The Curious Case of the Railway Quilt


People like me, who have travelled long distance by train at least once know that these train journeys have a charm. I haven’t felt them to be most comfortable ones, but even I got to admit that it does make an enriching human experience.

You meet people who become your confidants for those 36 hours. Most personal details get shared in the journey. The most helpful and resourceful stewards and every person in the staff moves briskly and like clockwork.

Somewhere around 7.30 pm, (on a Mumbai- Delhi Rajdhani train) the stewards plop on your seat 2 bed sheets, a quilt and a couple of pillows.

Whether you like the company or not, you know you have ample time on your hands to brood over your life or soak up the journey and witness India. I am also reminded of the picture Amitav Ghosh had created in his book, The Hungry Tide.

But whether a frequent traveller or not, a significant part of the evening is spent snuggling inside this quilt. The comfort of those quilts are what makes the journey worthwhile. The quilts can weather any temperature – okay I am exaggerating, but it is amazing how comfortable those quilts are.

I have not come across a single person around me who has claimed that their sleep in the train was not sound.

I know one cannot attribute it entirely to the bedding provided by the railway authorities.

Now coming to the part about why I am going on about this dull and heavy railway quilt.

The cicularity of railway quilt

These quilts are actually made from seconds in a city called Panipat.

I know I know, we are either thinking of the famous film of Ashutosh Gowarikar, or the battle of Panipat fought between the Marathas and the Mughals. But believe me, there is a lot more to Panipat.

Did you know that Panipat is also called the cast-off capital?

 Yes, it is at the nub of all textile recycling in the country.

Western economies like US and countries in Europe discard their used designer and woolen clothes.

They give them to charities and thrift shops, who in turn sell these to India and other developed countries. They are shipped to India in cargoes and then they are driven by road from JNPT port in Mumbai, to Panipat.

These clothes, which come in mutilated form find their way into the several hundreds of mills in the city of Panipat, which is 90 km from Delhi.

What happens in Panipat

Once these clothes reach the mills, they are first sorted into colour families.

The buttons, zippers and linings are then torn apart to be resold to scrap dealers.

In carding machines, these clothes are then shredded, pulled apart and then twisted into yarn.

These yarns are then sent to looms where blankets, quilts and a lot of home furnishings are made.

Indian Railways happens to be a major customer of these quilts.

So next time you are taking a train journey and using these quilts, remember that you could be covering yourself with a Dior or Chanel yarn.

 Now, that I have circled back to the Train and its quilts, I got to complete the story of Panipat.

Do you know what this rough, coarse and heavy quilts are made of? These fabrics are called ‘Shoddy’.

Not to be construed as a pejorative word, this shoddy fabric is the essence of these warm duvets.

New respect for the word.

But Panipat’s gain is actually Prato’s decline.

Panipat is called as the ‘Cast off’ capital of the world, a hub of all discarded clothes worn in the UK and Europe. Formerly, this designation was enjoyed by a town called Prato, in Italy.

Prato used to be a textile hub, somewhere in 1960s. But better labour costs caused a shift towards India, namely Panipat.

A lot of these clothing items, bed linens, dhurries, mats and woollens are manufactured in Panipat.

They are then sold to countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and parts of South America at very cheap costs.

Apparently, the market in those countries are enormous and it supported the businesses of nearly 600 mills in Panipat.

The quilts and woollen wear do have a small Indian market too.

Lately, this ‘Shoddy Industry’, is facing enormous challenges.

The logistical costs are making the survival in these mills extremely difficult.

Secondly, in China they have started manufacturing something called fleece. Fleece quilts manufactured in China have become a huge threat to the Shoddy economy of Panipat.

Quilts made of fleece are a very common sight in departmental stores and Home stores these days. They are made of virgin polyester yarn, the cost of which is extremely cheap. Low costs mean higher production. Fleece quilts are lighter and cheaper. They look attractive with various designs.   

Polyester is a by product of Crude oil, the prices of which are going down globally. Owing to which the prices of polyester yarn is also low.

Unable to match the Chinese costs, mills in Panipat are also switching to manufacturing these fleece quilts.

Panipat is losing heavily to Chinese made fleece, which are now rampantly available.

If there were 600 mills and factories in the early 2000s, there are only 150 or so remaining now.

If there were 800 containers of mutilated clothes that were imported from the western nations, now the imports are to the tune of 300-400 containers only, thereby reducing the production value of ‘Shoddy’ industry from 90 crores to about 35 crores. (2017 figures).

The same international markets are now complaining that the blankets are not soft enough, attractive enough or light enough, thereby forcing the mills to switch to making these fleece quilts.

This explains why the size of industry has halved and going down consistently.

The process of reusing and repurposing the dumped clothes is highly labour intensive. Switching to making fleece means machines are replacing the labour. Since the number of people absorbed are much lesser comparatively, these mills are having to let go of people who manually ripped the many zips and buttons.

A sector that employed 90,000 people in its heyday, has now halved in headcount.

Migrant labourers are forced to go back to their hometowns in U.P and Bihar and look for alternate sources of income.

Mr. Pawan Garg, President of All India Woolen and Shoddy Mills Association shared that the future of the shoddy industry looks bleak.

Import duties on mutilated clothes are minimal, which means that anybody can enter this business. High transportation costs and lack of regulation in this business and of course fierce competition from China is why he shares a gloomy outlook of the ‘Shoddy Industry’.

Despite his realistic outlook, the eternal optimist in me believes that this is a temporary dip in industry lifecycle. My view is based on a certain rationale:  

India has still not woken up to the concept of circular fashion.

Textile waste in India is to the tune of 1 million tonnes.

Sourice – TOI , 2018

Textile waste in India is to the tune of 1 million tonnes every year (Source – TOI article dated April 2, 2018).

And most of it comes from household sources.

According to Indian Textile Journal, post-consumer waste is the kind of waste that people usually discard because the garment has either worn out, damaged, outgrown and/or outdated.

Apart from NGOs and a few brands, there are hardly any efforts taken to upcycle or recycle old clothes.

The Textile Value Chain also states that out of the textile discards of any household, more than 50% of them are recyclable, whereas only 25% is actually recycled.

Households account for maximum post-consumer textile waste. Even though a large portion is donated or converted into wipes and kitchen towels, it still has significant room for improvement.

Nilanjana Bairagi’s research undertaken among 20-30-year olds states that an average youth in a metro owns 45+ pieces of clothing in his/her wardrobe and that 68% of them shop every month. Even though these figures are of 2017, and we have had the lockdown also, I suspect that the numbers have not been affected.

I am closing this blog with the note that at a household level, we as homemakers, thinking women, mothers, wives can drive this by being more aware and mindful and thoughtful about discarding clothes.

Read my blog about how to build an Intentional wardrobe which talks about working with quality and times pieces.

Very soon, India will not have to import mutilated clothes, because we will generate them, thanks to the consumerism we’ve begun to espouse.

But bleak or not, this Shoddy industry is not going anywhere.

Upon reading this blog, I would urge each and every one of you to Upcycle your clothes before throwing them away. Read my blog on how you can restart your sustainability journey here.