India is home t almost all of the world’s most important natural fibre.
The availability of these raw materials has enabled the creation of a vast variety of products , woven domestically, on handlooms or on industrial powerlooms encompassing a seemingly endless array of uses, designs and decorations.
Amongst these four fibres jute has, until now , remained the poor relation. While silk, cotton and wool adorned ceremonies, furnishings or fashion parades, jute seemed condemned eternally to its use as humble sacking ,for packaging or temporary covering on construction sites.
The book traces the history of jute from its earliest use thousands of years ago to its current status as a favorite fabric for upmarket home furnishings and a potential fabric in the international world of fashion.
Shri LV Saptharishi is a distinguished member of the Indian Administrative Service who has served in important positions of responsibility in the State and Central Governments. He is well informed, knowledgeable and has a clear grasp of the problems and potentials of the textile industry inclidign jute as he has been associated with this industry for more than 15 years in various capacities int eh Government of India. Due to his long association with the silk, Woollen , handloom and cotton textile industries, he was in a position to evolve a turnaround strategy for the jute sector struggling to come out of its ancient moorings.
His contribution to the successful implementation of the largest –ever funded UNDP assisted National Programme for the Jute Sector[1991-95]will long be remembered by the R&D instructions and technologists.
Shri Saptharishi has travelled widely and undertaken important assignments for international organizations like UNDP,FAO, UNIDO, ITC-UNCTAD/GATT,CFTC and the Swiss Development Co-operation. He joined the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) as Executive Director in June 1997.
He is currently the Chief Executive Officer of International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institute and Director General, NIFT.
From Rags to Riches
India has been home to almost all of the world’s most important natural fibres. Besides cotton, wool and silk, LIndia produced jute, hemp, rhea and several other fibres that even a hundred years ago were considered important items of trade Cotton , Wooll , sild and jute are today grown or produced in different parts of the country, and their processing has given birth to one of the world’s most important textile industries, whose products still reach far across the globe.
The availability of these raw materials has enabled the creation of a vast variety of products woven domestically of the handlooms or on industrial powerlooms and encompassing a seemingly endless array of uses, designs and decorations.
But amongst these four fibres jute has, until now, remained the poor relation. While silk, cotton and wool adorned ceremonies, furnishings or fashion parades, jute seemed condemned eternally to its use as jumble sacking, for packaging or temporary coverings on construction sites.
Now that is set to change .Jute ,at last , has a future.
While nobody can pinpoint the first human use of jute it was certainly known , and used form the times of India’s great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In the Sabha Parva section of the Mahabharatam the Kaurava prince Duryodhana tells his father of the gifts received by his cousin Yudhishthira at a cermonu that he has just attended. Amongst the many things listed are gems, jewels,grasses, cothes made of grasses and cloth woven from jute.
The Ramauan tells of how Hanuman , the monkey god, on his mission t rescue Sita from the king of Lanka, Ravana , was captured. On the orders of Ravana his long tail was set alight. The material used to bind and burn his tale was jute.
The author H.D.Goyal inhis book Indian Jute Industry: Problems and Prospects also mentions the 16th century Bengali book Kavikankan Chandi by Mukundaram Chakravarty where there are references to jute bags.
Another mention of the use of jute during this period is in the Ain-i- Akbari. In the English translation of this book by Jarret, the author identifies tat as jute cloth form the Bengal region.
Till the middle of the 19th century, jute was being manufactured in India by peasants in the handloom sector and used as sacking and for a variety of cordage purposes. No organized production existed and its farming and manufacturing centred on Bengal. The first commercial mention of jute, according to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition catalogue, London, is in the customs report for exports from India in the year 1828. In that year, Rs 620 worth of raw jute was exported to Europe. There is no mention of jute manufactured goods being exported which indicates that all the sacks and rope made were indigenously used.
The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 gave agreat fillip to India’s jiute eexports. The mills of Dundee had depended on Russian hemp being imported into Scotland for their packaging need s but the war disrupted supplies for several years. Indian jute replaced the hemp. Jute was not completely unknown in Europe at that time. The Napoleonic wars had often before disrupted hemp supplies and the Dundee mills had stated looking for a replacement for it. But before jute could completely replace hemp a technological problem had to be solved.
