Gul Khan weaves a colourful shawl on his handloom | Photos by the writer
Gul Khan weaves a colourful shawl on his handloom | Photos by the writer

Charsadda, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is famous for its hand-woven, coarse, cotton fabric known as khaddar or khadi, which is a popular cloth across the country. As the freezing winters come knocking on the doors, khaddar arrives in the city’s markets and business is often brisk.

Ihsan Ullah, 35, has been selling khadi for the last eight years. “I have a website and I receive khadi fabric orders online from different cities,” he says as he rolls away yards of fabric at his shop in Charsadda market. “My business is expanding and we sell a variety of khadi fabric,” he adds.

Many young men call khadi ‘Pashtun denim’ as it doesn’t need to be ironed and washed like other fabrics. “I wear khamta since many years because its ‘wash and wear’,” says Ihsan Ullah.

Iftikhar Ahmad, 34, a travel agent in Charsadda wears only khamta to stay warm in winter. “I don’t need a jacket or a sweater over khamta,” says Ahmad. “Khaddar is popular not only among men and women but also the preferred fabric of politicians who are out and about and have no time to fuss over their clothes.”

But behind the scenes, an age-old battle between tradition and modernity is being fought over it.

It rains heavily as the 60-year-old, grey-bearded Gul Khan, snugly wrapped in a khaddar shawl takes us inside his house. “This is the only thing that can beat this winter,” says Khan, holding a corner of his shawl.

In one of the rooms inside his mud house, Khan points at three handlooms, set up for weaving khaddar for cloth and shawls. “These few wooden rods, threads and weaving needles make up my traditional factory to produce Charsadda’s famous khaddar,” he explains. The whole set-up, which he had made through local carpenters, cost him around 10,000-15,000 rupees.

As laborious handlooms in Charsadda convert to high-speed power looms to meet the growing demand of khaddar, the area’s fabled handwoven fabric could become a thing of the past

Khan has been associated with khaddar-weaving since his childhood, when he would sit next to his father who worked on the handloom. “I was 14 when I worked as a salesman for my father’s factory,” he says, seated on a chair behind the handloom to show us how it works. “When my father wove the fabric, I would sell it at the nearby markets,” he adds. Khan’s father would give him the incentive of a bonus for selling more rolls of fabric. “I enjoyed spending the money to travel on buses with my friends to nearby villages,” he recalls.

Looking around his workplace, I spot a tape player hooked up on the wall. Following my gaze, Khan explains that weaving khadi by hand is laborious and time-consuming. “This tape recorder entertains us so we can weave the fabric for hours while listening to folk songs.”

Professor Sohail Khan, who teaches at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, and has done extensive research on Pashtun history, connects the khaddar industry to Pakhtunkhwali, the unwritten Pashtun code of life. According to him, khaddar or khadi is called khamta in Charsadda and through the Pashtun belt, where it remains the most popular fabric for Pashtun attire.

Khamta has been mentioned in the poetry of eminent Pashtun poets including Khushal Khan Khattak. A verse from Khattak’s poem is as follows:

Wear khamta to look better than/different from others
No matter what colour you wear, this soft
silk-like fabric

Previously, fabric was made only on handlooms, where the craftsman uses his hands and feet to work the loom, but these were later replaced by high-speed power looms. Khan says now only three or four workers are producing handmade khaddar presently in Charsadda. The rest of the local industry has switched to power looms, which have expedited the manufacturing process.

“It takes at least a week to weave a single shawl on a handloom, while a power loom can do it within hours,” says Khan, as he threads a big needle with a wooden base. “But hand-woven khaddar has its own demand and I get orders from several cities. Customers who love handmade fabric are ready to pay a higher price for it, compared to machine-made khaddar. A handmade shawl is priced between 3,000 to 10,000 rupees not only because it is slow to make but also because high-quality thread or wool may have been used. On the other hand, machine-made shawls are priced between 500 to 2,000 rupees.”

Khaddar shawls displayed in a variety of shades and hues at the centuries-old Rajjar market in Charsadda
Khaddar shawls displayed in a variety of shades and hues at the centuries-old Rajjar market in Charsadda

Khan’s son sits next to him, weaving black cloth. Looking at his son, Khan says, “My entire family helps in weaving. I am 60 and my family’s support is the only way of keeping the tradition of handmade khaddar alive.”

Asif Jan, 25, is doing his Masters in International Relations but weaving khaddar is his family business. His family pooled resources with their relatives to install a power loom. “It is profitable and easier to use as compared to a handloom, which requires more energy, time and effort,” says Jan.

“One can hardly weave fabric for three shalwar kameez outfits on a handloom per day whereas the power loom saves time and energy by making 15 to 20 suits a day. Also, a lot of people prefer machine-woven fabric as the weave is more closely-knit and tighter than hand-woven khaddar.”

Presently, weavers are moving away from the handloom which is laborious and time-consuming because, after making a one-time investment, it is easier to expand their business. “Installing a modern machine requires about 150,000 rupees,” says Jan. “Many young people are investing in the weaving business because it is profitable.”

Jan says that, in winter, to meet the demand for khaddar from the other cities, he hires weavers who own mechanical looms from nearby areas to produce more fabric, since it is not possible for him to meet the demand on his own.

Hundreds of women are also associated with the weaving business to support the male members of their families. “Our women make the threads on a charkha [spinning wheel],” says the traditionalist Khan, displaying the threads. “Even our children learn the skill and they can help us when needed.”

In the past, the charkha was an integral item in a girl’s dowry so that she could earn a living for her family later on and support her husband. “In those days, girls would earn starting from the first day of their marriage and bear their own expenses,” Khan says, smiling. “But now it is history. Machines have replaced manpower and reduced dependency on humans.”

At one time, Khan could get a kilogram of thread for 40-60 rupees but now the price has gone up to 2,000 rupees. In winter, Khan says, apart from the locally spun thread, it is also bought from markets in Multan, Lahore, Qasoor, Mandi Bahauddin and Faisalabad. “Mostly China-made polyester is now used for making thread which has a substandard quality compared to the thread used in handmade khaddar,” he points out.

According to Sher Alam Shinwari who has extensively written on the culture and traditions of KP, in the past, weavers were considered outcastes, or shahkhel in Pashto, because they were not landowners but had migrated from other places to Pashtun-dominated regions. Often, these immigrants would work for tribal chiefs and, in return, they were provided with food and shelter.

Over the years, things have changed, however, and now, well-off families are also affiliated with weaving khaddar. “With his Khudai Khidmatgar movement, Bacha Khan challenged the stigmatisation of the weavers,” says Sohail Khan, who has published a research paper on the movement.

“Bacha Khan urged his followers to wear khamta to boost the local weaving industry. This is why Charsadda’s handmade khaddar is also known as ‘Bacha Khani cloth’ in the local markets.”

Whether or for how long the interest in traditional crafts and cultural conservation can withstand the push and pull of hard-nosed economics still remains to be seen.

The writer is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist. He tweets at @tariqullahyzi

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, January 17th, 2021