Handloom weaving is an art form practised by few but appreciated by many loyal customers in the fashion industry. Krishna Wool, by Anshul Malhotra, is one such Indian manufacturer that is not only trying to preserve the beauty of handloom weaving but also, believes in giving power to the artisans that preserve this traditional art.
Read the incredible journey of the Krishna Wool business, as narrated by its founder.
When and why did you start Krishna Wool?
We started Krishna Wool in 1995 in Himachal Pradesh, India. My father used to do hand spinning ever since he was eight. He studied automobile engineering and found the stable and secured job in the government sector which he later left to start his own handloom garments business. That’s how much he loved handlooms.
Secondly, he wanted to give something to the society in Himachal Pradesh, India. There, people do not have anything else to do, especially the women. He was passionate about producing new designs every year but, the people in Himachal were not even aware of what trends are. So, he wanted to train the women first.
After a few years, I joined the business along with my husband. My husband is a production engineer so he has a lot of contribution to the business. He takes care of all the international exhibitions.
I am a textile technologist from TITS – The Technological Institute of Textile and Sciences Institute in Haryana.
We, at Krishna Wool, are empowering a woman by giving her a handloom. After 5 years, they will teach their children.
What makes Krishna Wool different from other handmade businesses?
I can proudly say that we are working with 120 women who are supporting their respective families.
We have our own spinning, weaving and finishing unit. Many factories source raw materials from various suppliers but the yarn that we use is hand-spun by us. We just procure raw fibre from Leh, Ladakh region. They have an excellent quality of wool over there.
Today, businesses take funds from the government but after a year if you go back, you’ll see that nothing has happened of the business in term of progress. Why? Because you have given funds but you haven’t taught them.
What we at Krishna Wool are doing with our artisans is, we are giving them power. After 5 years of working with handloom, they will teach their children. We have empowered a woman by giving her a handloom.
Obviously, we have given our handlooms to them and are not charging them anything. They weave at their homes in Himachal and we get the finished handloom garments delivered here in Greater Noida that we market.
Furthermore, we have rented a hall in Himachal Pradesh. Whenever the artisans have time, they come to the hall where handlooms are kept. Sometimes they also get women from nearby villages or their kids.
Please walk us through the production of a garment; from yarn to a shawl.
After purchasing the raw material, we have to make the thread. It’s a long process and for every step, a different person is involved.
We have 20 people just to make yarn, then weaving we have 20 more, then dyeing, finishing and a few more. Then comes the stage of making the finished product.
In our unit, we have given computers to the artisans where I upload all the designs. Of course, we have provided training for that as well. Earlier we used to sketch via hand. But, it created a lot of problems like wear and tear, the spilling of liquid, etc.
The computer is for reference but they design via the printouts (graph), we have given to them.
We make new designs every month, roughly 10-12 designs a year out of which 7-8 are hit. More than that, these items do not get sold.
The journey from a vision or an idea to a finished product goes through various iterations, hands and countless days. It is not easy but, totally worth it.
What challenges did your family face while setting up the unit?
The biggest challenge we faced while setting up our handloom garments business in India was the unavailability of funds.
Everything, right from the table fan to charkhas, was self-financed by my father. He purchased 2 handlooms and 5 charkhas to start his own business. We didn’t have any governmental support for this. To get the initial artisans, my father had provided free training to more than 200 women. It’s a big thing for them.
The second challenge at the time was low awareness. As I have mentioned earlier, people are not aware of trends so there was not enough support from anyone at first.
We started by selling shawls in our locality and soon, people from nearby villages and even cities, started buying our shawls.
What challenges do you face currently?
The biggest problem we have is with Marketing. Neither we have the know-how of it nor we have a brick-and-mortar shop here. Further, we don’t sell online or on any social media platform.
Currently, we manage marketing by going to domestic and International exhibitions and events.
The second challenge is connectivity. Buyers are not ready to come to Himachal since the connectivity and network here are poor.
We meet all the buyers in exhibitions itself. If we meet 10 buyers here, 2 agree to come with us to Himachal. If they come to Himachal then they become clients for the lifetime, that is for sure.
On average, we have 7-8 buyers each year visiting us in Himachal. Otherwise, we have domestic buyers visiting us daily.
There is another big challenge, not just for us, but for Indian manufacturers in general. Recently, we had participated in an innovation competition in China. Although we were called for the semi-final round in China, we couldn’t clear it due to one thing we didn’t even realize could be a problem – language. Every country’s government had sent language interpreters along with the teams and the Indian teams were the only ones who lacked in this area.
What was the innovation competition in China about and what went wrong?
In China, we had won a competition – Sino India China Trade Promotion where the topic was about innovation in a sector. Ten teams were selected within India where we pitched our idea in Bangalore. From India, 3-4 teams were sent to China free of cost. We were one of them.
We chose ‘organic garment’ as our topic for the competition. The reason is that 80% of the dye used is a waste and only 20% is picked up by the garment. Now think where are the majority of dyes going to? They are going to the water bodies due to which water bodies are getting polluted and animals are dying.
India is the biggest mass producer of textile after China hence, the pollution.
Our organic products were also mosquito repellent that was another point in our basket.
Unfortunately, none of the Indians could qualify for the second round.
We gave our presentation in English but they couldn’t understand much. They couldn’t feel connected with the idea even though their interpreter was translating it. He was hearing about our idea for the first time so couldn’t explain it properly. This was the challenge for every Indian team.
All the participants were first-timers and thus, were clueless. If we had little support from the government in terms of knowledge and finances, things could have been different for sure.
How do you manage the pricing of your handloom weaving at the time when fast fashion is ruling the market?
