Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Textile Technologies: a Historical Perspective

Infinity Foundation sponsored new book project titled:
“Textile Technologies: a Historical Perspective”
by Charu Smita Gupta, PhD


‘The study of technology is an essential key to the understanding of a people’s culture’ (Herskovits,1952,p.241). It is also an important aspect of craft manifestation.

The earliest technologies primarily used human hands as the main tools. Thesewere supplemented by other ancillary tools as revealed by archaeological excavations, which yield artifacts made of stone, bone etc. A detailed study of the techno history of one of the most important crafts, namely textiles, of this country in today’s backdrop would provide a glimpse of technology, which may be reconstructed today for useful applications. A symbiotic relationship is the key to survival. If we give to nature back what we have received from it in equal measure, we may be able to inculcate a scientific temper in ourselves and understand the traditional methods for contemporary useful applications.

When we examine the contemporary terracotta forms of mother goddess made in Goalpara district of Assam, we are amazed at the continuation of the forms similar to those found in the archaeological excavations. Observation of the process of manufacture of these contemporary forms reveals that simple techniques of clay image making like pinching, rolling etc. are used (I have observed in person making of such forms). On the basis of the discovery of the similar iconic forms found in the archaeological excavations, it is therefore natural to conclude that same techniques for image making were used in prehistoric times. Rebuilding the history of technological development based on archaeological evidence depends largely upon the observation of similar practices found in contemporary societies. India is rich in archaeological material and continuation of traditional technologies in contemporary societies. This provides us ample opportunities to reconstruct the techno-historical perspective of any hand based technology. This becomes more important when we are attempting to study and record making of materials like textiles, which were biodegradable. Archaeological evidence reveals that animal skin was used as cover for human body prior to the discovery of natural fiber derived from the plant/insect/ animal hair.

Textiles are an important source of reference for the cultural studies because of their universality. Textiles have always draped the body, whether human/deities/animal, floor and furniture. Unlike stone, clay, metal etc. textiles were traditionally made from biodegradable materials. Cotton (natural cellulose fiber), silk, wool (natural protein fibers) were three main materials for textiles, apart from bast and leaf fibers. Initially very simple technologies were used for making the textiles. The most basic skill involved spinning the fiber into yarn and then change it to fabric by a process called weaving. The implements used for weaving and spinning were and in many parts of India still continue to be of biodegradable materials like wood .There is exist a very scant reference of the fabric making skills in the archaeological excavations. Along with the tools of their manufacture, fabric materials have long degraded in our tropical climate. Scholars like Sir John Marshall while talking of the Indus valley culture have dealt with existence of textile industry , which they opined was restricted at this period to India and was not extended to western world until 2000 years later ( Marshal 1984). The terracotta figurines, minute fabric scraps found adhering to the sides of the silver vase (Marshal,1973), the tools and equipment used for manufacture of textiles out of these materials were mainly made of biodegradable materials. Very fragile nature of textiles therefore restricts the rebuilding of the textiles manufacture technology on the basis of the archaeological materials alone. When we look through the archaeological excavations in Indian continent, we find that majority of the archaeological sites in all parts of the continent have produced spindles made of terracotta; these provide direct evidence of presence of spinning and weaving technology in these periods. The Harappans invented the needle with the eye at the pointed end (as is used in sewing machines). This type of needle was reinvented in Europe during Roman times. Apart from this, any evidence of terracotta vessels used for dyeing, washing etc. may also provide useful linkages to study the earlier textile related technologies.

