Janhavi Kulkarni was in Class four when she started exploring the world of stitching, like every other kid in her region of Dharwad. More than being an unwritten rule it was the tradition of weaving beautiful embroideries for house decor that piqued her interest in fabrics and textiles.
Inspired by her mother, aunts and neighbourhood aunties making cholis (blouses) from the ‘khun’ or ‘khana’ material, she too would make dresses for her dolls.
Her interest soon took an educational shape and she moved to Mumbai to study textiles from SNDT University (she even won a gold medal in 1999).
As she transitioned from a student to an employee at an apparel export house and later at a home furnishing brand to motherhood, khun disappeared from her life.
The 4000-year-old indigenous fabric that was once an integral part of her childhood was now practically non-existent in her life. Unlike Banarsi Saree Brocade, Kalamkari, Bandhej, Mysore Silk and Bulachari, she realised khun was not so popular.
That’s why, in 2012, she got back to work after maternity leave and started KaleNale, an organisation to uplift weavers and make khun globally popular.
A decade later, the organisation has a presence in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, Germany and more. It has the support of the Central Silk Board of Karnataka and is benefiting 8-10 workers in Guledgudda, the village where khun has its origin.
The Better India speaks to Janhavi, founder of KaleNale about the speciality of Khun, the approach she uses to draw people’s attention and how she convinced the weavers to bring back khun.
Khun: A Blend of Cotton and Silk
While there are very few historical accounts that help trace the origin of khun, according to folk tales, it was found under the Chalukya dynasty in the 8th century.
“The fabric is mainly used across regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra to make cholis for Ilkal cotton-based sarees and lehengas. The sarees’ distinctive feature of the colourful pallu, which is woven separately, compliments the khun blouse,” says Janhavi.
What makes khun unique is the additional yarn that is woven on the warp (lengthwise threads) and weft (filling) to make themed motifs on the cloth. The motifs are usually based on nature and the everyday lives of locals, which include jowar seeds, goddesses, regional flora and fauna. The waft is silk and the weft is cotton which forms the basis of khun.
“Traditionally, the fabric is weaved on handlooms and the size is 32 inches. Thus, there is zero wastage as that size is perfect for a blouse. The colours used are usually in jewel tones to maintain a vibrant consistency. Also, in the olden days, the fabric would be dyed close to a rocky terrain that had mineral water. Anything dyed in mineral water makes the colour richer. These include green, purple, magenta and blue,” she explains.
The price of the products ranges from Rs 500 to Rs 15,000.
Before approaching the weavers to make the apparel, Janhavi experimented on her own. She would procure khun from the weavers in Guledgudda and Dharwad, bring it to her garage in Bengaluru and make pillow cushions.
Thanks to past working experience, she knew the pulse of buyers and how designs can be converted into a viable mass production process. She spent a year doing the trials and then approached the weavers.
At first, the weavers did not trust a lady from Bengaluru and her intentions. So, she spent time understanding their needs. Being the head of product development in her previous job, she had interacted with weaving clusters across India so it was easier for her to get them on board.
“In the 1970s, Bagalkot was one of the high tax paying regions but due to influx of power looms and insufficient marketing opportunities, khun weaving declined. It was hard for them to trust me. It took a lot of passion and effort,” she says.
Today, KaleNale gets its own silk and the weavers dye them various tones which then into the loom. On warp, which is typically 22 metres, it takes a month to prepare. The process is painstaking as any tiny mistake can reverse the process.
Together, they made everything from clothes, jewellery, home decor items to stoles and doormats.
However, the challenge came when she told the weavers about her plan of weaving sarees. The looms that weavers had were not big enough to accommodate a saree. But seeing the stability of orders and thereby income, the weavers agree to increase the width of the loom.
In 2016, they made their first saree and a year later, they launched an exhibition organised by the state Silk Board.
In the initial days, says Janhavi, some of the final khun products had to be rejected but she never returned them. Instead, she took the fabric and trained women affiliated with NGOs to upcycle it into flower hats.
She also introduced different innovations like mixing khun with laterite to make bags and teakwood to make trays.
“I wanted to make a point to the buyers that khun is a very versatile material. So with every piece we sold, we educated the buyer with motif characters and their purpose simply by a code scanner. We also introduced a programme ‘Awaken Karigari’ to teach product designing and stitching to corporates. We funnelled the money from such paid gigs into KaleNale,” she adds.
Her awareness method worked and in 2016, they received their first big order from a US pharma company for corporate gifting. Since then there has been no looking back.
As for the karigars, they were taught to buy yarn, come up with design ideas and provide insights into their work. This level of involvement helped them gain confidence and their work improved. This was visible in their 30-40% increased incomes.
“I have been weaving viscose ilkal sarees for the last 22 years. When Janhavi approached me, I didn’t understand much [of the work]. But she was putting sincere efforts to make us try something new and supported us at every step. Now that we have made so many new things with the same fabric, a TV crew interviewed us. We understood that this will help us,” says Laxmi Nidagundi, a weaver from Kamatagi village in Bagalkot.
“Our earnings have increased by over 50 per cent. Payments come on time and money is not deducted in case of any mistake. We can educate our children better. We are confident that we will be able to take care of our children’s expenses. Also, there is something new to learn every day,” says Dhanesh, another weaver.
Overall, the company also witnessed a growth of 50 per cent pre-pandemic and last year they closed their revenue at Rs 1 crore.
Till now the products were sold online and via Whatsapp and, only recently, KaleNale opened its first offline store near the old airport road in Bengaluru.
Today, when Janhavi looks back at her decade-long journey and her childhood fascination for fabrics, it feels surreal.
“I had thought of calling it quits when balancing work and my personal life was difficult. With two growing boys and training the weavers, I wanted to do justice to everything. But I am glad I believed in my vision and the skills of my weavers,” she adds.
The forgotten weave
Edited by Yoshita Rao