From seed to shop – How cotton is made
In October 2018 I had the opportunity of a lifetime, to see the full re-wrap supply chain, from cotton field to the manufacturing of the goods… and to eat Masala Dosa every morning for ten days. I travelled across Southern India to discover what goes into the creation of re-wrap products.
In 2019, re-wrap are moving all of our products over to GOTS certified organic cotton or transitional organic cotton, in order to support the farmers that we work with that would like to take the change to produce certified organic crops in the future. This is something that we feel is extremely important as the use of pesticides and chemicals in farming has such a huge impact on our planet and on the lives of those that work at the very start of our supply chain.
We are able to offer the farmers that we work with rates that exceed the market value, pre-financing them to give them more security and the ability to invest in machinery or livestock that they may need for the coming farming seasons. We call this our seed to shop initiative as we are able to follow the source of our materials from seed plantation in the cotton field all the way through to manufacturing the final product for our customers.
Growing the cotton
re-wrap work with a farming group that connect us with tribal farmers from a cotton growing region in Southern India. The group that we work with helps the farmers to become certified organic, explaining the audit process to them and ensuring that certifications are met. Importantly the group educates the farmers on practices to enhance organic farming through pest management and water management. Many of the farmers are illiterate and don’t have access to a computer, the cotton farming group reach out to a wider customer base as they are able to market the cotton online.
I met with the health promoter, Shashikala, who is one of the farming group directors. She cares for the women in her hamlet and four other hamlets. Shashikala ensures that pregnant tribal farmers have the right nutrients and vaccinations. Babies used to be born at home in the tribal hamlets but now she makes sure that there is medical supervision and intervention if required. Benefits are available from the government for every tribal pregnant woman with the government providing free vaccinations and food. She connects with nurses at local hospital and provides the women with knowledge through support groups, training them on what is best for their health and their babies health.
Traditionally, the women focused on housework and less intense farming work, such as mixing manure, which had more chemical use. Many miscarriages and deaths were recorded, however since the change to organic farming, we have been told that there has been a significant decrease in miscarriage rates.
We learnt so much about organic farming, pest and water management. As someone with very little agriculture knowledge (unless you count the ever-growing number of plants in my flat), learning about organic pest control was really interesting.
We were taught about multi cropping – in the 6 month period when the cotton crop is active, the farmers lay down border crops that have softer stems so that pests lay their eggs in these crops rather than the cotton as the cotton crops are more precious to the farmers due to it being the highest source of income, i.e. cash crops. They burn or bury the infested softer crop and turn it into manure for next year. Examples of softer stemmed crops are kopi, okra and the marigold.
Ginning, Spinning and Weaving
Once the cotton has been picked, it is sent to the ginning unit. Here it goes through a series of processes that remove any impurities from the cotton. In the ginning unit I saw roller grading machines removing any unmeasured cotton and grass, as well as hand grading, where employees pick out impurities such as jute, plastic twine and animal hair and also separate the cotton from the cotton seed. At this stage I realised the enormity of the process of creating cotton in the fabric form that we use and wear daily! Each bag of picked cotton, generates a very small amount of pure cotton that can be spun into yarn and then woven into fabric. Once the cotton has been ginned, it goes to the spinning unit. Spinning is the process of the conversion of cotton fibre into yarn. At the spinning unit it is checked again, beaten gently to make it uniform and compressed into a flat roll called lap. It is then compounded into a cord by a machine. It is combed and spun and then compacted again and spun with other cords into a yarn. Spinning helps to compact the yarn. Then the yarn is wound onto a cone by an auto-coner. The cones are checked under a UV for any impurities. The yarn is now ready for weaving. The warp is assembled for length of the fabric and the weft for the width. Starch is added prior to the weaving process so that the threads don’t snap. After weaving, the fabric needs to be washed to remove the starch. Prior to washing this fabric is called greige.
At the printing unit, we use a variety of screen-printing techniques. I was able to watch some of the wax bed printing for our knot wrap seasonal samples. To make a screen a piece of mesh is stretched over a frame. A stencil is made by blocking off parts of the screen in the reverse of the design to be printed. An emulsion is then applied across the mesh. Once the emulsion has dried, it is exposed to ultra-violet light. This hardens the emulsion in the exposed areas but leaves the unexposed parts soft. The emulsion is then washed away leaving a section which will allow passage of the printing ink. Each colour on a design demands a new screen. Printing ink is mixed by hand (and eye) in a light box to a Pantone reference. This was incredible to see, after working with Pantone references for years and knowing how specific they are, I thought this was such a fantastic skill to have and that the artisans must have such an eye for colour! Wax bed printing is especially good for multi colour prints as the fabric can be prone to shrinkage after the first screen’s ink has been applied and starts to dry. The sticky wax bed holds the fabric in place so that the next screen can be applied and the design doesn’t overlap.
I was able to visit both our WFTO certified manufacturing units, located in Mysore and Gumballi. Janjri Trivedi founded re-wrap in 2002, with the mission to teach sewing skills to rural Southern Indian women, empowering them through long-term employment in our manufacturing unit and where they didn’t have to travel away from their families to the nearest big city to find work. The Mysore unit was the original re-wrap manufacturing unit and has recently been renovated.
We produce re-usable Furoshiki knot wraps for our biggest client in beautiful eye-catching designs. Any excess knot-wraps that we had stock of were used to cover ceiling tiles, creating a colourful patchwork effect. At the Mysore unit I met Janet, a councellor with over 40 years experience who I found to be very inspiring. Janet had been at re-wrap for 6 months and appeared to be a mother figure to many of the ladies. She provides the ladies support and advice on everything from nutrition, financial planning to enlighten the team on POSH – an Indian government scheme requiring companies to educate on the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace.We provide nutritious lunches for our team and many see their time at work as the part of the day that they enjoy the most, a chance to do something for themselves and to leave any personal issues at the door. We had a delicious sweet tea with the ladies on their break on the rooftop dining area.The Gumballi unit is set in a rural location. Whilst it has more of a traditional warehouse feel, the artisans face the open door which looks out onto fields. It is peaceful and a warm breeze flows through the unit. Whilst visiting, I was able to talk to some of the artisans about their experience working for re-wrap and what their home life was like. It was obvious talking to the ladies that they enjoyed their jobs and the freedom that their jobs created for them, both financial and time away from the stresses of family life.
Melissa Tatko is Head of Business Development for re-wrap, a self-funded social enterprise that produce reusable cotton goods, produced ethically by female artisans in rural Southern India. She has been working in the textiles and fashion industry for 9 years.