During the Protohistoric and ancient periods, a large variety of indirect evidence is found in sculptures, paintings and literature to infer usage ,trade etc. of textiles. But such meager evidence is simply inadequate to reconstruct the Indian Textile Technology, which was singularly responsible for the amazing selection of fast dye stuffs, weaving skills etc. This requires a thorough study of available literature to understand the intricate technologies of textile manufacture in the Indian continent. We therefore need to study manufacture of materials, equipment, along with the actual processes of making textiles and the designs used. This also involves a comparative study of the developments of textile related technologies scattered across the length and breadth of the country. The literary evidence clearly reveals that there was a marked regional variation in style, form and technology of textile manufacture (Moti Chandra1996). Moti Chandra in his earlier research on costumes and textiles has divided the country into four regions even while discussing the textiles of the 8th to 12th century. This division is based on the contemporary literature. Kuttanimatam by Damodargupta, the minister of Jayapida (779-813 AD), DeshopadeshNirmamala and Kalavilasa by Kshemendra, a Kashmiri author, describe many words like mridhudhautadhupitambaram (meaning a practice of fumigating the fabric with incence smoke before use as a part of the finishing process), sitadhautavasanayugala (bleached white – a finishing process); suchhastahsutradharah(needle and thread – tools for stiching).

The political invasions and colonial rule in the country have had a decisive influence on textile manufacture in India. Mughal rule was instrumental in the prosperity of the traditional textile technologies, due to court support in terms of incentives and compliments generated through the karkhana system of manufacture. The colonial rule was responsible for dismantling the hand technology based Indian textile industry. Indian textile technology seems to have flourished from mediaeval period up to Mughal period; it suddenly saw a slump with industrial revolution. Severe setbacks were witnessed in the 19th and early 20th century. Mechanisation of textile production badly affected the basic strength of skilled hand technology. This could not compete with the speed, uniformity of quality, low prices, which were provided by mechanization. The industrial revolution ultimately resulted in commercially marginalising weaving and dyeing technologies using natural fiber particularly cotton, through which India had found a prominent place in world trade. Any research on Indian textile technology therefore makes it mandatory to study the historical as well as ethnographical evidence for rebuilding the developmental process.

Textiles consist of fibers, yarns, fabrics and finishes. Each of these stages has a variety of processes involved to reach the next stage. Hand and feet have even today remained the tools for various processes supported by materials like wood, terracotta, metal, yarns, beads, semiprecious stones, colours etc. The concept of the Indian textile technologies is intricately related to both ,the manufacture and decoration. This may therefore be researched in a chronological framework starting from archaeological past to the contemporary times. Regional developments have been very typical to certain styles of manufacture and decorations in textiles. For example, talking of weaving technologies, there have been distinct styles of decorative weaving, which were practiced in different varieties of fibers in different regions. Though it may be difficult to obtain a complete picture of technologies involved in manufacture of the textiles from prehistoric times because of the very fragile nature of the basic raw material, materials used for making tools, equipment, as well as the natural fibers used for making the textiles. But a careful, meticulous review of the materials available at our disposal may help us to weave a narration, which gives a complete history of textile techniques from prehistoric times to present times. Since it is not possible to record the actual processes of manufacture of prehistoric/historic techniques, it will be only derivative affirmation of a technique practiced in earlier times, basing the interpretation upon the present day knowledge of manufacture and the evidence available in earlier periods of the finished products and of the tools and equipment. Recreating the techno history of textile craft therefore involves a tedious exercise of linking contemporary technology and techniques with meager historical evidences from literature, paintings, manuscripts etc. The process of manufacture is an important part of the finished product. There are many studies available describing the technique/ design/form of textile making (Vardarajan1982; Murphy & Crill 1991; Guy & Gupta 1996; Dhamija1995). Few studies also focus on the details of contemporary processes of singular decorative technique (Morrell 1994; Mohanty 1984; Gittenger,1989;Gupta,1996). However, no systematic study has been undertaken for presenting the technology of various Indian processes of textile manufacture from prehistoric times to the present day.

Therefore it is important to give this consolidated overview.


After the Industrial Revolution, the textile sector was severely affected in terms of the mechanisation of the process of manufacture . Also with the invention of manmade fiber, the materials used for making textiles have become drastically innovative. This innovation has pushed the hand technology in a backdrop. Earlier the fabric made by using these technologies was a common way to cover the body. The focus of the present study would hence be confined to natural fiber and hand technologies as practiced in the contemporary times, since these are the archaic technologies.

The proposed book, thus, seeks to document traditional technological knowledge pertaining to the development of textile manufacture including the tools, equipments, materials etc. in a historical perspective.

