Because of the tradition of khesh weaving in Birbhum in the last many years, a market for old sarees has come up in Amodpur, where old sarees can be bought in bulk by weavers. Many weavers also have their suppliers who gather them from villages, wash them and sell them ready for tearing. Many other weavers depend on householders to give them sarees which get woven into bedcovers for a fee. The weaver needs six sarees for a single bedcover and ten for a double.
The old sarees have to be of cotton in order that they tear easily. Experiments using synthetic sarees have also been undertaken, since the propensity to wear synthetic sarees is on the rise even in villages. But the problem with synthetic sarees is that they cannot be torn by hand and have to be cut by scissors. This increases the time for this process and therefore the cost.
The tearing process which is as labour intensive as weaving is typically done by female members of the weaver’s household. Some shortcuts have been found to make the process less tedious and time consuming. The saree is first torn into five or six parts lengthwise. One end of each part , say about five inches is then torn into strips. The tearer then picks out alternate strips and holds them together in one hand, and the remaining in the other hand. He then pulls in two opposite directions giving him many strips at one go. Typically a saree yields about seventy five to eighty strips.
Once the old sarees are torn into thin strips, the weaver hangs these strips beside him for easy access and weaves with whichever he picks up randomly. And therein lies the beauty of the khesh fabric, the design person or the weaver can only specify the colour of the warp. The colour of the weft is completely a matter of chance. Only when the fabric is woven can one appreciate how the colours in the old sarees have blended into the new fabric.
Many of the traditional weavers in Birbhum who have learnt the craft from their fathers agree on the fact that the technique of weaving with shreds of old sarees, called “khesh”, was started in Shilpa Sadan in the early 1920s. This was the vocational training centre that Rabindranath Tagore had set up in Sriniketan, adjacent to Santiniketan which was where his academic institute, Visva Bharati was set up.
While this recycling tradition in weaving continued in Birbhum alongside another recycling technique (by layering of old sarees) called “kantha”, weavers had restricted themselves to either making bags on the Manipur loom (also made popular by Shikha Sadan), or single bedcovers. These bedcovers were found in almost every home of Santiniketan and were also often used as covers for light winter days.
New Usage: When brand Abakash was set up in 2003 to be sold through the retail outlet “Alcha” in Santiniketan, “khesh” seemed to be a natural choice of fabric to work with. Abakash saw the versatility of the technique and first started using the single bedcovers available in the market to cut up and fashion cushion covers and bags.
Weaving Yardage: Very soon negotiations began with the weavers, traditionally used to weaving bedcovers to weave yardage. Once yardage was available in a variety of colours, more products like table mats, hot water bottle covers, and jackets were added to the existing cushion covers and bags.
Weaving Sarees and Dress Fabric: Realising the customers’ appreciation of the khesh fabric, Abakash then started to think of using this method of weaving to create a saree in 2007. Since khesh was traditionally woven with thick or “pakan” thread, weavers completely ruled out any possibility of success of weaving with fine yarn. But perseverance paid off and one weaver, agreed to try a saree. White fine yarn is always on the loom for weaving fine yardage, so it was decided to try a white saree with khesh pallu.
When it got off the loom, however, it was felt the the pallu had become too heavy compared to the rest of the saree. The experiment was repeated with spacing out the old saree lines in the pallu instead of intense weaving for the full one metre of the pallu. And a few stripes of khesh were also added in the body of the saree and the balance was just so.
It was then repeated in many colors and the khesh saree became a fashion statement. Now many weavers sell the saree to mainstream retail outlets both in Birbhum and outside. The khesh weaving cluster around Labhpur in Birbhum has truly benefited from this new usage of an old tradition.
Once the experiment with sarees was successful it was easy to convince weavers to try fabric for pants, salwars, kurtas or shirts.
Addition of Leather: While the khesh fabric had its own charm, Abakash felt it could be enhanced by combining it with leather to make products. Since Santiniketan is also a well known centre for leather crafts, it was easy to find skills to make bags that could enhance the khesh fabric and give it a premium feel.
-Text & Images by Alcha of Santiniketan.