Madugula Ratnulu has been spinning patnulu khadi for more than 25 years. Allam Setti Chinnammadu has experience of five decades in spinning patnulu khadi (Courtesy: Samyuktha Gorrepati)

In Conversation with Allamsetti Chinnammadu and Madugula Ratnalu: Popularity of Ponduru Handloom Has Done Nothing for Patnulu Khadi

in Interview
Published on: 28 October 2020

Samyuktha Gorrepati

Samyuktha is an independent textile designer and development professional interested particularly in the handloom and handicraft sector. Most recently, she has worked as Head Designer in Chitrika, an organisation in Hyderabad working to build sustainable weaver business enterprises, and has authored a book titled 'Learning the Heart Way'.

Patnulu is a hand-processed and handspun khadi cotton yarn made in Ponduru and the nearby villages of Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

Women spinners use the traditional single spindle Gandhi charkha to make very fine khadi yarn up to 100s count. Harvesting locally grown native cotton and using handheld indigenous tools, the process of preparing the cotton for spinning—from ginning, carding to spinning—is entirely done in the homes of the spinners. The spun yarn is then handwoven into patnulu khadi fabric in Ponduru and nearby villages.

In this interview, Allamsetti  Chinnammadu and Madugula Ratnalu, two patnulu spinners from Murapaka Village, Srikakulam, talk about their engagement with patnulu and the changes they have witnessed in the spinning practice over the years. Since the spinners belong to two different generations—Allamsetti Chinnammadu, 65, has been spinning for over  50 years, while Madugula Ratnalu, 38, has been spinning for over 20 years—the interview also tries to bring out the differences in perspectives across generations.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on October 12, 2019, at Murapaka village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh.

Samyuktha Gorrepati: Tell us about your family. Who taught you this craft? Since when are you spinning the yarn?

Allamsetti Chinnammadu: From the age of 12, I have been spinning. I learnt from my mother. We are three sisters and two brothers. Our brothers used to weave patnulu handspun khadi on the loom. We used to weave saris, fabric, and also dhotis. I also know all weaving work. In 1959 or 1960, Indira Gandhi placed an order for a Tiruppur-temple-border sari at the AFKK [Andra Fine Khadi Karmiabir Uddi] Sangam Ponduru khadi office. That job was given to my older brother. Since it was a temple-border kuppadam sari, it took three of us a month to weave five saris, double the time we normally take!

Madugula Ratnalu: I didn’t know anything about spinning yarn until I got married. In fact, in those days, when the groom’s party came for a marriage proposal, they would ask if the girl could spin. I learnt from my mother-in-law after I got married in 1995. They used to give the entire spinning set as saare [gifts from parents that are sent to the bride’s new home] then.

As a young girl in the early 1990s, I used to go and spin part time on the ambar charkha [the type of charkha where the spinner rotates a crank] in the khadi society. My maternal grandmother used to keep pestering me, ‘When you go to your husband’s house, what will you do when they ask you to spin? You must learn (hand) spinning.’ She would yell, but I would run away saying, ‘I can’t do all this hard work!’ I could spin up to 15–20 chilapas [15–20 hanks, 1,000 metre each] per day on the ambar charkha and earned up to rupees 20-30 on an average. Whereas, for a day’s work, one can spin only one patnulu hank, for which they used to get rupees 7 or rupees 8. Will you choose rupees 20 or 8, you tell me!

SG: Is spinning a caste-based activity? Which are the castes that are traditionally involved?

AC: Yes, we all belong to the Pattusali caste. Some Pattusalis also used to weave. We had a loom too and I learnt to weave along with my brothers. We used to spin and weave in our home. But it is not necessary that all Pattusalis have looms.

Earlier, it was only our caste women who used to spin. But later on, other castes like the Kamsalis [goldsmith and silversmith caste], Kaapus [peasant castes], Telagas [backward peasant castes] also learnt spinning. We are willing to teach other castes also. We don’t have a problem with that.

SG: Why did these new castes also learn spinning if it was not remunerative anyway?

MR: You see, this activity was ideal for women; we can work from our homes in our free time. We cannot go out and work in the sun. So, whatever we earn, it is extra income. So, though it is very hard work and not very well-paid, we continue to do it. 

SG: Does everyone in your family spin? Is the next generation learning from you?

AC: I have two sons and a daughter. They can’t spin. They don’t live here. Due to my husband’s job, we used to move often. But wherever we went, I used to spin. Now there are about 22–25 households in our village where women spin, of which 50 per cent are in their 30s and 40s and about 50 per cent are about my age. With our generation, this spinning will stop.

MR: No way! They have not learnt. My older daughter has completed her graduation and is working in the village for the government.  In fact, they chide me when I am spinning: ‘Don’t you have any other work? You are sitting and spinning!’  

SG: What is your daily routine like? How long do you spend spinning every day on an average?

MR: We complete our cooking and other morning chores, send kids, and the men out to work and then sit down to spin.

AC: Since we don’t have these responsibilities, we sit down right after our morning tea. At night, we need to complete the ginning part, so that we can do carding and spinning in the daytime the next day, at least four out of the seven processes. Only if we work like that, we can make at least one chilapa a day.

MR: I would say, in all, we may work about six to seven hours, while doing other household chores.

SG: How many hanks of handspun yarn do you spin in a month and what is your average income from spinning?

MR: We spin about 20–30 hanks of 100s count per month.

AC: Earlier, we used to spin and take the yarn to Grama Swarajya Sangam in Srikakulam and buy cotton from sangam, but since about a year and half, we have been supplying to Vamsadhara Weavers’ Producer Company since they give better rates and collect yarn at our doorsteps. They give us rupees 112 per hank where we were getting rupees 100 for 100s count.

