At a recent meeting of the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers a lovely gentleman produced a box like object the size of a book. He opened it out and informed us that it was a Charkha spinning wheel. Now anything that turns and produces thread or wool of any kind grabs my interest but when I saw this compact machine I was transfixed. I was aware of its association with Gandhi but what I hadn’t known was that he had actually invented this spinning wheel when he was in jail in Pune in the 1920s for civil disobedience.
“The spinning wheel of Gandhi brought us freedom.” (Punjabi folk song)
Whilst incarcerated Gandhi used the spinning wheel to spin cotton thread and produce fabric for his own clothing. He rejected European style clothing, instead, opting for the simple loincloth that we so often see him wearing in photographs of the time.
This was a part of the Swadeshi movement which held an anti-colonial (anti-British) philosophy that attempted to promote the self-sufficiency of the Indian people. At that time India was importing much of its cotton textiles from the north of England. The movement encouraged Indians to create their own fabrics rather than import machine made cloth from Britain. In an effort to reduce poverty in rural India and to stem the flow of Indian money destined for England Gandhi stated that it was
“the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.”
Gandhi received some criticism for being backward looking and eschewing the benefits of modern machinery but in response he claimed that “a plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour.” He also argued that he was not against machines per se but that he was against India’s dependence on British machinery.
For Gandhi the spinning wheel was an emblem of non-violent protest. It featured on the first national flag of India in 1921 but the flag went through a number of transformations before it got to today’s current version.
Gandhi recognised the personal benefits of spinning. It has been reported that he got up at 4 a.m. each morning and spun for one hour. He claimed that spinning was akin to meditation and that it ‘calmed the nerves.’
Below is a video of a modern Charkha in action. It was made by Jonathan Bosworth who created the Charkha that I saw at the IGSWD meeting in Dublin.
India gained its independence from Britain in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. His personal Charkha spinning wheel was recently sold in the U.K. for £110,000.