hemendra arrived and started encouraging the weavers to continue on with, and in some cases come back to, their native type of woven fabric. He created a market that now gives them a lot of work. In this area before the NGO, the weavers were earning 150-175 rupees a day with no regularity. The aspirational wages were 300-400 rupees a day. Hemendra pays them 300-600 rupees a day and makes sure they have regular work year round. When we speak about sustainability, I think it’s important to speak to social responsibility in addition to environmental responsibility. The two go hand in hand. “Sustainable” also means making sure people are getting paid fair living wages for their work and their skills.
We need to see sustainability as holistic - encompassing both the well being of the planet and the well being of people. We’re all in this together.