This essay appeared in the January 1989 issue of our catalog. Venture with us to the heart of India, where the ancient tradition of handweaving cool, cotton Madras plaids continues... as we approach the 21st century.
Madras. Beauty from the toil of the hand.By Don Carlsen
In all the world, there are but precious few handwoven fabrics left. Our Lands' End Madras is one of them. And photographer Archie Lieberman and I flew halfway around the world (after being "shot" with most every antibody known to man) to bring you the story of how it's made, and the people who make it. Madras (the city) lies approximately 10,000 miles east and west of Dodgeville, and 12 degrees north of the equator, in southeastern India, on the Bay of Bengal. It's the capital of the federal state of Tamil Nadu, which is nearly the size of Wisconsin, and has been the center for the handweaving of cloth in India ever since there has been cloth woven there.
The first Madras fabrics.
Cloth historians (a "lot" very difficult to pin down) say that the first cloth handwoven in (or near) Madras was made of yarn spun from the tip-skin of ancient trees, and was called "karvelem patta". Many centuries later, about 3,000 B.C., Madras cotton assumed its rightful place as king, and bore the name "gada". Sometime during the 12th century, gada, not adorned with a stripe, or stripes, caught the fancy of Africa and the Middle East, and was exported to these lands to be made into headpieces. And, in the 1500's, a much refined Madras cotton was first block-printed by hand with floral or temple designs, and became the traditional garb of Madras villagers until plaids came into vogue in the 1800's.
The Scottish connection.
Many people I talked to in Madras said that we have the Scots to thank for today's beautiful plaids. (Or "checks", as all of India calls them.) They believe that the native handweavers simply copied (with some modifications) the tartan patterns worn by the Scottish regiments that occupied southern India in the 1800's. And, certainly if you whip out one of our catalogs, and compare our authentic Madras plaids and our authentic tartan plaids, you will see a striking similarity. Also, the basic and traditional colors of both plaids are much the same: blues, reds, yellows, browns, greens and whites.
If ever I was in mortal peril in India, it was on the road to and from Panapakam, where drivers put the pedal to the metal, and pass at will, with fearless disregard for the people, cows, bullock carts and other vehicles coming from the opposite direction. I can't begin to tell you how many close calls we had, but I can tell you that I feel lucky to still be on this planet. (Or, was it just dumb karma?)
Remember bleeding Madras?
The bleeding Madras fad of the 1950's and '60's, brought the world's attention to Madras, both the cloth and the city. And in the cloth's heyday, over 150,000 new plaid patterns were fashioned, using homemade vegetable dyes that bled, ran and blended to create a stunning effect. ("Cool" was the word we used, way back then.) Today, of course, Madras no longer bleeds, because it is dyed with man-made, color-fast dyes.
But this, really, is the only difference, between then and now, in the making of the cloth.
The making of Madras.
Madras is hand-dyed, hand-warped, hand-woven and hand-finished in almost 200 tiny Tamil Naduan villages. And all these precious, time-honored crafts are encouraged and protected by the government of India, which should make hand-weaving buffs the world over sleep easier for years to come.
First, the cotton.
The chief variety of cotton used to make our Madras yarn is "Varalashmi", and it is grown all over Tamil Nadu. It has a very short staple — 1" to 1.25" long. And it is very soft and fragile. So much so, that if combed, it most likely will break. Consequently, after ginning the cotton to remove the seeds and dirt, it can only be carded before being spun into yarn.
Lack of combing gives our Madras cloth one of its more distinguishing and charming features: slubs. "What are 'they'?," you ask, uneasily. They're "bumps," tiny thickenings in the yarn that endow our shirts with an unexpected texture and character. And, along with slight misweaves, are a signal to the world that our Lands' End shirt has been truly and authentically made of cloth handwoven in Madras.
More about yarn.
While I am on the subject of yarn, it seems only right to mention that we specify a higher count for our shirts than most others do: 80 very fine "60's singles" yarns to the inch in the warp (the length) and 80 fine "40's singles" to the inch in the weft (the width). (Lesser shirts usually have but 60 "40's singles" to the inch, in both directions.) Our higher Lands' End count "packs" the fabric, and makes it sturdier, while also giving it a softer hand.
On the road to Panapakam: the story begins, and almost ends!
Panapakam is the village we visited, for three days running, to watch the dyeing, warping and weaving operations. It is about 40 kilometers southwest of Madras, has a population just slightly smaller than Dodgeville's, and like Dodgeville, is situated in the middle of farm fields. (Maize, sugar cane and cotton.)
Our Madras yarn may be dyed with the latest, commercial, color-fast dyes, but it's still dyed the ancient, time-honored way: by hand and by eye, by the hank. I watched as Sundram, a venerable masterdyer in the village of Panapakam, worked on a shady, smoke-filled patio at the rear of his house. The smoke came from a pungent wood that fired a vat of steaming spring water. Sundram first dipped water from it into a container. Then, he added and mixed salt, soda, fixing agents and, finally, the dye — an indigo. When he judged that the color of the mixture was right, he dipped a pure, white hank of yarn into it, over and over again, and as the yarn "took" the dye....
It bloomed into a beautiful, pale, pastel-blue!
With obvious pride, Sundram held the dyed hank in the sunlight, and showed me how perfectly it matched the hanks he'd already dyed. Dyeing is a skilled craft, perhaps even an art. And, in Sundram's family, the "how to" of it had been passed down from father to son, for several hundred years. Sundram told me that when he was younger, he had made vegetable dyes the ancient way: from indigo, thathiripoo flowers, alampha bark, rice skin and various roots. And, he'd mixed them in earthenware pots made by his wife. Before we left, he found a pot in his attic, for us to look over.
