India sees an ancient textile, produced in colonial-era mills, as a fabric of the future

A factory worker sifts through bales of jute to sort the choicest fibers before loading them into machines to be softened and rolled.
(Barbara Davidson / For The Times)

In the dim light of a century-old mill, dozens of men work in silence, their sweat-darkened undershirts clinging to taut, weary backs.

Hulking metal machinery clatters and thrums, coughing up fibrous dust that clings to the steel girders and catches in the laborers’ throats. The sounds rumble deep into the night as long strands of fuzzy golden thread are pulled, combed, spun and woven into sheets, rolling off the line like coarse, flat noodles.

If it seems like a scene from the Industrial Revolution, that’s because India’s jute industry has changed little in 100 years. Many of the looms have been running since right after World War I, when British colonialists opened this sprawling cinder-block mill on a river bend north of Kolkata.

Now India is betting that jute — an ancient textile whose harvesting and production have scarcely been touched by modern technology — could be a fabric of the future.

Amid a global push to reduce the use of plastic for environmental reasons, India is promoting jute — better known in the United States as the fiber used in burlap — as a material for reusable shopping bags, home furnishings, clothing, even diapers and women’s sanitary pads.

Indian officials tout the humble fiber’s eco-friendly qualities. Extracted from the bark of a tall, reedy plant, jute requires less water than cotton and almost no pesticides, absorbs more carbon dioxide for its size than most trees, and is totally biodegradable.

The Indian jute industry sees a potentially huge market in places like California — the first U.S. state to ban disposable plastic shopping bags at most stores — and more than 80 countries where governments have introduced regulations against plastic bags and foam products, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

“We are hoping it will explode — that the world will wake up to all the benefits of jute,” said Lata Bajoria, owner of the Hukumchand jute mill, the world’s largest, on the banks of the Hooghly River.

Nearly all of the world’s jute is grown and milled in the humid, swampy lowlands surrounding Kolkata — formerly known as Calcutta — and in neighboring Bangladesh, where the climate is right and labor is cheap.

Laborers stake jute sacks. India has a keen interest in propping up the industry, which employs 400,000 mill workers and supports an estimated 4 million families. (Barbara Davidson / For The Times)

The fiber’s roots here go back more than 2,000 years. Mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts, it was spun on peasants’ hand looms into twine and simple clothing.

In the 19th century, British colonialists developed the rough, sturdy textile as a packaging cloth for bulk foodstuffs. They built mills on the banks of the Hooghly to churn out coarse sacks used to carry coffee, cocoa and grains around the world.

In recent decades, as manufacturers worldwide found that plastic and synthetic fibers made for cheaper and softer packaging, business suffered and dozens of the mills closed. About three-quarters of India’s jute now remains in the country, bought by the government to package state-supplied food grains at a cost of nearly $900 million a year.

India has a keen interest in propping up the industry, which employs 400,000 mill workers and supports an estimated 4 million families. Still, in the 12 months ending in March, India’s jute production fell by nearly 8% from the year before, to 1.68 million tons, according to government statistics.

Many farmers have switched to crops that yield greater returns, such as rice. Jute remains among the most labor-intensive products in the modern world, starting with the backbreaking summer harvest.

Amid a global push to reduce the use of plastic, India is promoting jute as an eco-friendly alternative for shopping bags, home furnishings, clothing, even diapers and women's sanitary pads.

For several weeks every July and August, jute plants are cut down and immersed in ponds, covered in mud and leaves, for up to two weeks to soften and then rot. On a sticky morning recently, beside a narrow road lined with banana trees outside Kolkata, a dozen men stood waist-deep in a green-brown pond, whacking the stalks with wooden mallets until they fell apart.

They pulled the fibers out in thick wet bundles, like flaxen hair twisting down a woman’s back, and hung them out to dry under the sun before they would be trucked off to the mills.

“An experienced man can prepare six to seven pounds of dry fiber per hour; mechanical methods have not been devised which can compete with cheap labor,” a World Bank researcher wrote in 1949, in a paper assessing the prospects of marketing Indian jute in the U.S.

Little has changed in nearly 70 years.

“This is the hardest work in the farm sector,” said Mohammad Rafiul Islam, a slender man in his 30s, emerging from the pond with sodden trousers and a bundle of damp fiber twirled around his hand. He had started at 4 a.m. and would work until noon, earning about $4 for the day.

At the mills, the shrinking market has left owners little capital to invest in modern production techniques. Some of Hukumchand’s early 20th century looms — whose clacking, fast-moving wooden shuttles are blamed for hearing loss and occasionally spark fires — have been replaced with quieter, Chinese-made models.

But 10,000 workers still sift through bales of raw jute to sort the choicest fibers, load them into machines to be softened and rolled, and cart the unfinished threads through clouds of dust across the mill floor — all by hand.

Top: Sunlight shines through an old mill in Kolkata as a laborer pulls a bail of jute to be processed. Left: A worker carries a large roll of jute. Right: Few women work in the mills due to the harsh conditions, low pay and long hours. (Barbara Davidson / For The Times)

“The jute sector being so small and concentrated, and this not being a very global industry, the research and development on technology has been very limited,” said Raghavendra Gupta, chief executive of the Hooghly Group, which owns Hukumchand and several other mills.

Hooghly and other companies are already supplying jute for use as “geotextiles” — a net-like material used by civil engineers to stabilize loose soil for road construction. Industry leaders hope that growing interest in jute as a consumer product in India and abroad will help stimulate innovation.

Starting in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government included the jute industry in a push to boost struggling domestic manufacturing. Operating with a modest $1-million annual budget, government scientists with the Indian Jute Industries’ Research Assn., working out of a lab in Kolkata, have developed food-safe bags made entirely from jute, with the aim of selling them in Western countries.

Scientists have been experimenting with bacteria to quicken the extraction of jute and improve the quality of the fibers to yield softer fabrics. A special digital printing technique developed in the lab could allow jute to replace plastic in banners and advertisements, the researchers say.

This year, the association introduced a low-cost sanitary pad made entirely from the fluffy, highly absorbent cellulose of jute plants. Officials said they have begun talks with the Indian arm of Johnson & Johnson to bring the pad to the mass market.

“Maybe one day jute will be used in sanitary napkins and diapers worldwide,” said U.S. Sarma, the association’s director. “All of these are the products of the future.”

Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali