02 May 2020 22:32 IST

Co-optex, weaving a strong future for south Indian handlooms

Reinventing itself to stay cool, literally and figuratively, the brand is a big exporter and e-commerce player too

It is said that Kurinjipadi lungis from Co-optex are bought by a Spanish company and sent to Germany, where they are converted into shirts, dresses (and even laptop bags!) and sold in Spain. That’s a long way for a handloom lungi to travel, even for a metamorphosis!

Often described as the first one-stop destination for all southern looms, The Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd., popularly known as Co-optex, was established in 1935 and operates under the Department of Handlooms, Handicrafts, Textiles and Khadi (Tamil Nadu) of the Government of Tamil Nadu.

 

 

Tamil Nadu is said to have the largest number of handlooms in India; even today, weaving is one of its main economic activities.

This is primarily because the erstwhile kings of earlier eras in South India brought weavers from other places — Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Saurashtra, and other regions — to settle in the weaving belts of Kancheepuram and Madurai and pursue their craft while training the younger members of their family. Each such group of weavers evolved distinctive styles of weaving in silk and cotton and thrived in the new surroundings.

Much later, in the 1920s, the advent of powerlooms drove many of these weavers out of business. To ensure their survival and the traditional hand-weaving techniques, the Indian government organised a society in Madras (now Chennai), bringing all Weavers’ Co-operative Societies in Tamil Nadu under its umbrella.

Pioneer in many areas

This led to the setting up of Co-optex in 1935. It soon became the go-to destination for affordable yet good quality cotton sarees, towels and bedsheets. In 1956, it established its Head Office at Egmore, Chennai.

 

Co-optex also has many firsts to its credit — it pioneered the famous hand-woven, yarn-dyed ‘Bleeding Madras’ handloom and exported it for about 20 years. As early as 1972, it introduced a ‘Salesman of the Year’ award, offering better incentives to its employees. By 1974, it had opened 40 showrooms in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for Bangladesh customers.

The high quality of the Co-optex products, and the additional plus points that its weaving processes used no child labour and no artificial dyes, made it a great success at the European Fair Trade Association (1985). And in 1986, when the then PM Rajiv Gandhi wished to present a shawl to the Premier of the Soviet Union, it was a Co-optex weave that was chosen.

Co-optex also became the first co-operative in India to use organic cotton. Now, about 150 looms produce organic cotton sarees exclusively.

Reserved for handloom production

Despite all this, during the 1980s, the popularity of handlooms started declining again. The weavers got a respite when, on the recommendations of the 1985 Textile Policy, 22 items were reserved for production by handlooms and spinning mills were ordered to produce 50 per cent of their output as hank yarn for use in the handloom industry.

The breather thus provided was short-lived as yarn was diverted to the power loom sector or exported, and fiscal incentives disappeared.

Co-optex faced several crises, and by the 2000s, the losses had spiralled beyond control. It had to close down many showrooms and offer VRS options to several hundred employees to ride out the rough weather.

Turning attractive to younger people

A detailed study showed that the main problem facing the handloom sector was that almost all the customers of Co-optex were above 60. The dimly-lit showrooms, the standard sarees, dhoties and towels and the unvarying traditional designs were keeping the youth away.

Co-optex rose to the challenge. A design studio was established to explore new patterns and motifs even as weavers were taken to other States to learn the different design and weaving techniques employed there. Slowly but steadily, showrooms were altered to suit the liking of the modern shopper.

 

Yet another problem was that weaving was not seen as a lucrative profession by the youth in many weaving families. Due to this, many traditional weaves were in danger of being lost forever. Co-optex offered extra incentives and increased wages to keep the next generation of weavers in the profession.

Thus, even as more attention was paid to modernising the entire set-up, traditional lines were maintained for the loyal older generation. Lost weaves were revived and special weaves like the MS Blue Collection and Rukmini Devi Collection were launched. By 2014-15, Co-optex had wiped out its losses and started showing profits.

Reinventing itself

As wearing handlooms became cool — literally and figuratively — the brand reinvented itself. It introduced a unique initiative — the ‘Weaver Card’. This is attached to each saree and has the weaver’s name, region he or she works in, photograph, age, years of experience and the time and effort taken to weave the saree. This added to the prestige of the weaver even as it educated the buyer on the value of the purchase.

Co-optex set up an e-commerce site in 2014. It has recorded sales of over ₹1 crore to date and was recently recognised by the Union Ministry of Commerce as the best e-commerce site among such government-run portals. Apart from this, it has tie-ups with sites such as Flipkart, Myntra and Snapdeal.

Its international arm, Co-optex International, launched in 2018, exports its products to Hong Kong, South Africa, the UAE, the United Kingdom and other European countries.

Its products now cover a range of sarees for women in silk, silk cotton and cotton, and kurtis, dupattas and stoles. Along with the usual dhoties and lungis, the new line of linen shirts for men has seen phenomenal success. Home textiles, like bags, bedsheets, curtains, cushion covers, pillow covers, quilts and towels complete the wide-ranging collection. These are sold online and retailed across its 200 showrooms pan India.

Co-optex has an annual turnover of ₹1,000 crore, of which the lion’s share comes from government orders.

The brand has also been gaining visibility and promoting sales through exhibitions such as ‘Weaves from Tamil Nadu’, taking them across the length and breadth of the country. It has recently published its first coffee table book Metamorphosis: Blazing a New Path in Handloom Retailing.

Recommended for you