Fashion students come to this school dropout to learn the art of making saris and shirts from aloe vera and banana.
When C Sekar looks at aloe vera, he doesn’t see a medicinal plant. In the hands of this traditional weaver in a village outside Chennai, aloe vera fibres are transformed into saris, shirts, salwars, pillow covers, carpets and wall hangings. For the past six years, he has also been making saris out of natural banana fibre.
Sekar’s unique skill of making fibre fabrics has made him famous in the textile industry. Fashion technology students from across India often camp in the otherwise obscure Alakaputhur village to take lessons directly from this school dropout. On almost all working days, Sekar’s dingy workplace becomes a classroom, where students learn processes like extraction of fibre, knotting, dyeing and weaving. The textile engineering department at IIT Delhi has brought his products to the attention of the Union textile ministry.
In the beginning, Sekar and his family were engaged in manufacturing and export of handkerchiefs to Nigeria. Branded as Real Madras Handkerchiefs, the business collapsed after a few years because the buyers shifted to less expensive substitutes. That was when he began to experiment with fibre fabrics. “Both aloe vera and banana fibre have a lot of medicinal values. They are the best option for people suffering from skin allergy. I can make quality saris and other dress materials out of 25 natural fibres,” he says. These include water reeds, bamboo, chevvai grass, remi, pineapple, wool and silk.
He needs two days to make aloe vera and banana fibre saris, three days for cotton saris. As president of Alakaputhur Jute Weavers’ Association, Sekar has brought 50 families of traditional weavers under his organisation and trained them. Made in manual weaving machines by skilled workers, the price of aloe vera saris ranges from Rs 1,400 to Rs 4,000. “They last and there’s no fading of colour. I am not for large-scale mechanisation. The materials are devoid of plastic and synthetic. Natural fibres are the answer in a world struggling with pollution and global warming,” he says.
Though there are occasional orders from countries like England and Canada, Sekar doesn’t have the resources to invest in a proper marketing chain. He remains poor and lives in a thatched house. “After the steep rent for the workplace and salaries to employees, I am penniless every month despite the demand from outside for the materials. Government agencies and banks only pay lip-service when I approach them for assistance. Nobody is willing to extend a loan of more than Rs 50,000,” says Sekar. “I need a brand ambassador to market the products effectively. Even in Chennai, I am unable to find proper distributors.”