Our regular shawl price starts from INR 1600 ( approx £16 / $18). At the end of every month we have to pay INR 5-6 lacs (approx £5-6 000 / $6-7000) to the families who work for us, or they won’t be able to survive.
As mentioned earlier, we don’t know much about marketing and the buyers cannot reach us. We are left with exhibitions as our only option. But, if we start participating in more exhibitions by paying for them, then it would automatically add up to the cost of our products, which we don’t want.
So, we try to connect with organizations and competition organizers. We try to get through, via the route of competitions.
By doing so, we can do 3 things:
1) We can make a good sale
2) We can reduce the price of the products.
3) We can give more to our customers and artisans.
We won a competition at Expo Mart, which was organized by Heimtextil – Interior Lifestyle Award. We and 7 other designers were chosen among 500 designers.
We had created a studio at the exhibition.
Because of this, we are going to Heimtextil, Germany free of cost. This and many such competitions that we have won, has raised awareness about Krishna Wool and handloom weaving in general, for which we are thankful for.
Handloom weaving is prone to errors. How do you ensure quality control in such situations?
Quality control is great since everything is in-house.
We just ask the workers to give us the best production in a comfortable time frame. Nobody can match our quality. We have asked them to provide us with error-free products since with handlooms, as you rightly said, there is a possibility of errors.
People are ready to pay for the errors. They are in fact, happy to pay for it since it symbolizes authenticity, handmade and hard work.
What is the one client request that was very challenging to do or understand?
Let me first tell you that it takes a minimum of 10 days to make a shawl. So that is a lot of time for one shawl. We, as business owners, value it. But, I didn’t know that customers do too.
At one of my exhibitions, I met a lady who bought a pashmina shawl from us. I noticed that there was a hole in the shawl. At once I told her that I will give her another piece since that shawl had a hole in it.
To my surprise, she told me that she still wanted to buy the shawl. She gave me the advance and told me that she will come back for the shawl the next day. I gave the shawl to my karigar (artisan) to give finishing touches to the shawl.
I went out to meet a friend and by the time I returned, the artisan had filled the hole with threads and some work. I asked him to make the hole again because I knew that the lady had bought the shawl only for the hole. She wouldn’t buy it if it was perfect!
At night, there was a heavy rainfall and we were stuck at the exhibition in Dilli Haat. I received a call from the same buyer just to confirm whether her shawl is kept safely or not. In the morning at 10 am, she came, checked the hole and happily paid the rest of the amount.
People are ready to pay for the errors. They are in fact, happy to pay for it since it symbolizes authenticity, handmade and hard work.
How do you manage to keep abreast with trends and overlook the manufacturing services as well?
Sometimes customers give us ideas for different products. There was a customer who asked us if we could change the design of the women’s shawl to better suit his needs. He ordered 10 pieces of the design. He was extremely happy with the end product.
So, customers are our best inspiration.
Also, up till now, nobody did reversible handloom weaving. So, I changed the setting on the handloom and created a reversible pattern in 3 colours of organic material. It became an instant hit for us.
There is not much designing to do on my part as there are just 3-4 designs a month which I tweak throughout the year. The main part is to get more buyers.
For manufacturing, we have trained the artisans well and they run the unit like their own business. Still, I make sure to visit the unit at least once every 45 days.
What, according to you, does the Indian fashion manufacturing industry lack?
I would like to answer this by sharing an experience.
I visited Imphal, Manipur as a buyer. I couldn’t find anything to buy in bulk.
I told the government that their designing and weaving is excellent but they lack in raw material front. Their artisans are making good products but, in synthetic materials. It’s so cold over there that wool is imperative.
After listening to me carefully, they asked me if I could do a fashion show for their community. I had taken with me, 40 samples and they provided 20 models. I adorned the models with my shawls and stoles.
By the time I was done with the show, they handed me a list of people who wanted to meet with me for training, photography, buying, etc. There were so many enthusiastic people that I spent about 4-5 hours in just meeting everyone.
So this is what the industry lacks – resources and training to use it.
What is the most interesting incident which you have witnessed in 15 years of experience?
I have an untold story that I’d like to share here. While I was in my hometown in Himachal, an old lady visited us at our place. She had brought with her, a charkha that was 100 years old. Her great-grandmother, then her mother and now she was using it.
She wanted us to use it since she no longer could. We told her that we cannot accept that beautiful charkha as it’s hers. She was persistent so we accepted the charkha. We tried to give some money to her in return but she didn’t accept it. We don’t even know her name and couldn’t find her anywhere after that incident.
Recently, in one of the Khadi exhibitions, I told this story to the President of the Khadi exhibition in India. He told me that they were making a charkha museum and would like to keep the same charkha in the museum in Delhi. They asked me how much we would charge for it. I outrightly refused it. “When we didn’t pay anything for the charkha, why should we get any payment for it?” That charkha has become a property of Delhi at Charkha museum. Ours is the first charkha when you enter.
What tips will you give to budding entrepreneurs?
In India, we are taught to be perfect in every sphere and there is so much pressure to be just that.
The award which I won from Heimtextil – I had just draped a shawl for a curtain, took a photograph and sent it. Overnight I received a call from them to make 10 curtains. I was to deliver them the next day.
Now I couldn’t have cut the shawls, that would have been wastage of my shawl just for competition. I asked my friend for help who gave an idea of just putting curtain tape and pins at the top to drape it. I delivered it the next day and got selected.
Nowadays, when you are under pressure, you cannot perform well. This is what I have realized. I was a scholar in my academic days. Excelled at sports and art. I didn’t get a single recognition as there was constant pressure from my father, to be perfect at everything. After I started my own business, I was at ease. There was no pressure and now I have won many awards.
Being perfect is not art anymore. People find value in imperfection as well.