Save the Weaver : A Litmus Test for Authentic Kullu Shawls

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The scenic landscapes of Kullu beckon avid travellers to visit the hinterlands of this small town. Shopping does take a top priority on the itinerary of these tourists who come from all across the globe. It is observed that most foreign tourists acquaint themselves to the location by investing a great deal of time in reading about it through travel guides like the Lonely Planet and Thomas Cook. The internet has also recently been one of the popular media through which tourist information is disseminated. Indian tourists on the other hand, normally come via package tours and are spoon fed by their travel guides. Most tourists are directed by the travel agent. They seem to be least aware of the fact that the hub of the shawl weaving industry is Kullu and not the more popular tourist destinations of Shimla and Manali. The general perception is that one would get better variety of woollens and knitwear in these locations than a small town like Kullu. While this may be true with respect to sweaters and other knitwear, they are un-informed about the cultural linkages and the magnitude of weaving that happens in the valley, the reason being – ineffective marketing initiatives.

While most tourists are misguided into buying machine made shawls sourced from outside Kullu, some others are lured into buying them because of the bulky discounts (sometimes as high as 50-80%). The economies of scale on the power loom and the reduced cost of raw materials (due to the local presence of processing centres and spinning mills) make it possible for Ludhiana and the neighbouring areas to influx the Kullu markets with elaborately designed shawls, with finer fabric, offered in a wider palette of colours at throw away prices.

Tourists with an urban taste and the intention of taking away a couple of these shawls as souvenirs are definite customers for these shawls. But the problem that looms large is about tourists being unable to distinguish between a handmade shawl and a machine made one. There is a lot of evidence to prove that a large section of informed tourists definetly value a handcrafted shawl more than the cheaper machine made one , but they just lack the knowhow to distinguish between the two. As a result they end up being duped into buying machine made shawls at the price of a hand made shawl.

A litmus test for such tourists is to see the reverse side of the woven garment. If the design appears the same either ways, that’s an indication that the shawl is handcrafted. The government of India has also introduced the handloom mark which is a certification that the product is handcrafted and not machine made. The mark costs 60 paise per unit. While some major players that are organized as societies do incorporate this mark to establish their credibility, there is a major slack in the implementation of this mark as a large cross section of the weavers and consumers lack awareness on the importance of this mark. The bigger players also have acquired the international WoolMark certification that establishes the quality standard of the raw material used. However, the exorbitant fees required to acquire this certification has kept others from applying for it.

Thus, although the raw material is sourced from the same location, the presence of the WoolMark on the shawls of some of the influential players attracts a major population of the quality conscious consumers to these branded shawls. In order to combat competition from shawls that are sourced from outside and labelled as ‘Kullu Shawls’, the district has acquired a Geographical Indicator (GI) for the Kullu Shawls. The GI mark signifies that the product has been handcrafted in the Kullu district. By definition it seeks to protect the Kullu weavers from the external power looms and strives to help build a stronger indentity for the Kullu Shawls. A violation of this mark would include a monetary penalty of Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 3,00,000 and/or imprisonment for 3 years.

For the common consumer the difference between the handmade shawl and the machine made shawl is apparently subtle. However, a closer look at the two would bring out the merits and differences between the two. The finish rendered to the handmade shawl is comparatively coarser as it helps retain more warmth. The designs on the handcrafted one are typically ‘Kullu’, like the ones found on the Kullu caps here. The dyes used are organic, eco-friendly and are non toxic on the skin. The acrylic dyes used in the machine made shawls, which make it possible to weave myriad hues into the fabric, are identified as carcinogenic. Moreover, the original properties of the fibre are maintained in the handloom as it is subjected to lesser tension and stress as against the power loom where the yarn becomes brittle leading to breakages in the fibre. This consequently reduces the life of the machine made shawl. The design of the handcrafted shawl is born purely out of the skill of the weaver and is impossible to replicate on the machine.

It’s believed that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. So for those who can perceive value in the exclusivity of a handmade shawl and appreciate the efforts that go behind it’s making, a conscious decision to make a deliberate choice between the handmade and machine made shawl is only natural.

12 Comments

  • […]- Anoop at myHimachal has done series of posts to create awareness around the handicrafts of Kullu, particularly around the Kullu Shawls- […]

  • Hello,

    found this site while researching my next trip to India, which will also bring me to Kullu-Valley.
    I won’t come through Kullu, though, as I will do Shimla – Kinnaur – Spiti – Manali – Ladakh.