MR: So, we earn anywhere between rupees 2,500 to 3,000 per month, sometimes upto rupees 3,500.

SG: Could you talk about the differences in process, yarn quality, remuneration between Ponduru handspun yarn and ambar khadi [khadi made from ambar charkha] yarn?

MR: Ambar khadi is machine-spun using the hand. It is easier, the machine makes the yarn. You just have to rotate the crank. But it has its own problems. The whole day you have to rotate, so shoulders ache. Patnulu is entirely handspun. However, patnulu khadi fabric cannot withstand strong bleaching.

AC: You don’t have to prepare the cotton for ambar charkha. In handspun, we have to prepare the cotton in seven steps to be able to spin it into yarn.  Also, the machine [ambar charkha] is set to make a certain count [thickness of the yarn], evenness and quality. Here, all those are in your hands!

SG: Could you talk about the various aspects of the entire value chain from procurement of cotton to selling khadi yarn including the economics of it?

AC: Usually, the sangams used to supply the cotton. We used to buy from there when we were supplying the yarn to them.

MR: Now we buy directly from the farmers, two to three times a year. Just like we buy and store rice, spinners buy and store cotton. The quantity differs. If we are in a position to invest more, we buy more in one go.

AC: If we buy 1 kg, by the time it is made into yarn, approximately 700-750 grams has to be discarded as seed, waste, etc. We bought cotton for INR 200 a kg last season. We usually spin only 100s count chilapa [the higher the count, the finer the yarn], each weighing 10 gram and 1000 metre long, though there are people who spin coarser counts like 70s [14 gm per 1000 metre], 85s (12 gms per 1000 mts), 92s (11 gm per 1000 metre) also for which they get rupees 73, 85, 95, and 112, respectively. But 100s count is most remunerative for us.

MR: You can say we buy about rupees 1,000–1,500 worth of cotton in one go, that is, 5–6 kg that can last us for around six months. Since we make approximately 20–30 hanks in one month, we need about a kilogram of cotton per month.

SG: What, according to you, are the various challenges in the value chain? How have they changed over the years? 

AC: Weavers who weave patnulu are very few. Due to insufficient income in weaving patnulu, they are using ambar or mill-spun yarn.  Earlier, even this village had so many looms. We worked till 11 in the night and the sound the looms made would scare away the thieves. Now, even in Ponduru, there are only about a dozen looms which weave patnulu. If weavers don’t weave, what can we do?

In fact, we are also not very sure who exactly is weaving our yarn these days. For the last year or so, we are giving our yarn to Vamshadhara Weavers’ Producer Company in Devaravalasa village, near Ponduru. They have a few patnulu weavers. They come once in 1.5 or 2 months.  In Ponduru town, the AFKK Sangam procures yarn from spinners every two weeks. The spinners go to deposit their yarn and buy more cotton.

MR: There is no one who can make these spindles which we use for spinning any more. So, we keep them very carefully in bamboo holders, away from children. If the spindle becomes slightly bent, it is useless for spinning!  Earlier, the Kamsali [people with caste occupation as ironsmiths] used to repair them. Now we have to buy new ones in Ponduru.

AC: And these fish jawbones [which are used for ginning the cotton] …earlier, fishermen used to come from Calcutta or Dowleswaram and sold them to traders who in turn sold them to us. These are the jawbones of the valuga [wallago attu] fish that are found in those areas. If you are a really good worker, fish jawbones wear off within a year.

The hand gin also requires regular maintenance which we do ourselves. The plucking bow needs to be smoothened and filed by the carpenter. Nowadays, carpenters don’t know this work. The plucking bow is made by soaking the branch of the regi chettu [Indian plum] for two days and is then fashioned into a bow. The carpenter smoothens the edges, and then we tie the nylon string nice and tight.

SG: Among the different processes of hand spinning, what are the most challenging and important ones to get a good quality yarn?

MR: All are equally important.

AC: But basically, cleaning is the most important. The cleaner we make the cotton [in the first few stages of patnulu khadi yarn making], the better the quality of the yarn.

SG: Has there been any change in any of the processes over time?

AC/MR: None. We continue to use the same tools and implements.

MR: We can say the hand gin came a little later. Earlier, the wooden slab and rolling pin was used primarily for ginning. It was a slower process.

SG: What, according to you, is the future of the craft? What can be done by government or other agencies for the craft to thrive?

AC: Handloom from Ponduru has earned a brand name, but that doesn’t mean handspun [khadi] has earned its due.  That popularity has not translated into anything for its weavers or us. People only know that handloom from Ponduru is good; they don’t differentiate between ambar spun or handspun patnulu. Earlier, officials of our sangam used to come down and visit our looms and try to improve things. That isn’t the case nowadays.

MR: They say weavers are not willing to weave this yarn.  If weavers don’t weave, what can we do?

AC: Certainly, it is the government’s responsibility to create interest in this product. Only if they take interest, things can improve. After children finish class 10 and intermediate, instead of sitting idle at home, they can be taught this work. They need to train more people in spinning and weaving and make it remunerative for those practicing it. Basically, they have to create interest in the craft.

SG: What is the best thing about patnulu spinning in your opinion?

AC: Basically, we don’t have to go anywhere to earn. We can sit at home and spin at our convenience. We don’t have to cross our doorstep for anything. Whatever our age, we can do this. It has been an important source of income for our family.

MR: My husband runs a small shop in the village. So, that is the main source of income. As for me, why sit at home doing nothing? I don’t have an alternative option, so I go on.