Pochampally, a quaint little town on NH9 in the outskirts of Hyderabad(a little ahead of Ramoji film city) is popular for its eponymous textiles. More specifically, it is famous for its own characteristic variant of Ikat fabrics. It is interesting how Ikat techniques made their way to this town and surrounding villages in the heart of Telangana.
When you visit the town Pochampally, you will find its main street lined with many shops on either side. Most of the vendors are eager to sell you their merchandise. If you are interested in seeing how these sarees are made,they would guide you to the homes of a few weavers in the vicinity. While you pass by their homes, you can hear the lovely rhythm of looms and the men and women work around them. A typical workshop would have a number of looms and an entire family would be engaged in some part of the weaving process.
Ikat fabrics are mostly(there is a reason why I say mostly and have written about it towards the end) handloom, where the designs are transferred to the yarns using the resist-dyeing technique and then woven onto fabrics. Each yarn is meticulously dyed and every inch of the fabric is woven painstakingly with deft strokes of the weavers. In many other resist-dyeing techniques, like batik or bandhani/bandhej, it is the cloth and not the yarn, that’s dyed.
Every handloom fabric has two kind of yarns woven together and run in perpendicular directions. The yarns used for weaving are interwoven at right angles – the threads that run lengthwise are called warp, while the threads that run along the width are called weft.
Based on the yarns that are dyed for a design, there are three kinds of Ikats viz. warp-ikat, weft-ikat and double-ikat. If only the warp yarns are dyed – the fabric is a warp-ikat. Likewise, if only the weft yarns are dyed the fabrics are called weft-ikat. And when both the warp and weft yarns are dyed the resulting fabrics created are called double-ikat.
Before independence, rumals were made at Pochampally using cotton and dyes that are extracts from leaves and flowers.The oldest Ikat centre in Andhra Pradesh was at Chirala which was well-known for making cotton rumals(handkerchiefs)in the early 19th century. The rumals were square pieces of cotton cloth with simple, repetitive geometric patterns. An outer square grid is divided into smaller squares which have repeated geometric/floral motifs woven in double-ikat. The colour scheme used was red, white, and black and the dyes were extracted from natural sources like leaves and flowers. The entire design is enclosed in a wide red border.
These rumals are said to be the building blocks for most modern Pochampally designs. Rumal is a simplified and practical application of the pattern seen on Patan Patola that was and still is very popular in Patan, Gujarat. These ikat techniques had found their way to Gujarat through the Silk Route and later some weavers from Gujarat migrated down South through Machilipatnam. The local weavers picked up these techniques and these skills found their way to the villages around Pochampally – Koyalagudem, Puttapaka, and Choutuppal to name a few.
While the Patan Patolas are luxurious silks and were patronized by aristocracy, the rumals were mostly in cotton, donned by the working class as turbans to protect from heat or kamarbandhs or even by fishermen. The fishermen further went on to suggest their own variant by soaking the yarns in linseed oil before they were woven. This oil lent a unique odour as well as colour but more importantly increased the longevity of the fabrics especially when worn by fishermen who stayed in water for longer duration. These came to be known as telia rumals.
Over time, cotton sarees were also made and became immensely popular. In 1970, the village headmen of Pochampally suggested that it would be lucrative to weave silk along with cotton. Two weavers were sent to Bangalore to learn the art of weaving silk and thus the revolution began in the village’s handloom industry. Now, Pochampally is also called Silk City and the sarees that are made here are popular all over India. These sarees are known for their bold and bright patterns, with generous use of geometric shapes and lines.
The beauty of these fabrics is a result of an unbelievable amount of effort. Well-oiled silk yarn is purchased and treated with detergent for removal of oil and dried before dyeing. If you step into any weaver’s home, chances are you’d find yarns left to dry.
Once dry, the yarn is rolled onto a box or a pipe using a spinning wheel . The weft yarn is then transferred on to an asu(a triangular metallic frame roughly the width of the fabric ) in radial lines and this process is called chitiki.
A master weaver is usually in-charge of the design process as he translates the design from a graph paper to the warp and weft yarns. With a great amount of precision, he marks areas that need dyeing and the others that should resist it.
Others weavers help in applying the bindings in the form of thick rubber pieces for larger areas and thicker threads for thinner areas. Tying the yarn ensures that this part of the yarn won’t get dyed when the whole lot is dipped into a vat of the required colour. The tied parts are tied so tight that the liquid dye cannot percolate through at these places.
For complex multi-coloured designs, this step would be repeated with an alternation of these bindings and coloured areas tied up to resist further dyeing.
Once the dyeing is complete and the yarns are dry, they are spun once again and transferred to bobbins. These bobbins are a part of the weft and move horizontally during the weaving process. The sequence of bobbins is very crucial to the resulting design.
Once both the warp and weft yarns have been suitably dyed and dried, the weaver sets the warp on the loom. The design comes to life as the yarns are woven into cloth. It is far more complex, as the weaver has to not only dye the threads with precision but also set them correctly on the loom to form the correct design when woven.
The weaving of the ikat is most time-consuming(more so double-ikat) as the weavers have to ensure the proper alignment of the yarn and weave where colours of the warp and weft yarns intersect. Even a slight error at just one place could lead to a shift in the design throughout the fabric. These textiles are handcrafted by skilled artisans who weave intricate designs with great efficiency, concentration and experience.
However, for the skilled work the weavers do, the wages are low. Hence many weavers find it difficult to make a living off only weaving and are taking up more viable means of employment. In an effort to discourage this trend, the Ministry of Textiles has set up a Handloom Park around 7km away from Pochampally to provide opportunities to weavers and their families. The Pochampally saree has also received the Geographical Indication (GI) status in 2005, giving these handlooms a much needed boost. Many contemporary designers have given this fabric a twist to appeal to modern buyers.
While rising costs of silk and cotton yarns is a cause of concern, one of the biggest threats to the handloom industry in Pochampally is the powerloom and the booming sale of fabrics from a powerloom.
Fabrics manufactured using powerloom need less time and much less manpower and hence cost less. But due to lower speed of weaving, handloom cloth is usually stronger than its mill-made counterpart. Moreover, every piece of handloom cloth is unique and different from the other since the yarn from warp and weft are woven inch by inch. And hence adds richness to the texture and feel of the fabric.
There is some solace – of the three kinds of ikat fabrics only one can made on the powerloom. The weft-ikat and double-ikat need manual intervention during the weaving process and hence cannot be mechanised. So if you prefer handlooms, you would want to take a closer look before purchasing warp-ikats.
[How does one know whether the ikat fabric is weft or warp or event double-ikat? A certain way is to check the direction of the feathered edges(which is characteristic to all ikats). These feathered edges are a result of a little dye slightly bleeding into the surrounding areas. If these feathered edges appear length-wise, it is a warp-ikat, and if it is along the width it is weft-ikat. If the feathered edges are in both directions it is a double-ikat.]