According to Omkar Goswami in Industry, Trade and Peasant Society: The Jute Economy of Eastern India 1900-1947, the main technological problem was of strengthening the coarse and brittle jute fabric so that it could be used for high speed spinning and weaving . “In 1832, when the Dundee mills were awarded a large Dutch order for manufacturing Jvanese sugar bags. The jute bags were accepted, and burlap came to stay.”
With the rapid increase in the exports of raw jute British entrepreneurs saw a good opportunity for investment. World trade was increasing and the demand for gunny bags would increase with it. Introducing powerlooms, with their very basic technology, would be easy and Indian labour would be much cheaper than that in Dudee. As jute manufacture was situated around Calcutta, a good port was also available for easy exports. In 1854, the Ishara Yarn Mills was the first to be established, in Serampore. Three years later the Baranagore Jute Mills was established and 20 others followed in the next few years. The value of foreign trade in jute, 62 in1828, rose to 6,205,238 by 1885. However the trade in raw jute remained four times higher than the exports of jute bags. According to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition catalogue, “There were exported 41,523,607 powerleoom made gunny bags; but, according to the Calcutta brokers, there were sold in Calcutta over and above 77,519,164 gunny bags. About one half of these are shown in the Government reports of coasting and railways –borne trade to have been sent from Bengal t other provinces to be used in the home and foreign grain trade.”
In the 1884-85 Review of the Trade of India, Mr. J.E.Connor estimated that trade of jute had crossed the Rs. 3 crore mark.
By the end of the century, jute manufacture was almost entirely for exports. Nearly all the mills were owned by entrepreneurs from Scotland and many even had their management boards there. By 1900 exports had gone up to Rs. 7 crores. However this rapid growth soon levelled off with increasing competition from Scotland, Germany and the US, where the governments took on protectionist policies to encourage their own industry. The First World War gave another spurt to the growth of Indian jute as jute was used for sand bags, tarpaulins, tents, canvas cloth and wagon covers. But this spurt tapered off at the end of the War leading to over-production and a voluntary curtailment of production over the next two decades.
The next fifty years saw a gradual decline in the industry a near stagnation, being reached by the early '80s. The number of mills went down to 22 from the 112 that were up and running at Independence.
For over a hundred years, jute had been used for the production of sacking and sacks. As other fibres became more and more varied, almost all the production of jute remained confined to these forms. A mindset was established that jute had no other possibilities. As a result no new technology was applied, no experiments carried out. Only in the last decade of the twentieth century have textile experts realised that there is a massive potential to be unlocked from this humble plant.
Botanically jute comes from one of two closely aligned plants, Corchorus capisularis and CoIitorius.The former has a spherical fruit, flattened at the top and is the species cultivated in Central and East Bengal. The latter has an elongated fruit and is cultivated around Calcutta. Historically both species have grown in the wild in China. The genus Chorchorus grows in many warm, wet countries of the world. In Asia, Africa and America C.olitorius is also called Jewis Mallow and is used as a vegetable in Syria and Egypt. Because of its wide geographical spread it is difficult to determine exactly where the plant originated.
jute is known as a bast fibre, which means that it comes from the stem of the plant. The plant can grow to a height of 2.S metres and after harvesting the leaves are allowed to drop off the stems before the tough outer bark is softened in water by a process known as retting. This essentially consists of soaking the stalks in water until the bacterial action makes it easy for the fibre embedded in the stem to be separated and harvested. This can be done in any body of water available. In Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and in Assam, the retting is done in stagnant water. In low-lying areas, the retting is done in flowing water. Slow moving water allows the retting to be done more evenly producing a very soft fibre.
The retting period depends on the thickness of the stem and can vary between 10 and 20 days. H e temperature of the water also affects the speed of retting with the process faster in warmer water. When the retting is complete the bundles are stripped of the fibre. A common procedure for his is to take bundles of ten plants and to beat roots with a stick. The fibres are wrapped up to dry. Jute fibres are silky, golden, grey-brown or off-white, with a high tensile strength and a staple length of around 2 metres [compared with cotton’s 4 centimeters.]
In India jute is grown in the eastern states of West Bengal , Orissa and Bihar as well as the north eastern states of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. An inferior form of jute, known as Mesta, is grown int h southern state of Andhra Pradesh while the state of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, produce small amounts which are insufficient for industrial exploitation.
However there is an interesting geographical journey involved in jute production. The seeds are grown in the west of India (in the Amaravati district of Maharashtra) in winter , and then brought to the eastern states to be planted in the pre-monsoon period .Attempts have been made to grow enough good seed in the major growing areas, but this has not been successful and the seed’s journey across the country continues.