The Book shall thus be dealing with:

a. Archeological evidence of textiles from Neolithic times to modern period.

b. All aspects of textile technology including tools, equipment, materials etc.

c. All types of textile techniques for making and decorating textiles,
including weaving, dyeing, surface ornamentation etc.

Chapterisation Scheme:

Section I

The chapters in this section will be based on descriptions of the archaeological, historical materials using mainly library resources.

Chapter 1:

This chapter shall deal with characteristics of textile technologies in archaeological perspective. Textile is a product resulting from weaving the yarn of natural or metallic fiber. This chapter would focus on describing various archaeological sites of the Indian peninsula where the contextual reference to textile making are found through archaeological evidence. Fascinating reference to the cloth weaving was found by the impressions on a trough found at Alamgirpur, a Harappan site in District of Meerut ,Uttar Pradesh (Pal 1978). Similarly several spindles and a piece of cotton cloth stuck to a silver vase have been reported from the Harappan excavations, which establish beyond doubt the knowledge of weaving nearly five millennia ago (Jain1989).’The remarkable find of the textile fabric was available at Nevasa , a post-Harappan Chalcolithic site in the district of Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra. The find shows a necklace of seventeen barrel shaped copper beads strung with thread’ (Pal 1978:.220). A.N. Gulati, the archaeologist who examined the thread, opined that it was of white silk, apparently spun from cocoons on a cotton spool. The in-depth research of archaeological materials would also focus on availability of all related materials from the excavations.

The work on this chapter would therefore require extensive reading of the archaeological reports based on the site excavations till the recent times.

Chapter 2:

This chapter will be based mainly on the historical references from the literature, sculptures, paintings, illustrated manuscripts etc.

The preliminary readings have revealed that the whole range of the Indian and Persian literature have direct/indirect references to the textile manufacture. Emergence of the regional techniques, stylisation etc are very prominently described in ancient literature. Like many other crafts, there was a reorientation in the textile manufacturing after the invasions and trade. In the earlier studies feeble attempts were made to survey the Persian literature for the lack of suitable translation works available in this subject category. The literature which will be surveyed includes Arthashatra of Kautillya, ManusmritiMahabhasya of Patanjali, Ashadhyayiof Panini, Harshacharita of Bana, Rajatarangini of Kalahana, KuttanimatamSamaymatrikaDesopadeshNarmamala ,KalavilasKavyamimamsaKarpuramanjari; Epics like Mahabharata, Ramayana; Buddhist literature like Divyavadana and Mahavagga, Chullavagga, Digha Nikaya,Jatakas; medieval literature like TilakmanjariPaiyasaddalachchhi, Sanskrit lexicons (11th century) of the12th century mention several words like pinjana meaning a bow (a bamboo tool used for spinning even today), vihanta (striking), tarkuh kartanabhanda (spindle), kartana (weaver’s comb) and many others (MotiChandra1996: 24). Amir Khushro’s Nuh Siphr and Rehla of Ibn Batuta, Ain-e-Akabari, travelogues of Chinese, Portugese and British travellers.

The collection of material for this chapter will also be based on the extensive library reading. Here the illustrations to match the descriptions will also be drawn. These illustrations will be based on the living traditions of the contemporary times.

Section II

Based upon the field information this section will cover basic materials, techniques, technologies and skills. The chapter will have suitable pictures of finished products and actual processes of making. Pertinent referencing will be done from historical references wherever feasible.

Chapter 3

Making of fiber, yarn and the fabric involve several hand technologies. This chapter will deal with information on the techniques and processes for various natural fibres and the metallic yarn available in the living traditions of the country. There are several description of the processes in Ancient Literature, words like cikitsitanvilopitampinjitamvihatamkartitamlodheyur, refer to selection, spreading, cleaning, apportioning, spinning, combing respectively. Cotton picking, silk cocoon rearing and sorting, animal hair shredding is preliminary to ginning, spinning (spinning can be accomplished even today without the aid of any tool. Even today women of Munda tribe Bihar use their thigh for spinnig the tussar yarn( information based on field observation). Takli or takua, the simple tool has been credited to produce the finest yarns spun in the history. Other processes like carding, weaving, finishing are also technology based and have been practiced since ancient times.

