39. THE BIRTH OF KHADI
I do not remember to have
seen a handloom or a spinning wheel when in 1908 I described it in Hind
Swaraj as the panacea for the growing pauperism of India. In that book
I took it as understood that anything that helped India to get rid of the
grinding poverty of her masses would in the same process also establish
Swaraj. Even in 1915, when I returned to India from South Africa, I had
not actually seen a spinning wheel. When the Satyagraha Ashram was founded
at Sabarmati, we introduced a few handlooms there. But no sooner had we
done this than we found ourselves up against a difficulty. All of us belonged
either to the liberal professions or to business; not one of us was an
artisan. We needed a weaving expert to teach us to weave before we could
work the looms. One was at last produced from Palanpur, but he did not
communicate to us the whole of his art. But Maganlal Gandhi was not to
be easily baffled. Possessed of a natural talent for mechanics, he was
able fully to master the art before long, and one after another several
new weavers were trained up in the Ashram.
The object that we set before
ourselves was to be able to clothe ourselves entirely in cloth manufactured
by our own hands. We therefore forthwith discarded the use of mill-woven
cloth, and all the members of the Ashram resolved to wear hand-woven cloth
made from Indian yarn only. The adoption of this practice brought us a
world of experience. It enabled us to know, from direct contact, the conditions
of life among the weavers, the extent of their production, the handicaps
in the way of their obtaining their yarn supply, the way in which they
were being made victims of fraud, and lastly, their ever-growing indebtedness.
We were not in a position immediately to manufacture all the cloth for
our needs. The alternative therefore was to get our cloth supply from handloom
weavers. But ready-made cloth from Indian mill-yarn was not easily obtainable
either from the cloth-dealers or from the weavers themselves. All the fine
cloth woven by the weavers was from foreign yarn, since Indian mills did
not spin fine counts. Even today the outturn of higher counts by Indian
mills is very limited, whilst highest counts they cannot spin at all. It
was after the greatest effort that we were at last able to find some weavers
who condescended to weave Swadeshi yarn for us, and only on condition that
the Ashram would take up all the cloth that they might produce. By thus
adopting cloth woven from mill-yarn as our wear, and propagating it among
our friends, we made ourselves voluntary agents of the Indian spinning
mills. This in its turn brought us into contact with the mills, and enabled
us to know something about their management and their handicaps. We saw
that the aim of the mills was more and more to weave the yarn spun by them;
their co-operation with the handloom weaver was not willing, but unavoidable
and temporary. We became impatient to be able to spin our own yarn. It
was clear that, until we could do this ourselves, dependence on the mills
would remain. We did not feel that we could render any service to the country
by continuing as agents of Indian spinning mills.
No end of difficulties again
faced us. We could get neither a spinning wheel nor a spinner to teach
us how to spin. We were employing some wheels for filling pearns and bobbins
for weaving in the Ashram. But we had no idea that these could be used
as spinning wheels. Once Kalidas Jhaveri discovered a woman who, he said,
would demonstrate to us how spinning was done. We sent to her a member
of the Ashram who was known for his great versatility in learning new things.
But even he returned without wresting the secret of the art.
So the time passed on, and my
impatience grew with the time. I plied every chance visitor to the Ashram
who was likely to possess some information about handspinning with questions
about the art. But the art being confined to women and having been all
but exterminated, if there was some stray spinner still surviving in some
obscure corner, only a member of that sex was likely to find out her whereabouts.
In the year 1917 I was taken
by my Gujarati friends to preside at the Broach Educational Conference.
It was here that I discovered that remarkable lady Gangabehn Majmundar.
She was a widow, but her enterprising spirit knew no bounds. Her education,
in the accepted sense of the term, was not much. But in courage and commonsense
she easily surpassed the general run of our educated women. She had already
got rid of the curse of untouchability, and fearlessly moved among and
served the suppressed classes. She had means of her own, and her needs
were few. She had a well seasoned constitution, and went about everywhere
without an escort. She felt quite at home on horseback. I came to know
her more intimately at the Godhra Conference. To her I poured out my grief
about the charkha, and she lightened my burden by a promise to prosecute
an earnest and incessant search for the spinning wheel.