- Weaving Histories: The Transformation of the Handloom Industry in South India, 1800–1960 by Karuna Dietrich Wielenga
Karuna Dietrich Wielenga's book examines the changes brought about by the dynamic global currents from 1800 to 1960, and their impact on the handloom industry in South India. Using a variety of historical sources, Wielenga carefully demonstrates the local transformations in manufacturing techniques and production systems. The literature on textile manufacturing in India is divided into two broad positions: one holding colonialism responsible for the decline of hand spinning and weaving in the economy, and the other revisionist view that competition from northern England's goods increased efficiency in India's domestic cloth-making processes. Disagreeing with the literature's revisionist position, Wielenga expands our understanding of the shifts within handloom manufacturing by stressing the importance of disentangling social groups and concepts to reveal multiple layers of complex socioeconomic relationships that fed economic realities. By extending the narrative to a decade and a half after independence, the author avoids the artificial boundary of 1947 and examines the long-term trends in India's handloom weaving.
While Weaving Histories is not about the technology of cloth making, it touches upon significant technological issues that intersect with society, culture, and state-led policy-making. Wielenga successfully demonstrates that economic outcomes in handloom weaving were a product of local social conditions as well as the actions and inactions of the colonial state. An entire chapter to the role of caste in shaping handloom weaving is significant, well-analyzed, and well-placed, as is the next chapter on local movements to secure policies in line with weavers' interests. Previous chapters on the geography as well as the social groups and looms dominating the industry provide important insights into the workings of a complex system of manufacturing serving domestic and distant markets. The English East India Company's role in re-shaping production relationships informs the account of changes to the production systems. [End Page 261]
Two chapters deal directly with the topic of technology. One offers a stimulating historical narrative on the cotton cloth making process (ch. 3). In this, Wielenga is to be applauded for providing a much-needed discussion on the characteristics of cotton spinning in India. She discusses the technical and production-related changes after the introduction of American cotton varieties with clarity and in detail.
In the other, the author frames the issue of technological diffusion in India within the structures set by existing narratives in global history, via the state's role (ch. 7). While the preceding chapters tackled technological innovation and diffusion through a creative and uniquely Indian lens, this chapter offers a coherent narrative on the support, or otherwise, of the colonial state towards handloom weaving. For instance, defining the weaver as a worker brings into stark focus the issue of dealing with an Indian concept (weaver) through a colonial lens (worker). However, while successfully portraying the largely laissez-faire attitude of the colonial state, and the Lancashire interests it strove to serve, the narrative repeats, like many earlier writings, the examination of the problem of technological expansion and innovation in India through the sieve of colonialism. There is a missed opportunity here to systematically compare colonial state policies with those of the Indian government post-1947.
Notwithstanding this limitation, Wielenga's Weaving Histories makes a major contribution to our understanding of textile manufacturing in South India, and its connections to the world. By providing the local, granular details of handloom production, Weaving Histories not only sets the stage for a nuanced understanding of a sophisticated industry within a complex socioeconomic environment but also offers greater targeted insights into its technical, social, and economic operations.
Alka Raman is the Postan postdoctoral fellow of the Economic History Society, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has a Ph.D. in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests relate to technological change, industrialization, the cotton industry, global history, and the history of...