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"The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant."
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Cotton is popularly known as the fabric of independence, but that was not how the story of the spinning wheel started. Gandhi had initially learnt to weave cloth on a handloom, but he wasn’t satisfied with just that, because it could not be considered as complete self-sufficiency. So he set out on a search for the charkha, a simple spinning wheel that had once been a part of every village home. Gandhi learnt to spin from a local artisan and once he got the hang of it, the spinning wheel never left his side. He found it to be meditative and would take it everywhere with him from ship decks to prison cells, the spinning wheel slowly and surely became a part of his identity. And not only that, it soon became the identity of our nation and its fight for freedom.
Image: The charkha was used by him in Yerwada Jail whilst fighting for the rights and independence of India. It was one of Gandhi's most prized possessions as he devised the workings of it himself.
During the rule of the British, the East India Company would export cotton from India at minimal costs, which would be converted into finished products using machines and sold back to us at cheaper rates than handwoven fabrics. This affected artisans and farmers all over the country and that was what set off a movement towards a more self-sufficient India that would fight for its freedom. By setting off the Swadeshi movement, Gandhi truly believed that if Indians boycotted foreign cloth and people all over the country spun , it would lead to rural self-employment and sustenance.
He would often say "It is my conviction that with every thread I draw, I am spinning the destiny of India. Without the spinning wheel, there is no salvation for this country of ours." And to the students, he would say "Every yard of cotton that you wear will mean some coppers going into the pockets of the poor. Coarse hand-spun signifies simplicity of life. Cotton has a soul about it."
Traditionally Cotton is a hand-spun fabric though it is usually assumed to be cotton, it can also be made of silk or woollen yarn. It is also perfect for Indian weather as it keeps the body cool in the summers and warm in the winters. Since the fabric is so adaptable, it was suitable for a vast and diverse country like ours. Cotton was convenient, but it was also an important part of Indian history and heritage from the Mughal emperors to the Indus valley civilisation, cotton had existed for thousands of years. So when Gandhi encouraged cotton, he was also encouraging people to reconnect and rediscover their heritage while also supporting the rural workers. This took the freedom movement from beyond the educated elitist circles to the smallest villages in the country. Gandhi had succeeded in exposing the exploitative policies of the British and inciting people to fight for freedom from their rule.
If you think about it in hindsight, to realise that a fabric could unite a community and spark a revolution is rather astounding. But cotton was the fabric that wove together millions of lives and tied them together in the fight for freedom. And it continues to hold a special place even today, almost 70% of cotton is woven by women as a means of generating independent incomes in rural India. These artisans create cotton so that they can gain a bit of freedom from the suppression of the patriarchy that they are forced to deal with in their homes. Due to the sustainable and eco-friendly movements, cotton may have been raised to a premium fabric by designers, but to those artisans that weave it thread by thread, it continues to be the fabric of freedom.