Activist and advocate of traditional weaving and handloom techniques, Sally Holkar is best known as the revivalist of the Maheshwari saree. Known for her work at the Rehwa Society and the WomenWeave Charitable Trust, Holkar’s work has been focused on making handloom production more sustainable and accessible, with a specific focus on rural India.
Born in Dallas, Holkar graduated in political science from Stanford University. In 1996, she married Richard Holkar, son of the Maharaja of Indore, and moved to India. Soon after, on a weaver’s plea, the Holkars began supporting the community at Maheshwar, a traditional weaving town that the royal family patronised, for which the Holkars received an initial grant of INR 88,000 from the Central Welfare Board.
In 1978, she co-founded Rehwa Society, where older women taught younger women the craft of weaving, particularly Maheshwari sarees. These sarees were gradually made commercially available, with FabIndia, New Delhi, being the first outlet to sell them. At Rehwa, Holkar worked with the weavers to incorporate more contemporary elements into the saree, including subtler colours and the blending of traditional cotton with fabrics such as tussar and wool. She was also instrumental in introducing geometric patterns across the saree, as opposed to limiting them to the borders.
In 2003, Holkar established the WomenWeave Charitable Trust, which began as an initiative to empower the women Maheshwar and Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, to spin khadi on semi-automatic charkhas. Subsequently, in 2009, she started the Gudi Mudi Project under WomenWeave for women from non-weaving backgrounds, usually from marginalised communities with no mode of livelihood, making them economically independent through the spinning of yarn from locally grown cotton. The project also aimed to bring women to the forefront of sustainable development while raising awareness about organic clothing and eco-friendly fashion.
Besides creating new fabrics by blending yarns and catering to contemporary demands, Holkar has also generated employment for weavers across the country. Her weaves have also been used in films such as Umrao Jaan. Holkar also set up the Handloom School in Maheshwar in 2013, which has a curriculum dedicated to teaching design and textile technology as well as traditional weaving techniques as an economically sustainable occupation for people from marginalised communities.
At the time of writing, Holkar lives and works in Maheshwar.
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