The Indian sub-continent has a rich and ancient history of textile art and exports, with the heritage spanning almost 5,000 years. It’s been found that fabric-making was an important part of people’s lives even at the time when the Indus Valley Civilisation flourished. The excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro reveal that the spinning wheel or the charkha was an essential part of the sub-continental household. Other than practices of resist-dyeing, hand-painting, and embroidery, the Indus Valley people were masters in the art of weaving.
The Vedic Aryans and the Buddhists who settled in this region after the Indus Valley Civilization also used the charkha. The entire cloth-making process which was done by hand, involved great skill and the sub continental textiles were unrivalled for their excellence. Foreign travellers like Marco Polo (1288) and Tavernier (1660) wrote in detail about the excellence of the subcontinent’s cotton fabrics and there are many accounts of our textiles being exported to trade centres widely separated geographically, like Rome, Zanzibar, Java, Bali and Egypt.
When the Mughals ruled the subcontinent, hand spinning and weaving continued to be an important occupation and the era brought in use of gold and silver brocades, fine-figured muslins, fabulous weaves, printed and painted fabrics, exquisite carpets, intricate embroideries and endless variety and designs being produced on a mass scale.
Emperors Akbar and Jahangir took personal interest in developing the crafts, and the fabrics from this region became even more exquisite and ornate.By the 16th century, foreign traders including the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British had begun to come to India from the West and by the 17th century, the English traders had set-up the East India Trading Company with the main object of importing Indian goods including textiles. With this fascinating background, it is no wonder that modern day Pakistan, like neighbouring India and Bangladesh, still has a huge industry centred on textiles.
Ever since Pakistan’s independence, textile industry has been the most important manufacturing sector of Pakistan, having the longest production chain, with inherent potential for value-addition at each stage of processing, from cotton growing to ginning, spinning, fabric-making, dyeing and finishing, and production of made-ups and garments.
The textile sector in Pakistan contributes about 10 percent to the GDP which for 2016 is stated as about $283.70 billion. So the total size of the textile sector comes to about $28 billion. The sector contributes nearly one-fourth of industrial value-added and provides employment to about 40 percent of industrial labour force. Textile exports for Pakistan are valued at around $10.29 billion.
Even though the last decade saw the textile industry of Pakistan flounder in the face of incessant power and gas cuts, the textile industry seems to have bounced back as bank advances to the sector were record high in 2016.
Under Textile Policy 2015-19, Rs64.15 billion will be spent to increase the exports of textile and clothing items from the existing $13 billion to $26 billion by 2019. Pakistan is the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world and holds the largest spinning capacity in Asia after China and India.
A recent report issued by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) reveals that year-on-year growth in textile sector advances has been Rs90 billion in 2016 in contrast to the net retirement of Rs30 billion in 2015.
With this resurgence of the industry, recently a lot of interest has been shown in reviving the craft of Pakistan textile art. This year’s Fashion Pakistan Week Spring/Summer Show also focused on the revivalist trend of ethnic crafts and embroideries, and many designers retraced their steps and went back to their roots in search of design inspiration.
Focusing on reviving old art forms that are indigenous to the region and using them in modern designs, not only helps empower the craftsmen who have been trained in centuries’ old crafts by their forefathers, but also promotes the previously disappearing native crafts that are threatened by extinction otherwise.
Pakistan is home to many beautiful crafts like woven textiles and embroidered products from Swat and other regions. While weaving is carried out in many major cities, Swat in particular is a long established weaving centre whose blankets are mentioned even in early Buddhist texts. Or the embroidered textiles and leather crafts from Balochistan which are used to make shawls, caps, vests and an assortment of dresses. In Sindh, different types of woven textiles are a common sight in the cities of Hyderabad, Khairpur, Hala and Thatta.
Ajrak, a unique pattern produced in Sindh is printed on shawls and caps and has become a unique symbol of Sindhi culture. Similarly, phulkari from Multan, block-printing from Lahore, chunri, and rilli work are all artful displays of the rich heritage of Pakistan.
Some local brands have invested in bringing these traditional textile designs into the mainstream.
One such revival story is that of the hand-woven khaddar, which had all but disappeared from conventional fashion.
Khaddar is a natural fibre cloth made out of cotton, silk or wool and has a long history in the sub-continent. Khaddar’s revival in India was advocated by Gandhi who envisioned the versatile fabric as a panacea to India’s poverty and the cloth became the symbol of nation’s struggle for freedom.
In Pakistan, the revival of handloom weaving can be principally credited to a local start-up, Khaadi. The brand has been chiefly responsible for ushering in the ‘khaddar culture’.
Despite being a major producer and exporter of superior quality cloth for decades, the boom of fashion in the country is a fairly recent phenomenon and Pakistani designers have caught the eye of many outside the country. Brands have played a vital role in transforming a manufacturing focused textile industry to a more holistic market that also encompasses a focus on retail and fashion. Although developing rapidly, these two areas are still in their nascent stages it promises to blossom into something befitting our splendid legacy.
The writer is a communication professional