The Sector

Major provider of rural non-farm employment, with minimal infrastructure cost

Potential for market growth – domestic and export

Low entry barriers – not capital intensive

Potential for training new weavers in the villages thus preventing distress migration from villages

Handloom Sector

The handloom industry, which is largely rural-based, is an important provider of rural non-farm employment. But this industry is now under threat due to state policies, inefficient implementation, and growing indifference in the market and a larger move towards mechanization. Economic liberalization and globalization have brought major changes to the Indian economy as a whole. The issues looming large today are lopsided economic development, the lack of economic opportunities for the masses and social injustice. With input costs rising, agriculture, the mainstay of the rural economy lost dynamism and local markets lost vitality. Economic development succeeded in deepening rural poverty and eroded traditional industries. Handloom weaver became dependent on mainstream mills for basic inputs like yarn and the liberalization of exports affected the price of raw cotton and silk. Stability in yarn prices became subject to global market fluctuations and the needs of the domestic market were not given priority. The livelihood of the weaver was affected by this change in the macro-environment. The pre-loom workers partly dependent on the local economy were forced to migrate away from the village for work. The moving away of the pre-loom workers forced migrations of weavers in certain regions. In other places weaving activity lost robustness due to scarcity in pre-loom services.

The Indian textile industry contributes 14% of the total industrial production in India and is second only to agriculture sector in terms of providing employment. The handloom sector accounts for 15% of the total cloth produced in the country (excluding wool & silk). The sector gives employment to more than 43 lakh handloom weavers and allied workers.

Positive factors in the survival of handlooms are their specific regional product identities and their flexibility in responding to market demand. A SWOT analysis on the handloom sector is presented below:

Table 1.1 SWOT Analysis of Handloom Sector

* Flexibility of production
* Strong product identities
* Very favourable capital-output ratio – capacity can be expanded easily
* In-built skill transfer
* Closely meshed with proximate markets
* Dispersed production – environmentally sound
* Family entrepreneurship, social embedding
* No status as industry
* Inadequate supporting institutions (credit, training, research) No industry driver
* Industry perceived in terms of extremes (suited to high end, or cheap janata sarees)
* Limitless capacity for expansion of production
Potential for different kinds of entrepreneurships
* Illegal encroachment by power looms into handloom products
* No guaranteed access to primary raw material (cotton yarn)

Handloom weaving needs minimal infrastructure cost and has potential for market growth in both local / immediate and domestic markets. It is an inclusive production process with low entry barriers and is not capital intensive.

Handloom weaving, seen only as a craft based, cottage industry employs a large number of rural families perceived as major non-farm employment opportunity after agriculture. But the perception of the industry only as a traditional craft has masked the trajectory of traditional weavers who over the last few decades have used it to achieve a reasonable livelihood, and moved their next generation into mainstream livelihoods. While urban India struggles to manage a growing populations’ infrastructure needs, the vulnerability of a fast changing polarized society is still a challenge that neither policy nor the market has been able to rise to in any scale.


Handloom weaving is a decentralized activity in a village with function of aggregating held by the co-operative or master weaver. Traditionally, pre-loom activities except dyeing was carried out by the weaver himself. While raw material procurement, dyeing, marketing and finance squarely sits with the aggregator, design and quality are negotiated between the weaver and entrepreneur. The weaving is done in the weaver’s house and involves all the members of the family. Pre-loom activities of warping, sizing, attaching the warp and weft winding are other activities done within the community or by family members. While pre-loom activity of warping is a service given by an entrepreneur to a set of weavers in each village, sizing is done by the weaver himself with the help from other weavers. Activities like attaching the warp and bobbin winding are done by the women in the family. Weaving mostly is done by men but at times women also weave. Men and women take turns to weave on the loom.

Weaving is a community activity

Handloom weaving has a complex history which shapes the contradictions and strengths of the sector. Weaving has always been a community activity located in a particular group / caste in each geographical area. Handloom production is mostly carried out in the village. The loom is located in the weaver’s home. The weaver almost always operates with the help of his family. Traditionally, pre-loom activities like dyeing & warping were outsourced and sizing, attaching the warp, weft winding & weaving activities were carried out by the weaver.

The strength of the community in the village supporting pre-loom activities has dwindled as weaver families became nuclear. The markets moved away as the immediate local markets became weak. The reduction of growth in the local economy due to the hardships faced by agriculture is one major factor for the diminishing of local markets.  In the face of all these adversities the industry continues to survive, though in reduced numbers.

Handloom weaving provides a viable income for weavers in the village. When the weaver makes enough wage through consistent work, the weaver has a choice not to migrate out of his profession and village. Handloom weaving also uses the existing skill base, which is acquired by the weavers through their family. Handloom production is one of the oldest traditional production processes, which exists even today. 

Producer institutions

Primary handloom weavers’ co-operatives

A co-operative society is formed by the weavers located within a specific geography and is committed to provide production work to all the members. Co-operative acts as the aggregation point for procuring yarn, chemical dyes and any other inputs required for production. A co-operative has to ensure fair wages to every weaver member and also act as a conduit for the various welfare measures initiated by the State on behalf of the weaver.