Chapter 4

While dealing with the decorations which are done on yarn before weaving, this chapter will discuss the popular traditions of this technique prevalent in the country highlighting the regional character. The discussions in this chapter will be around the patola, ikat techniques of Gujarat, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh. The tools and equipment required for tying the warp/weft yarn before tying, for dyeing the yarn, types of loom.

Chapter 5

This chapter will confine discussions to the techniques of decorations employed while weaving in different materials, styles and regions. Popularly known as brocaded fabric, these are intricate woven designs. There are several technologies employed for weaving of the decoration. Traditionally identified as Indian patterned cloth, several indigenous technologies were employed for making these silks, cottons, woolens; replenished with similar materials and zari. Some of these technologies still continue to be practiced at the regional level in remote villages, some had disappeared and have been revived through concerted efforts and some are only available as historical references. Technologies of Paithani weaving, Kanchipuram weaving, Banaras weaving, Molkapuram weaving, Jamdani weaving, Kani shawl weaving, are some of the examples. Insertion of a particular design involved a specific kind of weaving.. Shri Shahjahan Ansari, Shri Babu are few of the weavers ,who have been bestowed with the national award for commendable work of revival of traditional technologies of weaving. Banaras weaving has various motifs known as tulip circa 1640, irises circa 1900, mehrab circa 1650, the weaver (Shri Anwar Ahmed a traditional family from Varanasi weavers) who revived these technologies was recently awarded a national award. The award was bestowed on Shri Anwar Ahmad for recapturing a level of technical and visual quality not seen in the Indian patterned silks since the 19th century.

The main technical distinction in this group is that the decorative designs are inserted at the time of weaving. Some of the stylistic variations are Paithani from Maharashtra, Kanchipuram from Tamilnadu, Jamdani of Bengal, Manipur, AndhraPradesh, Indigenous tribal weaving techniques of North East, Kani weaving of Kashmir, Narayanpet, Gadwal from Andhra Pradesh, Baluchari of Bengal and many more. The discussions in this chapter will proceed according to the regional variations of practices of woven decorations, highlighting specifically the device used for inserting the extra yarn while weaving, the loom employed for weaving, in several materials of silk, cotton, wool and jari. We require to undertake fieldwork to record the living/revived technologies of weaving.

Chapter 6

Mainly dealing with the surface ornamentation this chapter will be divided in to two parts.

The first part will discuss surface decorations done with the yarn, fabric, beads, stones etc, falling in the group of embroidery and applique work. Several regional styles of embroidery are continuing from the historic times. Joining or stitching together two pieces was the first intercept of the primitive tool technology towards a civilized life style. The most important tool this process requires is a needle that could pierce to make a hole on the surface and then pass a thread through.

The earliest needles were perhaps the notched bone hooks which could serve the dual purpose of piercing and lifting the thread through the hole, a bone tool similar to the crochet needle of today. Slowly these hooks got the pointed sharp edge on one end and a hole on the other end. Several tools were required for stitching animal skin, skeins. The evidence of the first needle is found from the Mesolithic times onwards . Harappans invented the needle with eye at the pointed end, as is used in the sewing machines. This needle is used even today for the purpose of embroidery. This single tool with a large variation of techniques has given several styles for the decoration of the textiles.

