The Producers of Cloth | A Brief History of Gujarat

Gujarat has an illustrious history in the production of dyed, colourfast textiles and diverse methods of patterning cloth. Dyed textiles involve the immersion of the cloth in dye and the use of mordants. Dyed textiles have been sub-divided into resist dyeing which includes tie-dye and ikat as well as block-printing. When it comes to painted textiles, pigment and dye is applied directly to the surface of the textile with a brush or pen. Some textiles combine a number of techniques.

The exact way in which printing and dyeing evolved is not clear. Archeology suggests that the production of these colourfast cotton textiles date back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Harappans of Mohenjo-daro were the first to cultivate and press cotton. They had a complex dyeing technology in place by the second millennium BCE that included the knowledge of mordants. The longevity of the craft of the Indian dyer’s coloured cotton textiles has been attested to in ancient Roman and Greek texts as well as in trade records and the accounts of travellers from the East India Company.

In Western India, the East India Company established their factories in Surat where they exported textiles and indigo. Most natural dyes require a mordant or metallic salt to permanently bond the colour to fabric. Iron and alum were the most important mordant; although copper, tin and chrome were also used.

Despite the trends that have come and gone in the textile industry, the state of Gujarat’s enduring reputation when it comes to textiles rests of the variety and quality of its decorated textiles. These in turn rely on the creation of dyes and mordants to produce a pattern. Various forms of resist-dyeing are used as well as block-printing.

The demand for painted and dyed textiles has changed due to the social and political changes that came to be since independence. The availability of cheap synthetic alternatives and the pervasive influence of media has resulted in many struggling to make a living. In order to survive, craftspeople have looked for new markets outside their local territory. In this regard, old businesses are sustained by adapting to an urban environment.

By allowing the old to die away, we perhaps allow ourselves to make room for the new to be born. In zealously trying to preserve what’s left, we sometimes miss the point; a museum artefact is no longer a commercial product.

I reach this conclusion with a free heart, for while the past has its numerous gifts, it is also not the future. There is no need to keep the traditions of our ancestors alive. Our focus, as always, should be on the future generations and what is yet to be.

Cotton. The crop that started it all.

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