Weaving healing into clothing

 The dying art of weaving using organic dye gets a new breath of life 

Text: Hazel S. Austin

Photographs: Kairali Exports

Think ‘Kerala’ and the first few things that come to mind are the backwaters, the lush green landscape and the pristine white fi ne cotton sarees with their golden borders has become synonymous with the land and is now more commonly referred to as the Kerala sari. These sarees which are produced in the village of Balaramapuram in Trivandrum, a weaver’s settlement area, has a bit of interesting history attached to it. Set up during the rule of His Highness Balarama Varma, Balaramapura soon became a hub for the production of traditional varieties of handloom textiles meant for the Kerala market.

Reviving a dying art The advent of modern techniques and machinery has robbed many weavers of their livelihood and the coming younger generations are less inclined to pursue these dying arts and crafts preferring the white collar jobs in metropolitan cities to the dusty dingy rooms of the weaving cottages. The disappointing downturn of this invaluable art is what prompted the government to look for ways to popularize the use of these handloom textiles that were still manually produced by a few weavers in the timepreserved laborious style of weaving. And that is how you could say ‘Ayurvastra’ came to being.

The skin is the largest organ in our body and helps the body dispose toxins through sweat. Ayurveda believes that the same organ can also be used as a conduit for healing through herbs. More and more people are beginning to opt for the naturopathic path and adopting the use of natural and organic substances that are healthier in the long run and do very little harm to the environment. This growing tribe of people with similar thinking is the reason that the ‘Ayurvastra’ project of the Weaver’s society has found success. The ancient practice of using organic colours and dyes is fi nding new life through this trend which has been has been quietly building a reputation in niche circles of its own. As guessed, Ayurvastra is based on the ancient science of Ayurveda - the 5000-year-old treatise on health and healing as found through the Hindu texts. The name is simple and straightforward - the word ‘ayur’ which means health in Sanskrit has been strung together with ‘vastra’ meaning clothing.

Conceived as an initiative to promote handloom textiles and to protect the dying art of handloom and the weavers and artisans of the weaving community, the Weavers Society in Kerala along with the collective of Directorate of Handloom, the Department of Industries and Commerce and the Department of Ayurveda College launched the Ayurvastra project. The Society has been refi ning the technique used to make these eco fabrics suitable for modern everyday use and to create a variety of colours depending on the plants or herbs used for various health benefi ts.

Organic all the way Ayurvastra is basically organic cotton or any natural fi bre treated with a concoction of herbs and essential oils known for their healing properties and meant to enhance wellbeing and off er therapeutic benefi ts. Proponents of Ayurvastra claim that the healing herbs have the power to treat a variety of diseases and provide relief from a variety of problems including eczema, asthma, arthritis, rheumatism to even diabetes. Whether one likes to hop onto the other side of fence or not to believe it, Ayurvastra sure has its own appeal, simply because of its zero impact on our environment. Completely free of synthetic chemicals and potential irritants, it is a much more appealing as an environmentally cleaner sustainable alternative. The fabric is dipped in dyes made wholly of medicinal plants and no other colourants are used.

The practice and concept is far from new, in fact, it is believed that in some parts of South India such herbal dyed clothes are used to carry a new born child, thereby forming a protective antimicrobial barrier for the child from the elements. Ayurveda also encouraged the use of such medicated clothing as a medium of treatment wherein the medicinal zz benefi ts of the herbs could be absorbed via the skin. It is said that the most eff ective time to use auyrvastra is when the body is at rest and the natural healing capacity of the body is at work. Thus, you will see that most often the ayurvastra fabric is used for sleep wear, inner wear, bedding, towels as well as cotton and coir mats.

Every ayurvastra fabric begins life as natural cotton or yarn which is bleached using a traditional organic mixture after which the fabric is left to dry in direct sunlight. Gumming substances infused with Aloe vera and camphor is applied to the fabric which is then soaked in a concoction of more than 40 diff erent varieties of herbs. Some of the well known plants include turmeric, neem and tulsi touted for their anti-infl ammatory and anti-bacterial activity, vetiver, sandalwood and indigo. These are combined with other balancing herbs to yield the desired colour to the fabric. The fabric is then left to dry and for the concoction or ‘kashaya’ to work its magic into the fabric giving it its unique colour and scent as it dries. It is then washed and dried in shade and left to cure for a period of 15 days. The entire process is highly laborious and can take up to a month at times and requires careful adherence to standards and timing.

Ushering in change Ayurvastra is yet to get the attention it really deserves, but that is something that designers Sobha and Sreeremya had in mind when they launched ‘Bodha’, a line of Ayurvedic clothing, which is now available in select retail stores. Sreeremya, an alumnus of the National Institute of Design said that initially items in the Ayurvastra line were only available in white or off -whites which restrict its appeal in the aesthetic sense but the duo have found a way to incorporate some more colours along with the primary ones. The duo is confi dent that the ayurvedic line will grow and are looking forward to taking the designs onto the international scene soon.

Soulmate Intimates by Julie Lantry is another brand that has adopted ‘ayurvedic clothing’. The Australian designer admits that it was by chance that she stumbled upon the eco-friendly fabric and is also of the opinion that heritage artisanal crafts are dying away and that more needs to be done to keep these alive. She intends to do her bit to raise awareness about the health benefi ts of the ‘ayurvedic’ line through her own brand ‘Soulmate Intimates’ lingerie. She understands that hers is a nice product but her logic is sound. On her path to marry a commercial product that lend itself to an income for traditional weavers and customers who were health conscious, lingerie, seemed like just the right thing. More and more people are beginning to turn away from synthetic chemical dyes and looking around for skin-friendlier and eco-friendlier options that will not irritate their skin and does not pile up the toxins on their glands. Tulsi, neem and aloe-vera provided the answer and their anti-oxidant and anti-septic properties were well-known. The collection includes everything from classic sleepwear with tank tops in lace prints, cotton camisoles and underwear. Lantry has also been careful to maintain a chic element to her designs while keeping comfort uncompromised.

Whether one embraces the idea of innerwear or clothes infused with herbs or not, one thing is sure as we go forward and that is Ayurvastra and Ayurveda is here to stay. All good things come at a price would be a good thought to keep in mind while considering the pricier tag that all Ayurvastra creations come in. But let’s not judge till we’ve used one. Till then may the earthy aroma of vetiver and turmeric lure you to the magic of the Ayurvastra.