The second part will discuss the fabric decoration with the dyes and colours. ‘It is believed that the first fibre dyes were already in use in prehistoric times after the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago (Encyclopedia Britanicca,15th edition). They consisted of fugitive stains from berries, blossoms, barks and roots. They were early examples of so called direct dyes ,i.e. dyes that colour the fibre without special pretreatment of the dye – material or the textile. More sophisticated dyes were developed in later times . Advanced dyeing procedures were developed to produce colour with better fastness’ ( Gulrazani 1992: 1). The process of mordant dyeing was known in the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro by about 2000BC. Cave I of Ajanta caves belonging to 6th-7th century AD shows some women wearing simple dotted tie dye patterned bodice. The process of dyeing,mordant dyeing and tie dye are basically the same since antiquity. But just as the industrial revolution brought a change in the weaving technology, the introduction of chemicals for dyeing and bleaching in late 19th century brought swift changes in these processes The thumb nail and thread remained the basic tools for tying. Some times metal or ivory tube were used to pass the thread for tying. This facilitated its winding around the fabric(Crill:1991). The printing was done on the fabric mainly with the aid of wooden blocks.

The colours were also applied on the fabrics with the help of the kalam or brush. The fabrics ornated with these styles known as kalamkari, pichchavai, mata ni pachedi ,pabuji ka phad were used as the backdrop curtains in the temples and shrines or were the living shrines themselves. These continued to exist as regional traditions under the religious patronage since historic times. The fabulous tradition of the use of the vegetable colours in the historic periods is now being resurrected and revived for global trade because of its eco-friendly nature. The preparation of the vegetable dyes and other colours and their application in the decoration of the fabrics involves several technologies. These will be elaborately discussed here.

Chapter 7

After the independence there has been a concerted effort at various levels in India to revive the fabrics based on the traditional hand technologies. The revival is not only done not only for a sentimental value but also for the commercial purpose. So far as textiles are concerned, India has surpassed all other countries in manufacture of the fabrics based on the hand skills, which have been practiced since the historic times. Several of the revival projects have become success stories for the global market. This chapter will focus on the resurgence and resurrection of the textile technology in the new millenium.

This is hoped to be achieved through:

  • Documenting the tools, equipments, materials required for textile technology of India from pre-historic to contemporary times with proper pictorial details.
  • Efficacy of various materials adopted for the processing and designing etc. in India
  • Examining their role and relevance for contemporary India in the global perspective


  • A Survey of the published archaeological literature will be done to understand the textile technology in a historical perspective.
  • A survey of the sculptures, paintings, ancient Indian literature will be done to demarcate various stages of technology development from the protohistoric times.
  • This will be followed by some limited fieldwork, both to add to the data-base, as well as to understand the processes and techniques of traditional technologies (including through interactions with people still using traditional methods or those who have successfully added newness to rejuvenate traditions. The field work would be carried out in various parts of the country, which are renowned centers of production of the traditional textiles.
  • I also intend holding consultations and interactions with artisans and weavers related to the manufacture of the textiles, archaeologists, related experts, and fashion designers etc. This will help in systematic comprehension and analysis of the traditional textile technology of India.
  • An attempt will be made to understand the economic status of the grass root communities involved in using traditional textile technologies and the effective propagation of these technologies in the contemporary global market in view of the WTO and textile trade policy.
  • Textiles have been existing since the times man learnt to cover his body. There have been many technological innovations and advancements but the ancient technologies of the textile manufacture have continued to coexist with the new innovative technologies. Therefore while on one hand there is an archaic past of these technologies , there is also a continuum with the modern technology.
  • This study in total is thus an attempt to understand the development, historical growth, downfall and recent resurgence of the traditional technologies pertaining to the manufacture and decoration of the textiles in India from the protohistoric times to present day. The study would also briefly touch upon the futuristic vision of the traditional textiles technologies of India, their status in the global textile trade, the apprehensions and the strengths of survival.


It is visualised that the final document, which will take the shape of a published text of about 250-300 pages, shall take a minimum of 18 months to complete. The work will include relevant maps, photographs and other illustrations.


Bag, A.K. Science and Civilization in India,Delhi,1985.

Chandra ,Moti, Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in Ancient and Medieval India, Delhi, Oriental,1973.

Chandra ,Moti. Indian costumes and textiles from the eighth to the 12th century, Jouranal of Indian textile history,vol.5 ,1960 pp.1-41.

Dhamija, J./Jain,J.(eds). Hand Woven Fabrics of India, Ahmedabad,1989.

Gupta, Charu Smita. Zardozi Glittering Gold Embroidery, Abhinav ,New Delhi,1996.