On the road again.
The next day, we arrived in Panapakam at dawn, and watched a warp being made in the coolness of a grove of tamarind trees. Warps are always made in the early morning, in Panapakam, and usually in the shade, because hot sunlight will fade the warp yarns. The warpers first set up a bamboo warp frame, then attached dyed "60's" yarn, a strand at a time, to the beam at the foot of the frame, then "walked" it 60 feet to the head of the frame, and sleyed it in one of two reeds there.
No way will the warpers beat the sun, I thought.
Honestly, I didn't see how they'd make it. Our pattern called for a 50-inch wide warp, with 80 yarns to the inch. According to my math, that meant 4,000 yarns would have to be "walked" from one end of the warp frame to the other, before the sun grew hot. No way!
But by 10 AM, the warp was finished.
Then it was inspected, and frayed yarns were replaced, and broken yarns were tied with weaver's knots. Next, starch sizing was slung on the warp yarns with bristly brushes, and burnished with bamboo sticks, to give them a smooth, even finish for weaving. And finally, the warpers tied off the yarns by colors, rolled then up on the beam, and carried it to the master weaver's cottage. Warping is arduous, painstaking handwork. But in Panapakam, it is work that is done with care, and poise and dignity. And these are qualities that most certainly show up in the Madras shirts on the pages of our catalog.
At this time, after spending two days in Panapakam, I was beginning to feel that it and Dodgeville could almost be "sister villages". Both are neat, clean and sit smack in the middle of farm fields. And the people of Panapakam, like the people of Dodgeville, are country folks: straightforward, helpful, friendly. There are more similarities, too. They take what I'd call a simple, Midwestern kind of a pride in their work. And they spend their afterwork time with their families, or playing cards or talking with the neighbors, while the children play. I remember leaving Sundram's house that first evening, just as the sun was setting softly on the fields. Spices and cooking smells were in the air, because it was supper time. And the streets were quiet, peaceful — just like they are in Dodgeville, after a long day of hard work.
The weaver's trade.
The following morning, we went back to Panapakam, to watch the handweaving of our cloth. And Mudaliar, a tall, thin bespectacled man of about 40, was the masterweaver I interviewed. He lived in a small, whitewashed brick cottage, among a cluster of brick cottages that all had handlooms built right into the foundation, benches and all. The size of Mudaliar's wooden loom surprised me. It was huge: about 12 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high. And he told me, proudly, that his grandfather had built it from scratch. When we had first walked into the weaving room, I had noted that the loom had already been dressed with the warp that we had seen being made in the grove of tamarind trees. And, as I watched now, Mudaliar spread water on the yarns with a wet cloth to make them more "workable." Then, he sat down on the bench, put the first shuttle into place....
And he began weaving.
It was my first look at handweaving, and I was fascinated. Pushing foot pedals attached to the harness, Mudaliar raised and lowered the warp yarns, while he sent the shuttle flying and weaving through then, with his hands. The room and the cottage were filled with a rhythmic "clack-clack, clack-clack" made by the flying shuttle, and the reed stick packing the yarns. And I watched in wonder as beautiful, colorful cloth for a Lands' End Madras shirt was created, and grew, right before my eyes.
Beauty from the toil of the hand.
Mudaliar and his wife Ammal, taking turns at the loom, wove enough cloth for many Lands' End shirts that day. And I wondered who, in America, would be lucky enough to order one of them.
On to the banks of the Arani!
The next morning, our last in Madras, we traveled north for the first time, to the Arani River: "the washing place." The pure, spring water of the Arani is reputed to give our Madras a special softness and texture, because (as one Madrasan told me), "It lies light in the hand." And I don't know whether it was the power of his suggestion or not, but the water actually did feel unusually light when I held it in my cupped hand.
Fresh, pure, spring water bubbled up, and filled a hole in the dry river bed.
The washers had dug the "washing hole" that morning, and I watched as they spread 25-foot lengths of cloth in the water and let them soak. Then they worked the cloth back and forth with their hands and bare feet, cleaning and finishing it, while they sang.
I sure hoped that Archie's pictures turned out.
After the cloth was washed, it was spread out to dry on the river bank. And at day's end, the bank was totally, colorfully covered with hundreds of lengths of Madras cloth, drying in the hot sun. "Beautiful" was the only word I could think of. And all Archie could say was, "Ahhh", as he shot roll after roll of film.
Our assignment in Madras ended as we left the banks of the Arani, knowing that the Madras cloth we'd left drying there would go on to further assignments of its own. More washings. Travel to our shirtmaker in Georgia, for his fine touches. Countless inspections by Lands' End Q.A. folks. And finally, hopefully, delivery to your home, and others, where I know that it will be warmly welcomed, greatly admired and comfortably worn. To be sure.
And, now, if you will allow me a short postscript:
On the plane headed homeward, sometime after midnight, and somewhere over Russia, I started thinking back about what I'd seen on my trip. And, mostly, I thought about the people, and their skill in the making of our Madras cloth. "Making clothing remains essentially an art form." Gary Comer has said. And, maybe, nowhere else on earth is this more true than in Madras. There, I'd seen people dye, warp, weave and finish cloth with their hands, eyes, and hearts, giving it pattern, grace, beauty — and most assuredly, "life". And, I knew that I would think often of these people, who lived and worked in the middle of farm fields, when I was back home working, in the middle of farm fields.