    I want to buy a handmade shawl, I want to support the weavers. Can you recommend shops in Manali or Shimla?

    Please per eMail, as I might not return to this specific page.

    Thanks in advance. Nice site.

    regards, lars.

  • Anoop says:

    Hi Mr.Lars,

    Thank you so much for supporting the cause of the Kullu weaver .
    Since you are not travelling to Kullu, I would suggest you to go to one of the Bhuttico stores spread across Himchal Pradesh. You can find authentic , hand made Kullu shawls there. Please look out for the wool mark, the hand loom mark. For people who do not know how to differentiate a hand made shawl from a machine made shawl this is a trust worthy place to go. Take care not to listen to the cab and auto drivers who will try to convince you to go to certain smaller stores selling fake shawls.

    You can buy a sheep wool shawl (500-1000 Rs) or an Angora wool shawl (1000-3000 Rs.) or a Pashmina shawl (3000Rs. +).

    Hope this helps.
    You can have a look at http://www.bhuttico.com/showroom.html for more information.

    We would be really happy if you would spread the word to improve awareness on the state of the Kullu weaver.

    Thanks and Best Regards,
    anoop

    ps: My intention is not to promote Bhuttico or any other society. 🙂

  • Mithil Sharma says:

    Thanks Anoop. Even I am keen on ensuring that our Indian tradition does not fizzle out. Request you to recommend other places where I can get handmade artifacts (besides shawls); All I can promise is that I’ll get atleast ALL my friends to purchase from these outlets only.
    Thanks, in advance
    Mithil

  • Alex Koltun says:

    Dear Anoop, I live in the US and already have and love a pair of hand woven Kullu shawls. The hand woven ones are warmer and much pleasanter to wear than anything ever done by machine.

    There is a particular kind of shawl I would like to purchase, and it would be just one and for private use. If you know of any honorable persons in Manali who sell for and protect the interests of the Kullu weavers, I would be deeply grateful for a recommendations.

    Years back, I sent a couple of e-mail queries and one letter to Bhuttico via ‘snail mail’ and received no reply.

    Thank you so much for educating us on this.

    I am even thinking of trying to learn loom weaving so that I can appreciate better the skill of the persons who have created these wonderful textiles.

    A good and well done twill weave is marvellous. The thought of the all the tapestry work that is done on the Kinnauri fabrics staggers the imagination.

    It is not for nothing that karma has been likened to a net of threads, and that ‘sutra’ can mean, both Scripture and the threads woven in to fabric.

    AK

    • Dear Alex,

      We are trying to build a better communication system with the weavers and soon would put our plans online. In the meantime if you need help then let me know as I stay in US and can guide accordingly.

      717 649 5738

  • Alex Koltun says:

    A further note:

    Dear Anoop and friends:

    I wish there were a way to open the eyes of persons in the US and in the UK and have them discover Kullu textiles.

    Much of which is currently in fashion in the US is influenced by tawdry interpretations of persian influenced textile designs–eg very common place paisley designs and in violent colors.

    I live in a city where a lot of women wear Pashiminas because our weather patterns change from hot to cold multiple times a day.

    Ive never seen anyone besides myself go about with a Kullu shawl (sometimes I vary it by wearing an Afghan style Patoo shawl, which is similar).

    A select few persons have come up and implored me to tell them where I found my items. All of them were persons who knew and cared about hand woven textiles.

    The black and white twill weaving done in Kullu would definitely attract discerning eyes.

    These black and white twill fabrics are splendidly versatile and go beautifully with Western wardrobes and color palettes.

    Alex Koltun

  • APOORV MEHRA says:

    Hello
    I am looking for bulk kullu shawls of very good quality but reasonably priced. Please send me pictures along with the prices , sizes and the wool used.Can you send lower range , mid range and higher range – all three. A QUICK RESPONSE WILL BE REALLY APPRECIATED. LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING FROM YOU SOON.
    I will promote these to other places as well.
    regards
    apoorv mehra
    9811819919

  • Swati bhatia says:

    Hi,Anoop
    Thank you for sharing these facts !
    I m a fashion designer and I m working with weavers of Kullu for my winter collection.
    Last year I had put exhibition for the same ,where I got a very good response.
    My aim is to revive the traditional Kullu culture n modernise it in such a way that young generation wears it and flaunts it.
    I m also writing a trend n forecasting report inspired from Kullu culture.
    It would be great if you could share how can I promote it on larger scale .

    Thanks
    Swati Bhatia

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