The end product is sold in the immediate market, to the apex marketing society and to the whole sale traders. The apex marketing society is formed by the co-operatives across districts coming together as a central body. It is called by different names in different States of the country. For instance, the apex society in Telangana is called TSCO and the apex society of Andhra Pradesh is called APCO.

Master weavers

This is a traditional system where the master weaver cum trader provides work for weavers in the village.  The master weaver provides yarn and many times ready yarn (completing all pre-loom processes) and design to the weaver. He takes responsibility for getting the yarn dyed, warped and sized and leaves the weaver with nothing to do but weave on the loom. The master weaver provides looms in addition to raw material and designs for the migrant weavers. The finished products are aggregated for sale by the master weaver. He often advances loans for the weavers in times of need. Weavers may choose to work with the master weaver for lesser wages due to this facility of easy loans.This is a traditional system where the master weaver cum trader provides work for weavers in the village.  He also provides raw material, designs and looms for the migrant weavers. The finished products are aggregated for sale by the master weaver. He often advances loans for the weavers in times of need. Weavers may choose to work with the master weaver for lesser wages due to this facility of easy loans.

Kinship groups

Usually the master weaver network is constituted by the same caste group as the weavers. When they have to maintain looms across villages, they sub-contract work to weavers who maintain more than one loom. These are small kinship groups constituted by extended families that work for a master weaver and also sell independently.  A very small number of weavers are part of this kind of production and marketing practices in the country.


Handloom weavers work through different existing forms of organizations like handloom weaver co-operatives, master weavers and kinship groups / independent weavers. The weavers could be divided according to their skill levels, with specialized and complex weaving being on top of the pyramid, with medium skilled weaver being in the middle of the pyramid and low skill being bottom of the pyramid. Over the years, the weavers who are in the bottom of the pyramid are moving out of the sector and choosing alternative livelihoods.

The low skilled products (towel, lungi, kerchief, dhoti and basic / local sarees) are produced by old weavers working with the co-operative and sold in the local markets which are not very remunerative as they are price competitive and this product is mostly sold in Government showrooms or co-operative owned shops. Medium skilled product is produced by the weaver who works with the co-operative or / and master weaver and is sold by the co-operatives through Government marketing outlets and master weaver. The weaver here has flexibility of working with the co-operative and master weaver. In case of absence of master weaver, the weaver only works with the co-operative. The high skilled weaver works under the master weaver or independently. The product is sold in traditional markets or other markets which have value / demand for the technique or / and product due to cultural memory or traditional aesthetic.

Marketing organizations

The handloom products produced by the different producer institutions is sold by different marketing organizations. The products move from the rural areas to the urban areas through different ways and marketing channels.

Apex Marketing Co-operatives

These are agencies formed by the collective of co-operatives across districts in a State and are governed by the representatives of the co-operative partners. They operate through direct sales from their showrooms located across the State. They are partially supported by the local State Governments and carry the mandate of supporting the member co-operatives.  Therefore, they are compelled at times to purchase what is produced by the members and are not in a position to cater to the changing market demands.

Master weavers

This is the ideal network for selling handlooms in contemporary markets. The master weaver is in-charge of both production and marketing. He can direct the production as per the market demand and monitor production locally to ensure quality and timely delivery. The success of marketing is dependent on the dynamism of the master weaver in understanding the distant markets and identifying the opportunities.

Boutiques / stores

Exclusive handloom stores play an important role in providing a platform for handloom products in the emerging markets. They access handloom products from the master weavers and craft organisations working with the producers. They build a brand name by servicing customers across cities and by their continued visible presence. Small boutiques in two tier towns build a loyal clientele by accommodating the specific demands of the people around and often exclusively stock speciality products in handloom.

Craft organizations

Soon after independence organisations supporting particular crafts emerged across the country in the spirit of supporting traditional skills. Along with the strong co-operative movement these organisations played a significant role in sustaining the production in the craft sector. Majority of these organisations worked with the local handicrafts, helping to revive them or expand their scope. A few worked with both handicrafts and handlooms. The unique character of these institutions is their constant endeavour to work from the strengths of the existing production and innovate on products to match the contemporary society needs.


Gaps in production

  • Linkages of production systems have broken down
  • Lack of institutional support – design, training, credit, technology research
  • Problems with State/Industry relations: non-performance of State in policy, data collection, funding research.
  • Norms of market not small producer friendly: not reflecting strengths of disaggregated production base e.g flexibility, strong identity

Gaps in marketing

  • Breaking down of local markets, no signs of recovery in the local economy
  • Artisans leaving the profession as trusted networks disappeared creating scarcity in production
  • Mixing of identities in the marketplace with little distinction between handmade and machine made
  • Large scale sale of handloom imitations in the name of handloom

Handloom futures – investing in growth

  • Promote handloom for the aesthetic and ecological sustainability by simultaneously building value for the product and process
  • Increase awareness in the society about handloom to enable the customer to recognise imitations
  • State investment in improving credit availability to the sector to enable growth
  • State investment in promoting the strengths of handloom production as a route to reviving rural economies
  • State has to separate handloom from the Textile category and give it an independent status to address sector specific issues efficiently.