There are strong reasons in the eastern states for beginning jute cultivation during the pre-monsoon showers, which normally come in March or April, and thus having it ready for harvest during the monsoon in July and August .The pre- monsoon showers give sufficient moisture for the germination and growth of the crop, while the monsoon rains provide ample water in the storage tanks, canals and ditches where the harvested jute is laid to be retted. of the crop, while the monsoon rains provide ample water in the storage tanks, canals and ditches where the harvested jute is laid to be retted.
Jute has fought off attempts to grow rice in these areas as an alternative crop during this period as it can far better withstand the flooding of fields caused by strong early monsoon showers and recent research shows it to be of a much greater ecological value to the land. It provides natural manure and nutrients to the soil which are of value to the rice, vegetables and other crops which follow jute cultivation. Add to this the biodegradability of jute and it becomes clear that it has a natural and important place in the annual agricultural cycle.
Rural Jute Processing
In the rural areas of West Bengal and Bihar, as well as in some other states, jute has traditionally been handspun and hand-woven into ropes and rough fabrics. The resulting coarse cloth was used for packaging or covering the body during the cold season. There are records of some poor sections of society using jute for clothing and there is still wide usage of the fibre and yarn for any number of local craft items from toys to wastepaper baskets.
Industrialised Jute Production
With the arrival of the British in the 18th century the need for packaging materials brought jute to the forefront of a new industry to serve the European traders and manufacturers.The growing need to pack and store large quantities of commodities like grains, cereals, potatoes, pulses, salt, oilseeds, cotton and sugar demanded huge quantities of jute bags, which were known in India as gunny bags. Gradually non-edible items like cement, fertiliser and chemicals increased the demand for jute bags.
The packaging material used for these items came to be called sacking material and the jute bags made out of this fabric came to be described as sacks. If the woven structure of the jute fabric was tight and almost non-porous, and thus more suitable for storing and carrying certain materials, it was described as hessian.
And so it was that sacking and hessian rapidly became the hugely dominant percentage of items manufactured in the jute mills and factories, with rope and thread, also used in packaging, making up the rest. Jute was packaging, and packaging was jute! So it remained for approximately a century, underpinned by a market demand which was reacted to by investors and manufacturers by creating more jute for more packaging but never imagining it could have other uses.
Positioning the Industry
India's jute industry became centred around Calcutta as it stood at the heart of a then undivided Bengal [comprising present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal]. With mills on either side of the River Hooghly, the jute could be brought from all over the major production area of the Ganges delta, processed into sacking and either used in the port of Calcutta or shipped from there all over the world. This geographical proximity of producer, processing industry and market was convenient, kept costs low and provided the British Empire with a cheap but valuable export product. This situation similarly militated against developing any diversity in the use of [ute arcl^cfeadSk^S^ productive situation remained.
The crises came from a number of directions but of prime importance was the division of Bengal in 1947 when East Pakistan [formerly East Bengal] became independent from India. With this split more than half of Calcutta's hinterland disappeared and its importance as an industrial centre and as a port went into decline. At approximately the same time the rise of cheap, mass-produced synthetic materials posed the first major challenge to the packaging materials of the jute industry.
The fact that jute has survived at all, and indeed is perhaps now poised to realise its true diversity, is in some ways surprising given its history which has suffered from a shortsightedness which has persistently accompanied and stunted its development.
The Beginnings of New Thinking in Jute
The first attempts at the Research and Development of the Jute industry took place as early as 1937, before the impact of the threats mentioned above. The Indian jute Research Association set about improving the quality of the material, but all its efforts stayed firmly within the confines of jute as packaging. There were remarkable achievements in improving the quality of the fibre, the yarn and the fabric as needed for sacking and hessian. Although this was in answer to a demand for better packaging materials to meet the needs of new commodities to be carried in the sacks, it is astonishing that this team of research scientists seems never to have considered other uses of this fibre. The very people who could have created new products for a new market stayed firmly within the confines of market demands serving the imperial system.
It was only after Independence that there developed an ethos and recognition of the need for lateral thinking to take the industry forward and it was only really in the 1980s that significant moves were made and markets found.
