A Green, Sustainable Cotton: Kala Cotton

A Green, Sustainable Cotton: Kala Cotton

Last updated: Feb, 2024
A Green, Sustainable Cotton: Kala Cotton

Kala Cotton is indigenous to India and one of the few “Old World” varieties that is still being cultivated on a large scale in India. Farmers in Gujarat can grow mung beans or cotton. If there is less rain in a season, they decide to plant cotton. This cotton thrives on only the rain that falls in a season, and it is very resistant to disease and pests, which makes it a sustainable crop. India's rich and diverse textile heritage is an intricate tapestry of traditions, colours, and craftsmanship, with each thread carrying the legacy of centuries. Amidst this vast tapestry, Kala Cotton stands as a unique and indigenous variant that has garnered recognition as a symbol of sustainability, resilience, and traditional artistry. Originating from the arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, Kala Cotton has established itself as a sustainable and environmentally conscious choice in India's textile landscape. Its journey is one of historical significance, facing challenges in the wake of modernisation, and ultimately emerging as a symbol of hope and revival.

Owing to its distinctive characteristics, it’s considered different from conventional cotton varieties. It is renowned for its drought resistance, natural pest resilience, and the ability to flourish in low-input farming systems. Its name, "Kala Cotton," is derived from the dark-coloured fabric it produces, which is the result of hand spinning and natural dyeing, techniques that have been handed down through generations. These unique attributes have made Kala Cotton an emblem of sustainable agriculture, evoking a sense of pride among those who appreciate the importance of preserving traditional knowledge.

The history of Kala Cotton traces back to the time of the Harappan civilization, around 2500-1500 BCE. During this period, it was one of the primary cotton varieties used for weaving textiles, and the cotton was handspuned and dyed using natural pigments. The dark-coloured fabric produced was distinct and earned it the name "Kala," which means black. This historical legacy establishes Kala Cotton as a testament to the enduring traditions of cotton cultivation and handloom weaving in India. Kala cotton is indigenous to Kachchh and by default organic, as the farmers do not use any pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. It is a purely rain-fed crop that has a high tolerance for both disease and pests and requires minimal investment. It is both resilient and resurgent in the face of stressful land conditions. It is one of the few genetically pure cotton species remaining in India and one of the only species of pure and old-world cotton to be cultivated these days. It produces a robust, stretchy, coarse fibre that is frequently used in denim. Over time, its use in mainstream markets has greatly decreased because of its short staple length, which results in fewer twists per inch of yarn, making it difficult to make excellent-quality textiles.

Desi cotton strains are indigenous to Asia and Africa and have a short staple length of less than 32mm. Kala cotton is one of 20 strains of desi cotton that were once grown extensively in India. It was the traditional source of fabric yarn in pre-Independence Kutch. However, desi cotton (and with it, kala cotton) was relegated to the bottom of the textile hierarchy during colonisation in India.

From the early years of British rule in India in the 1600s until independence in 1947, desi cotton was usually exported to Britain, initially as a cheaper alternative for the masses. Despite the decline in the cultivation of desi cotton during colonisation, a large portion of the total land used for cotton contributed to the growth of varieties of desi cotton. This has changed post-independence. However, over the years, the dominance of modern cotton farming techniques and hybrid cotton varieties has posed a significant challenge to Kala Cotton. The allure of higher yields, irrespective of the need for more water and chemical inputs, led farmers to shift away from traditional cotton cultivation practices. This shift threatened the continued existence of Kala Cotton and its associated traditional knowledge.

One of the primary challenges Kala Cotton encountered was the competition from high-yielding hybrid cotton varieties that dominated the Indian cotton landscape. These hybrid varieties offered more significant economic benefits but came at the cost of increased water consumption and chemical pesticide use. This competitive disadvantage led to a decline in Kala Cotton cultivation as farmers turned to commercially more viable alternatives, jeopardising the survival of this unique cotton variety.