Gulrazani,M.L. and Deepti Gupta. Natural dyes and their application to textiles, Department of Textile Technology, IIT, New Delhi,1992.

Herskovits,M.J. Man and His works, New York,1952.

Jain , Jyotindra and Aggarwal,A. Museums of India National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, New Delhi, Mapin, Ahmedabad,1989.

Marshal J., Early Indus Civilization Indological Book House,Varanasi,1984.

Marshal J. ,Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization, Indological Book House,Varanasi,1973.

Mehta ,R.J. Master pieces of Indian Textiles – Hand Spun – Hand Woven Traditional, Bombay,1970.

Murphy,V and Crill ,R. Tie-dyed textiles of India ,Tradition and Trade. New York: Rizzoli,1991.

Nabholz-Kartaschoff, M.L. Golden Sprays and Scarlet Flowers: Traditional Indian Textiles from the Museum of Ethnography, Basel. Kyoto,1986.

Pal ,M.K. Crafts & Craftsmen in Traditional India, Kanak Publication, New Delhi, 1978.

Ramaswamy, V. “Notes on the textile technology in medieval India, with special referance to the south,” Indian economic and social history review,vol.17 1980 pp.227-241.

Ramaswamy V. Textiles and Weavers in Medieval South India, Delhi, oxford university press,1985.

Shanti Swarup 5000 years of Arts and Crafts in India and Pakistan, Bombay Taraporevala Sons & Co., 1968.

Ray S.K. The Artisan Castes of West Bengal and their Crafts, Census 1951 West Bengal, Calcutta 1953, p.303.


The tentative chapterization of the work (subject to modification) is as follows:

Chapter 1 – Archaelogy of the Textile Technology

Starting from the earliest evidences of archaeologic past based on the recent excavations at Banwali and other sites in Haryana , Hissar , Gujarat etc. Showing the evidences of archaeological findings related to the textile technology in the Indian context. (The chapter would contain illustrations of the excavated findings). The relation of the Indian Textile Technology in the global framework linking it to the earliest evidence of actual fabric discovered in Egypt which has a bearing on the direct trade relation with the Gulf of Cambay. The indigo dyed fabrics of the 9th century A.D. The period covered here would be till Mugal times.

Chapter 2 – Processes ,Technology and the skills

This section will deal with several independent / parallel developments of the processes of textile making in different regions . Here three levels of processes will be discussed in the sections:
Pre-woven, Woven, Post-woven.

The regional strengths and the inter-regional influences will find a place here. The highlights of the tribal and the folk textile elements will also be discussed here. The chapter would contain pictures and illustrations, line drawings etc.

Chapter 3 – Impressions and Influences of the Invasions, Rules and Colonialism

Discussing the effects of several invasions, rules particularly the Sultanate, Mughal, British rule on the textile manufacture. Rehla of Ibn Batuta, Ain-e-Akbari, Tuzuke Jahangiri, Travel accounts of the British have given very interesting information regarding the systems of textile manufacture, the designers etc. Also there was bilateral inspiration, absorption and dispersal of few classically processed spread cotton/woollen textiles. At one level Jamavar of Kashmir and chintz of South influenced the hi fashion cliché of Europe and France, at the other level the power mills started shadowing the large sector of traditional textiles. The chapter would discuss case studies of such parallel situations.

Chapter 4 – Continuity and Rejuvenation

The resurgence of several technologies, particularly in the field of vegetable colour dyes etc. at various levels has brought forth the traditional technologies for suitable adaptability in the contemporary styling not only in terms of colours but also the styles and cuts, retaining much of the traditional technology fervor. Khadi as is known today, was the earliest hand spun and hand woven material from India ,which after having got linked with the Gandhian sentiment of Swaraj has now revived itself as the Traditional Indian brand. This chapter will focus on these aspects.

Chapter 5 – Towards the Millennium Vision

Concluding chapter with the geographic mapping of the traditional textiles centers and their global linkages for trade etc.

Index ,Appendix, Bibliography, Glossary

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