Malkha is a cloth made directly from raw cotton through gentle processing, avoiding the damaging processes of baling and unbaling by heavy machinery.
It is a process of cotton cloth making combining traditional Indian principles with modern small-scale technology. Malkha is made in small units located in villages close to cotton farms. India has for ages grown cotton and made cotton cloth- cotton textile making has long been India's biggest industry. But today there is a crisis in both cotton farming and in handloom weaving.
Why should I be aware of this?
In the late 1990s and till 2006 most of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in India was staggering under the drought that brought large scale devastation and suicide by the cotton farmers of the area. The farmers and weavers were in debt, their land was poisoned by pesticides bannned in most other countries of the world, monocropping had led to no food and seed for the next crop was far too expensive. The introduction of Bt cotton or GM cotton had led to the ruination of the rural economy. As a result, the preservation of traditional techniques and indigenous cotton seed varieties is essential. The Malkha Marketing Trust intends to do just that.
Cotton Farming in India
Almost all cotton is grown by small-holder farming families, on small farms of under five acres. Today these farmers are caught in the trap of high input costs, because they have to grow the kind of cotton that modern machinery needs. Modern machinery needs longer and stronger staple to withstand the increasing rigours of high speed processing, but the American cotton that produces the longer staple does not necessarily produce the best cloth. Traditional Indian cotton varieties on the other hand were valued for the kind of cloth that was made from them- durable, soft, absorbent, with excellent draping and colour holding qualities. Traditional Indian varieties used to be grown as rain-fed crops, intercropped with pulses, using no chemicals and therefore reducing farmers' risk in case of crop failure. Almost all the cotton grown today is derived from American varieties, specifically grown to suit the high speed machine processing. These varieties are grown as monocrops, and need irrigation. Monocropping and irrigation encourage pests, fungus and wilt. Genetically Modified (GM)varieties counter only one variety of pest. Chemical inputs for cotton are expensive and if the crop fails the farmer faces ruin. Market prices are kept low by the world price which is undercut by huge US subsidies to its own corporate cotton growers.
Handloom weaving in India
Handloom weaving is today the largest non-farm employer in the coutnry, and mostly rural at that. 13% of the total textile output of the country comes from handlooms, and most of it is cotton. But the chief problme faced by handloom weavers is thre quality of their main raw material: cotton yarn. Handloom weavers get yarn in hank form only at the whim of the spinning mills, so there are often unexplained shortages of particular counts. The mills make high twist yarn for mechanical weaving, while handlooms can use yarn with less twist which would give the cloth better absorbency and coulour holding. The handloom's great advantage in the market of its huge diversity - each region has its particular weaves - is lost when handlooms everywhere have to use the same mill-spun yarn.
To convert cotton into yarn, after ginning (seperating the seeds), the finres of thelint are first aligned and trash - bits of seed coat, leaf, or clumps of green fibre, dirt - removed. The machines involved are the carder, which removed trash, aligns the fibres and converts them into a cohering blanket, called a lap. This is the most important process in the entire textile-making chain: the quality of the yarn is almost entirely decided here. The output of the carder is carded sliver, a loosely twisted rope which on the fly frame is drawn down and further twisted. This roving sliver is then spun into the final yarn on ring frames.
The prevailing cotton processing technology involves pressing of loose lint into high density bales for ease and cheapness of transportation. Baling uses steam and high pressure. It destroys the natural fibre to fibre seperation, which is a pre-requisite for spinning. To undo the effects of baling a long line of costly machinery is needed - the blowroom machinery.
The force used in unbaling and in the blowroom to seperate the fibres destroys a large part of the valuable qualities of cotton- absorbency, durability, softness, elasticity. The blowroom, due to its very high capacity, has defined the minimum scale of a spinning mill. Even then, the idle capacity of a blowroom is usually between 40-50%. pressing and baling, as well as the huge number of spindles generating heat for which cooling systems are essential (an average spinning mill needs 20,000 litres of water per day for cooling alone, making spinning mills capital intensive.
Transport of raw cotton lint to centralised spinning mills, and of the yarn to distant spinning mills adds to costs, pollution and use of fossil fuels.
Is there another way ?
Today though in most parts of the country cotton farmers and weavers live side by side, they have no direct links with each other. Could we by-pass mill spinning, link up neighbouring cotton farmers and weavers, and see them as great potential strenghts of our rural economy?
Their continued presence offers the basic building blocks for a large scale, sustainable, decentralised, ecologically sensible rural industry with all the benefits of dispersed production and distributed returns. Farmers would have the option to grow the cotton best suited to local conditions. The availability of different varieties would give handloom weavers a great boost, because handlooms unlike weaving machinery can handle diversity. And customers would get a variety of different cotton fabrics.
The Malkha Process
The malkha process explores an alternative to the present situation where both farmers and weavers are dependent on spinning mills, a way in which both farmers and weavers could benefit from each other, and in which spinning could also become a rural occupation. It is the missing link in a fully rural cotton textile industry using local raw material and local skills. Not only would it create more employment, the links between farming and local production would strenghten rural society both socially and politically.
Though the malkha process uses the same amount of power per spindle as conventional spinning, it economises by cutting out baling, unbaling, and blowroom. Since the use of electricity is distributed, it would be able to use small-scale alternative power sources in the future. Relatively little investment is needed, compared to the huge capital costs that large scale industry requires, and capital and investment would be distributed since each part of the activity is of proportionate scale.
Relations between each part of the production chain would be one of equals, among a series of independent producers, rather than as now, where the power is disproportionately with the investor of capital.
Making the production process entirely local opens the door to evential direct relations with the local market. The cloth made in this way is very hard-wearing, making it suitable for rural wear.
The Malkha Technology
The technology used by malkha is a revolutionary new process in which cotton is handled gently, preserving its essential qualities. Pre-spinning consists of a Carder, a Draw-frame and a Fly-frame, which can process about 15-20 kilograms of lint in 8 hours. Rather than the heavy machinery of the conventional process, which works on principles of force, the malkha machines exploit the natural buoyancy of the cotton. They all use micro-processor controls, reducing the need for complicated gears. Spinning the output of one set of pre-spinning machines can be done on either 20 12-spindle motorised ambar charkhas, or on a single 240 spindle ring frame, and woven on 26 pit looms or 14 frame looms.
In the malkha process the entire cotton textile chain becomes village based with the least harm to the environment. Malkha provides good cloth to the customer and livelihoods in rural India, embodying Gandhian principles of swaraj.
- The Malkha Marketing Trust
- Village with the pioneering spirit
- Uzra Bilgrami, the founder of the Dastakar Andhra Trust
- Despair takes toll on Indian farmers
- Debt-burdened farmer ends life /Farmers head to Gujarat for cheap cotton seed
- Farmers' suicides in India