Fabrics for Freedom: Khadi and Beyond

We are all aware of how central khadi was to our struggle for independence. It was not only about defying the British and refusing to buy their imported cloth, but a potent symbol that it was not mere freedom from colonial rule that was critical, but also economic independence—a means of livelihood for millions of people of the country. In the words of Divya Joshi: ‘Gandhiji presented khadi as a symbol of nationalism, equality and self-reliance. It was his belief that reconstruction of the society and effective Satyagraha against the foreign rule can be possible only through khadi….The spinning wheel was at one time the symbol of India’s poverty and backwardness. Gandhiji turned it into a symbol of self-reliance and non-violence.’

Khadi

But India is not the only country where spinning and weaving of textiles were a core part of a movement for independence. Another large British colony also used this as a weapon. This was the USA!

Britain saw its colonies including the American territories, as suppliers of raw material, insisted that they export all cotton to it, and buy all finished cloth from it. And of course it imposed huge taxes on all these products including fabric.

In defiance, the people in the American colonies started spinning their own cloth, and the spinning wheel because as important a symbol of patriotism in Americanin the 1760s and 1770s as the charkha was to the become in the 20th century in India.

Women were at the forefront of the spinning movement in the American War of Independence, and created their own homespun cloth to disrupt the British monopoly.  Fabric made this way was called “homespun.” Wearing homespun was a symbol of patriotism.  

In certain areas like New England, women showed their protest by going to ‘spinning bees’ where they would set up spinning wheels and keep each other company while they spun yarn. And these were not isolated events—for instance, in a single area, from Harpswell, Maine to Huntington, Long Island, over 60 spinning meetings were held over 32 months starting in March 1768.

The Daughters of Liberty, a group of political dissidents who got together to fight for liberty, were at the forefront of these spinning bees. They organized boycotts of British goods, especially tea, and they manufactured replacement products, especially cloth.

As in India, spinning was at the centre of a lot of publicity and was a rallying point for the freedom fighters. Newspapers reported elaborately on the smallest cloth-making development to amplify the message. Spinning schools were set up and awards were offered for the person who wove the most cloth. Old and young learnt to spin—it is reported that a 70-year-old woman in Newport, R.I., learnt to spin for the first time during the movement. Competitions were held—‘in 1769, two Connecticut women held an all-day spinning contest in which the winner spun seven skeins and two knots of fine linen yarn, just a little more than her competitor’.

The boycott of imported fabric and other goods from tea to molasses, worked, and it is estimated by some sources that the value of imported goods from Great Britain to the US fell by half in 1769 over the previous year, from 420,000 to 208,000 pounds.

So ‘swadeshi’ proved a potent war cry against imperial colonizers halfway across the world!

As it did in India almost 150 years later–rallying self-confidence, morale, giving a sense of identify.

Happy Independence Day!

Buying one pair of Khadi clothes a year can contribute to livelihoods for our millions of weavers. And they need it more than ever now, as the spinning of the national flag, which was their monopoly, has been taken away.

–Meena

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