During the Victoria Era, the textile industry swelled across the UK taking full advantage of the trading routes and markets of the burgeoning British Empire. The Turkey red industry alone was able to export millions of yards of cloth a week to meet Indian demand, being a cloth that was cheap, bright and colourfast with market driven designs. By 1931 however, Gandhi’s popularity was at its peak and the Swadeshi movement in full swing. Where once imported goods were seen as status symbols for the Indian Elite, home produced goods grew in popularity with local suppliers upping their prices. It soon became “de rigueur” to pay a premium price for Swadeshi which in turn kick-started home trade. Demand for British cloth therefore fell, import duties were raised, and stores trading in Turkey red were picketed by Swadeshi activists.
This led to a crisis in the UK where trading, banking and shipping associated with India was worth 20% of British GDP. In the summer of 1931 E.D. Anderson, the secretary writing on behalf of The Scottish Federation of Dyers and Bleachers, corresponded with the Operatives Union of Scotland on the very serious position in India affecting the Textile Industry in Lancashire and Scotland. The result would be a co-operative effort to persuade ‘His Majesties government’ to recognise the gravity of the ‘Indian Situation,’ and to take some affective steps to deal with the boycott of British textiles.
In September of 1931, whilst Gandhi was in the UK for round table talks with the British Government, he was invited by owners of an East Lancashire textile mill to see for himself the hardships being suffered by the workforce, mainly as a result of the drop in available work – a direct result of Swadeshi. The trip to Lancashire was opportune for Gandhi. The round table talks in London had begun to stall and heading to the heart of the textile industry would draw the press back to highlight the fight for independence.
Arriving to a warm welcome by locals, Gandhi spent most of his time speaking to the workers and their families rather than the mill owners who had gathered to present a united front. Whilst he had sympathy with the worker’s plight, he confirmed that the boycott would stay unless there was progress towards independence. The textile industry however did not see independence as the answer and were more in favour of a ‘little firm handling.’ In a document submitted to the Indian Empire Society they implied – “Mr Gandhi …openly avows…that his object is the total extinction of British Textiles…It is felt that the interests of the British workpeople within the textile trade have been disregarded, while a willing ear has been given to a noisy group headed by Gandhi who have no right whatever to speak for India.”
The Turkey red industry is an archetype of a colonial practice at the height of the industrial revolution. Western colonial powers were able to capitalise on the colonies by appropriating their cultural identity both regionally and nationally to boost industry at home. The Bombay Sample Book, a conglomerate of ‘best-selling’ samples from rival companies in the procession of Turkey red producers William Stirling & Sons, was full of ‘mined’ ideas. For example, traditional Indian tie-dye inspired designs were noted to be ‘suitable… for Calcutta.’ This time consuming, hand technique could be quickly replicated under mass-production in Scotland, using cylinder printing or wood blocks operated by a poorly paid workforce. Many of the samples in the book are labelled ‘OFF’ indicating that they had been dropped from the line because they hadn’t sold well or had fallen out of fashion. The ‘cultural forms’ in the designs had no meaning to the manufacturers in Scotland and were utilised purely on the basis of their market value and viability.
Yet the exploitation and cataloguing of traditional motifs and patterns by the Turkey red companies initially for market domination could be said to have been part of its downfall. Much of the Swadeshi movement was concerned with the preservation of indigenous craft. During the round table talks one of Gandhi’s demands centred on ‘the preservation of indigenous textile machinery.’ The success of Swadeshi led to the abandonment of British re-productions of classic Indian styles, and to the rediscovery of traditional craft or locally produced cloths.