In the 18th century, the textile industry of the Indian subcontinent dominated world trade. However, the rise of industrial production in western Europe led to the collapse of the Indian industry by 1850. British India became a major importer of cotton, woven in British factories. However, the tradition of hand weaving survived these events, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh still have strong regional traditions in textile production. These co-exist alongside large-scale industrial production in factories.
This woman is spinning long lengths of colourful cotton fibres into thread.
Although fabrics such as silk (favoured for high-value items) and goat's wool (valued in Kashmir and the Himalayas) are important regional commodities, cotton is the most commonly-used and widespread raw textile material in South Asia.
Cotton must first be spun into a thread. Spinning wheels (carkha) are the traditional tools for this in villages today. The cotton is loosely spun, giving Indian cotton a soft texture. Two or three hundred years ago, these replaced the ancient technology of the spindle-whorl. The spindle-whorl is a heavy disk on a spindle, which spins and, as it spins, draws out the thread from the spinner's hands.
A woven textile is made up of two sets of threads; the warp and the weft. During weaving, the warp threads are held taut, while the weft is worked over and under them. A loom holds the warp tight, so that the weft can be inserted. Weaving was carried out on simple hand-looms. The warp was starched with rice paste, to make it stiffer.
While embroidery is widely practiced, weaving tends to be restricted to professional castes.