Within the confines of a tin-roofed workshop in Anakaputhur, on the outskirts of Chennai in southern India, a frail-looking gentleman deftly scoops out strands of banana stem. C Sekar has consumption of a conscientious kind on his mind.
“We weave fabric out of these banana strands,” he tells The National.
Sekar, 58, is a third-generation weaver, and his team of about 100 women are part of a self-help group that works on looms in shifts.
Making trash fashionable
Every month, they produce up to 150 saris and 300 metres of fabric, out of 500 discarded banana stems, innumerable fruit peels and plenty of other agricultural waste.
“The quantity of food and agricultural waste nudged us to innovate and come up with alternative raw materials for producing yarn. I’ve been experimenting with various products for more than a decade,” he says. “For now, we’ve succeeded in producing a fabric with 60 per cent natural fibre, while cotton or silk make up the rest of it.”
Sekar and his team manually scrape and extract natural fibre from agricultural products such as banana stems, pineapple, aloe vera and hemp. The fibre is washed in cold water with added salt, dried and then knotted to be wound on a spindle and made into yarn.
Subsequently, depending on the client’s choice, the yarn is dyed using eco-friendly products such as coffee powder and turmeric, and mixed with cotton to weave elegant five or eight-metre saris, lungis (a type of sarong for men) and rolls of fabric. The team also treats the dyed fabric with herbs and cow dung to utilise their antibacterial properties.
This sustainable innovation is as much a combination of art and science, as it is of passion and fashion. It has become a source of livelihood – and substantial profit – for many in the small town in the past decade. The community sells the natural fibre fabric and the saris they make from it to boutiques and high-end brands.
But it wasn't always like this.
In the 1970s, Sekar saw his father, Chenchaiah, struggle to make a living in what was a once-thriving vocation when there was an overnight ban on cloth imports to Nigeria, owing to a military coup there. This led to a decline in business over the decades, and Anakaputhur, which was once a prosperous textile hub – known for its Madras check-design handkerchiefs and bleeding Madras fabric, and with more than 5,000 looms exporting handwoven clothing to Nigeria and other countries – dwindled into a lacklustre town of barely 100-odd looms.
'Ramayana' to the rescue
In the early 2000s, with an urge to continue the rich legacy of his ancestors and give the weaver community of Anakaputhur a much-needed fillip, Sekar decided to do something quirky but organic with the weaves.
“It all happened while I was flipping through the pages of a Tamil magazine, and read an episode from the Indian epic Ramayana, on Sita’s abduction,” he recalls. “During her time in Lanka, not wanting to ask for a change of clothes from her abductor Ravana, Sita requests [the monkey god] Hanuman to get her vaazhai naaru [banana fibre] and makes a sari out of it. This intrigued me as a weaver.”
The tale left such an impact on Sekar that he was motivated to experiment with banana fibre, and slowly progressed to using other vegetables and fruits in combination with silk and cotton, an art he has perfected over the years.
The impact of fashion on the environment
“Cotton production consumes a lot of water, which we are conscious about, living in a water-scarce region like Chennai. So the need to find alternatives was another driving force apart from utilising agricultural waste,” Sekar says.
According to the UN Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for 20 per cent of global wastewater, 10 per cent of carbon emissions and huge amounts of plastic waste. About 60 per cent of material made into clothing is plastic, which includes polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles that end up as microplastics in oceans, putting a massive strain on the environment.
“The textile industry needs more sustainable and renewable feedstock to improve its current negative impact on the climate,” says Paulien Harmsen, a senior scientist at Wageningen University & Research, who was involved in a recent study funded by Laudes Foundation and led by her university alongside the Institute for Sustainable Communities and the World Resources Institute.
This study, titled Spinning Future Threads, concludes that there are enough usable agricultural residue streams from farming in South and South-East Asia for the production of natural fibre textiles at scale.
“To reduce its growing dependence on fossil fuels, the fashion industry must prioritise and accelerate its transition to a circular and regenerative system,” says Anita Chester, head of materials at the Laudes Foundation.
On the ground, however, scalability still remains a major concern in the textile industry, according to Sekar, apart from other roadblocks to make textiles sustainable in India. “Unlike cotton or polyester, ready-made natural fibre yarn isn't available in the market. Hence weavers are forced to make them in-house,” he says. “Making yarn in itself is a long-drawn, time-consuming and labour-intensive process. So not many weavers are enthusiastic about switching to natural fibres.”
While he continues to devote time for research and development, Sekar has also encouraged his son to take up a bachelor of technology course in textiles, so the next generation can take the family’s eco-friendly profession forward.
“A banana stem yields close to 150 grams of fibre, which when dried ends up as 100 grams of textile fibre. So to weave a 50 per cent natural sari with banana fibre, it takes a minimum of 10 days and at least four to five workers,” says Sekar.
In spite of all the hard work that goes into weaving these natural fibre saris, Sekar and his team ensure they set an affordable price for their products, so the concept can reach a wider audience.
Through these mindful efforts from its weaving community, Anakaputhur is regaining its place as a hub of weaves and drapes, while turning Sekar and his team into torchbearers of a “trashionable” innovation that’s reducing the devastating impact on the environment in its own significant way. The mission has also facilitated the group's entry into the Limca Book of Records for weaving a sari using 25 natural fibres.
Although he is the brains behind this innovation, Sekar gives full credit to his team. Because, he says meaningfully, weaving needs to be a collaborative effort.