I’m currently (September 2018) spending a little time with the incredible WomenWeave Trust in Maheshwar, MP (If you have’t come across them already, go have a quick look here and here). I promise there will definitely be one big post about them soon, if not multiple, but for now here’s a little one about their cotton.

The Gudi Mudi Khadi Center is the headquarters and central production centre of WomenWeave is in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh. Currently, there are over 200 employees at the centre which is headed by the indomitable Niveditha Rai. Gudi Mudi means “Scrunched” in Nimadi, a local language, and describes the texture of the cloth that they produce. While they do use other fibres here too, including hand and millspun, locally and internationally sourced yarns (mulberry silk, tussar silk, zari thread, merino wool etc), their major output is Khadi. Khadi has incredibly strong political, social and economic history and is particularly associated with Gandhi. I’ll do a long post about Khadi in future, but for now: in practical definition it is a handspun, handwoven cloth, preferably of a local cotton.

The briefest history of Indian cotton: As a very geographically large and agriculturally rich country, India historically had many indigenous varieties of cotton which have been grown, spun, woven by hand and worn for centuries. Most of the indigenous strains are of a short or medium staple, but over the years indigenous variants have been outperformed and subsequently replaced by specially developed longer staple strains which are most efficient for mass production and consumption. At independence in 1947 most cottons were still shorter staple indigenous variants. With changing technologies and demands and the introduction of Monsanto’s GMO BT Cotton to India in 1996, unfortunately as GMOs tend to do BT cotton has spread rapidly across the country, pushing out the majority of local variants, using less natural resources but at excessive seed prices causing financial turmoil for farmers.

So, understandably, the market for Organic cotton is growing and WomenWeave serve this market with a medium length staple organic cotton grown in Maharashtra. This cotton is sourced from cooperative of around 500 farmers in the Wardha area in collaboration with the the rural development organisation Magan Sangrahalya Samiti (MSS). Coincidentally – or not – the Sewagram Ashram where Gandhi himself hand-spun cotton is in close proximity of these particular cotton farmlands. WW also use a standard cotton which is locally grown in Madhya Pradesh. The local cotton is a short staple which not suitable for the Iconic incredibly fine Maheshwari sari weaving and so is rarely used locally. However, it is suitable for hand spinning and weaving and the contemporary designs produced at WW have been specially developed to be suitable for the locally grown cotton. This means that even though it does not contain the “Organic” certification, this is an incredibly localised, earth friendly and sustainable cloth which creates employment and livelihood generation for local farmers and weavers.

All of the cotton arrives at the centre in the form of slivers. Slivers are like long bundles of cotton fibre which looks kind of like a thick wool yarn but is not yarn as it has not been spun, only carded and then pressed into shape. These are generally supplied by mills and even Gandhi himself first used mill supplied slivers as manual cotton carders are incredibly rare.

At WomenWeave, as at most other commercial spinners these days the Ambar Charkha is used. This is a somewhat industrialised but still hand cranked version of the iconic wooden charkha so memorialised in Indian symbolism. The slivers are loaded on the top end of the Charkha, travel through a spinning mechanism and come out on the other side as yarn. The count  of the yarn output is controlled by the charkha and the required thickness of yarn is collected on the tail end as a large gathered loop of yarn length known as a hank. The hanks are checked for quality, regularity and count before they are thoroughly soaked against shrinkage and so as to better take any necessary dyeing.



All of the organic cotton is sent back to the cotton unit in Wardha which does natural dyeing using forest refuse, while the majority of their fibres are dyed on site. Currently the Gudi Mudi campus has a natural dyeing Research and Development program in full swing and are hoping to get it cracked soon so that they can bring their dyeing fully in-house. This would mean that all processes from spinning to selling and everything in-between will be done under their one roof. Most of their yarns are chemical dyed with AZO Free chemicals, which are non toxic, therefore less harmful to the planet, the dyers and the skin. While natural dyes are an idealogical dream, and these days an increasing reality too, chemical dyes remain far more reliable and suitable to the majority of consumer needs for colour fastness, variation and specificity. (I’ll explain natural dyeing a little more in depth too one of these days).


While Natural Dyes and Organic Cotton are environmentally friendly, highly appealing and powerful marketing tools, I believe that it is incredibly important to look beyond these trendy taglines at the reality of the production environment. Yes, organic cotton and natural dyes are almost certainly more natural and less harmful than BT cotton and chemical dyes. However, natural dyes are often not feasible for consumer demands and organic certification has always been a somewhat shady arena, often not feasible for small scale farmers. While it’s useful to have this stamp of approval to look out for as a global reassurance of an ethical standard, I hope that consumers do not get stuck on it and the many other such paid certifications. There is often equal if not greater sustainability in using truly local and indigenous fibres which are not necessarily certified, rather than the a certified one which may bear a far heavier carbon footprint having been transported massive distances to satisfy consumer driven trends. While I absolutely identify personally as a follower of this trend, I hope that consumer’s will look beyond these terms and seek out true supply chain transparency, encouraging the smaller companies who are working to create locally relevant, sustainable goods in addition to providing true community empowerment through fair labour practices.



Image credits

All Images in this story taken by Leila Walter at the Womenweave Gudi Mudi Centre in Maheshwar, India 2018
Back to blog