In addition to competition, Kala Cotton faced challenges related to marketing and distribution. The absence of an established marketing and distribution network specifically tailored for Kala Cotton made it challenging for traditional cotton growers to access markets and sell their products. The lack of awareness among consumers about the ecological and ethical benefits of Kala Cotton also presented a significant hurdle. Many consumers remained unaware of the sustainable and environmentally conscious aspects of choosing Kala Cotton products over conventional cotton, further impeding the demand for this unique textile.

Despite these challenges, the story of Kala Cotton takes a turn toward hope and revival through innovative solutions and efforts by various stakeholders. Several initiatives have been pivotal in the resurgence of Kala Cotton. Efforts to promote traditional and organic farming practices have been undertaken by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and government agencies. These practices include rain-fed farming, reduced pesticide use, and the utilisation of natural fertilisers. By promoting sustainable agricultural techniques, Kala Cotton's cultivation becomes more ecologically sound and less resource-intensive.

The handloom sector has played a crucial role in the revival of Kala Cotton. Government initiatives and non-profit organisations have supported traditional weavers, enabling them to adapt to modern market demands while preserving their age-old handloom traditions. The promotion of handloom weaving has not only provided a platform for showcasing Kala Cotton's unique fabric but has also revived traditional craftsmanship. Creating direct market linkages has been another pivotal strategy. This involves setting up dedicated Kala Cotton outlets, participating in textile exhibitions, and collaborating with fashion designers to promote the fabric. By bridging the gap between producers and consumers, Kala Cotton products have gained recognition and found a market that appreciates their unique qualities.

Awareness campaigns have played a significant role in educating consumers about Kala Cotton's ecological and ethical aspects. These campaigns have highlighted the sustainability of Kala Cotton, emphasizing its contribution to preserving indigenous knowledge and supporting local communities. By creating awareness, Kala Cotton has moved from being a hidden gem to an ethical and ecological choice for consumers.

About Kala Cotton Initiative

Khamir began this initiative in 2007, by partnering with Satvik, an association of organic farmers in Kachchh, to explore the production possibilities for Kala Cotton. In order to devise a method for turning cotton into yarn, Khamir and Satvik first conferred with several specialists due to the cotton's short staple length, which makes spinning and weaving challenging. Furthermore, it was necessary to convince the local weavers about the advantages of Kala Cotton, which poses a special challenge. It was mainly because weaving requires the modification of the loom's configuration in addition to using different yields and shafts. In 2010, following years of trial and error to develop spinning and weaving methods, Khamir started manufacturing its first Kala Cotton products.

These days, the Kala Cotton Initiative promotes cotton textile production that is sustainable and compatible with the environment in the area. The project worked with marginalised groups and promoted locally cultivated species to develop a value chain at many levels. Khamir and Satvik established a supply chain with Kala Cotton farmers, ginners, spinners, and weavers to transform raw cotton into hand-woven goods in order to carry out this effort. It is envisaged that in due course, other communities would be able to emulate the Kala Cotton Initiative.

About Organic Cotton: Organic is a system that eliminates highly toxic substances from the environment and works holistically for the benefit of people and the planet in the long run. Organic farming is in tune with the environment. To develop their crops, farmers make full use of natural cycles and systems, and it all begins with the soil. Farmers may raise robust, healthy crops by taking care of the land beneath our feet. Good soils promote good harvests through methods including crop rotation, composting, and the use of green manures. Additionally, biodiversity is increased, and natural methods of pest control are employed in place of artificial fertilisers and poisonous, harmful pesticides due to their prohibition.

Organic cotton has become the most famous sustainable textile in India, the leading producer of organic cotton (51%), with 1.23 million tonnes produced in 2022. By 2028, it is predicted that the market size of organic cotton will reach US$ 6.73 billion. It is expected to grow at a CAGR of 40.0% in the 2021-28 period.

There has been continuous growth in the production of organic cotton in India, which stood at 801,934 Metric Tonnes (MT) in 2020-21 as against 335,712 Metric Tonnes (MT) during 2019-20, and 312,876 Metric Tonnes (MT) during 2018-19.