New Jute-New Uses,p> The high tensile strength of. jute had always been the main reason for its use in packaging. The same quality led to finding first new markets during the 1980s when it was realised that sacking and hessian made excellent backing material for carpeting and linoleum. At the same time, an accident of economics gave the industry another push forward. Due to rising costs and the introduction of synthetic alternatives, many of Europe's jute mills closed down. The more sophisticated spinning and weaving machinery from these plants was bought at bargain prices by Indian mills and soon finer yarn, lighter fabrics and more interesting weaves became available.
With this background, the Ministry of Textiles took up the challenge in 1987 to find a solution for the future of the jtite industry. The primitive, low value machinery, which had traditionally produced the packaging material, clearly could not meet the needs of the end of the twentieth century Two of jute's original customers, the cement and fertiliser industries, threw up the challenge to produce a more acceptable packaging than that which was being offered by the petroleum industry with its technically superior and highly competitive synthetic bags of high density polyethylene and polypropylene.
Two facts quickly became evident. The first was that unless the jute bags could be technically modified to prevent seepage as much as the synthetic bags, there was no guarantee of a continuing market for jute bags from the cement and fertilizer industry. However much this technical question troubled the policymakers in the Ministry of Textiles, no satisfactory solution seemed to emerge.
The other fact was that there was no way in which jute could guarantee competitive costs. Being an agricultural product jute was highly labour intensive with fluctuations on prices from year to year. In competition with the byproduct of a huge and growing petro-chemical industry jute could only be more expensive.
The jute industry was about to lose a substantial part of its market!
The Atira study
Unless the technical problems could be solved the protection of jute farmers and of the industry itself could not be guaranteed as a packaging war threatened. The Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association [ATIRA] was therefore requested to carry out a study on the feasibility of producing a blended jute-synthetic material, which would allow both industries to continue to function without conflict. The study would test whether such bags would be cheaper than traditional jute bags, and whether the strengths and weaknesses of each material could be studied in such a way as to produce a better end product.
The response of the petrochemical industry to this study was lukewarm but the findings of the study marked a major shift in conceptualizing jute's future. The major points can be summarized as follows:
Jute, like any other textile fibre, can be'tamed'and disciplined for many different end-uses.
Instead of staying bound by the thinking that a jute-synthetic mix would be for packaging purposes only, the-industry should realise there were other potential uses in the manufacture of soft luggage, floor coverings and much more.
Even though a jute-synthetic mix could secure the market for cement and fertiliser, jute value would remain low until textile applications other than packaging were developed. This could bring about an immediate jump in the potential income to the industry.
New technologies were needed to create new and better uses for jute. Such technology and appropriate new machinery were the key to development and would allow jute to be seen as a textile rather than as packaging.
The ATIRA study made it abundantly clear that the jute industry had to head for diversification. Suddenly it seemed unimaginative in the extreme that the different Textile Research Associations (TRA's] across the country had not been consulted and their expertise tapped for new ideas and technologies. Clearly there was a new place for jute but this would only be achievable if considerable research and development were carried out and considerable cross fertilization of ideas were to take place between the many jute-related scientists, researchers and artisans across the country.
Handloom Weavers Show the Way
In July 1990 a new initiative in South India blazed a trail for jute's future. The Indian Jute Industries' Research Association together with PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore worked with the local handloom weavers cooperatives to kickstart the use of jute yarn in the handloom sector. Handloom weavers were persuaded to produce floor coverings and furnishings using jute in combination with cotton and viscose yarns.
The results in Chennimilai and Coimbatore were over whelming. There was a realization that the delay, indeed the failure, in bringing jute to the highly commercially motivated textile centres of South India had been a hudge loss for the jute producers. Immediately the National Textile Corporation (NTC) in Tamil Nadu and the South India n Textile Research Association (SITRA) were persuaded to look into all the possibilities of using jute.
After the exciting developments of the Ahmedebad report and the Coimbatore trails, efforts were directed towards the possibility of blending jute with wool.
Working with the Western Research Association (WRA) in Thane, it was quickly realized that there is a great affinity between wool and jute, and if properly blended the new properties of the resulting textile could give rise t many new market possibilities.
With the Bombay Textile Research Association trials were put in place to add dimensional stability for clothing and other effect for drapery and furnishings. Jute was beginning to be seen as having a multitude of uses, and as such the potential to become a truly important textile. Bringing in the Textile Research Associations to cooperate with IJIRA in the development of new products and the evolving of new technologies conveyed its own signal to the jute industry and these Indian Government initiatives could be seen to have a long-term advantage for other jute producing countries as well as the importing countries willing to experiment with this fibre on the new lines India had mapped out.
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