“Khesh” Weaving – Proof that Upcycling has been around, longer than you thought.

What comes to mind when we hear the word “Durrie”? The image that props into our minds is probably a flat rug, usually hand-woven. If we recall from memory, durries are woven on a traditional handloom and they happen to come in a variety of bright colours and vibrant designs, right? 

Durries are very well-known for their unique designs. But did you know that the unique designs on these beautiful durries are actually a result of how they are made, by twisted cotton warp and weft being woven together, typically in a handloom? Other fibres such as wool, jute, coir, wool, silk, plant fibre, recycled fabrics and even camel hair have also been known to be used to create these rugs as well. Indian Durries are famous for, not just their complex geometrical, floral and figurative patterns but also their traditional designs and ethnic motifs combined with contemporary tastes and mod colour schemes. 

The Indian subcontinent has been producing unique durries for over 5,000 years. In recorded history, the weaving of durries date back to the Fifth Century BC, depicting the most ancient ornamental designs of our then-subcontinent. 

India produces a wide range of handloom cotton floor coverings, better known as galichas, durries, kilims, druggets, namdas, gabbas and prayer rugs. Among these handwoven articles, Durries are the most common and are used as an ordinary floor covering, though they are also known for being used for ceremonial occasions such as prayers and feasts, India makes up almost 80% of the world’s export of these beautiful handwoven rugs.

 Durries are most woven on traditional handlooms with trade secrets and skills honed over generations together, and one of the lesser renowned methods of weaving comes from the quintessential land of West Bengal, more specifically the district of Birbhum is known as “khesh”.

“Khesh” method of weaving finds its roots in Tagore’s Shantiniketan and the handcrafts, pioneering an exclusive way to upcycle old cotton saris. The inimitable weaving style of “khesh” makes the result it produces to be a vibrant and awe-inspiring array of hues. 

To delve a little deeper into this time-tested method of “khesh” weaving. It is a beautiful textile process involving the utilisation of old cotton saris to create something gorgeous while giving these sarees a new lease of life. When we get down to the basics, a durrie is created by the scraps of older saris. The “khesh” weave is woven with a new set of warp which is usually cotton or a combination of silk and cotton and the weft insertions are the upcycled cotton saris. Simply put,  this means that long, thin strips of cotton cloth is cut from old sarees are then interwoven with threads to create beautiful stripes designs, to give us the final result of a stunning durrie mat. 

The traditional weavers in Birbhum learnt the craft from their fathers, and from their fathers, a generational wealth of knowledge and skill was passed down in the form of this method of weaving. Most of whom agree on the fact that the technique of weaving with shreds of old sarees, called “khesh”, was started in Shilpa Sadan in the early 1920s. This was the vocational training centre that Rabindranath Tagore had set up in Sriniketan, adjacent to Santiniketan which was where his academic institute, Visva Bharati was set up.

The “khesh” weaving may appear to be a simple array of colours and random patterns but it is most certainly a lot more effort to craft. In the “khesh” method, the warp is with new yarn and the weft is with strips of cloth gotten by tearing old sarees lengthwise. It is the tearing process that is labour-intensive and extremely time-consuming. 

First, the saree is first torn into five or six parts lengthwise. After repeating the process by pulling and tearing, the old saree typically yields around seventy to eighty strips. The old sarees must be of cotton in order for them to be torn easily. There has been experimentation using synthetic sarees, since the inclination to wear synthetic sarees is on the rise even in villages. But the problem being, synthetic sarees cannot be torn by hand and therefore have to be cut by scissors which thereby increases the time for this process and resultantly the cost. 

Once the saris are torn into thin strips, they are made into spools of “thread “for ease of use.  The weaver then hangs these spools beside them for easy accessibility and weaves with whichever strip comes up randomly or to their fancy. The weaver can only keep the warp colour same, but the colour gradation of the weft is completely at random. Only once the fabric has been completely woven, can we see the end result of how the old saris have blended into something completely new and exciting! And that is the true beauty of “khesh”, it makes us look at the whole picture! 

As we can see, Upcycling is not a new idea in our country, and it is not just re-using or re-purposing old fabrics that are at the end of their lifecycle. To upcycle is to create something new, of better value and quality, like these old cotton saris into these vibrant durries.  In developing economies like India, the impact of upcycling – besides being a valuable step in the waste management chain, is on the creation of additional employment opportunities while doing meaningful work in keeping traditional processes like “khesh” alive and thriving in our country. In India, upcycling is deeply ingrained in our social and cultural systems. Gradually, it has leapt out of the realm of subsistence to art that meets the needs of society. With the raw charm of found objects and a tangible list of benefits for the planet, upcycling kind of sustainability is surely to stay.

 Especially in the form of these gorgeous durries, even after being upcycled, they can be styled and utilized in more ways than one; lay it on the ground as a floor rug, maybe as a throw cover for sofa, spread over your favourite diwan for an accent of vibrance, these beautiful durries ought to be treated as the genuine masterpieces they are and used to share the message of upcycling in a beautiful and eye-catching way!