Orissa for millenia has been famous for the variety and beauty of its handlooms (Hand woven textiles). Handloom is a loom operated by hand. It requires a space of barely 10 Sq. mtrs. Generally, weaving is a family activity, helping each other in the processing and producing cloth. According to a recent census, there are about four lakh weavers in Orissa, operating about one lakh looms.

Orissa had been in ancient times exporting fine cloth through its ports. The manufacturing activity in those days was an important economic activity. In the tribal societies of Orissa, many tribal groups used to weave their own clothes. Particularly Bonda women using their native looms, weave Ringa cloth out of Kerang fibres which are collected from the forest. Today this practice is dying down in the tribal groups. Hand-weaving of cloth is one of the richest medium of cultural expression of people. One of the earliest references to Orissa’s Handloom Tradition is found in jyotinisvara’s Varnaratnakara, written in the early fourteenth century in Maithili. The tradition of intricate and painstaking hand-weaving referred to in this treatise in Orissa continues to the present day.

Orissa had a rich tradition of producing ‘ikat’ fabrics. The term ‘ikat’ comes from Malaya-Indonesian expression ‘mangikat’ meaning to bind knots or wind around. The Ikat technique of manufacturing handlooms is known as  ‘tie and dye technique’ and is also known as bandha’ technique in Orissa. The ‘bandha’ process means to bind and around.

Orissan handlooms are famous for their colour, designs and motifs. This hand woven fabric is replete with everyday motifs like flower, tree, wheel, fish and religious symbols like conch etc. The final products are unique creations – aesthetic yet functional. Because of labour-intensive work, demanding great skills, the cost of the fabric becomes high.

Traditionally, women of Orissa dressed in Sarees of blue, red and orange and other dark colours. With synthetic (as opposed to vegetable) dyes available, more colours like orange and other mixed colours have come into use. The beautiful and eye-catching sarees are made in the State, mainly at Nuapatna near Cuttack and in the inland weaving centers around Sambalpur, and Bargarh Districts. These are the major centers of production.

In these areas the layout of the textile designs, takes the form of horizontal shapes. Motifs are mainly floral or of fish and animal design.

New centers of production have come up and have gained popularity, such as – Bomkai and Habaspuri sarees. Experimental innovations continue to be made to weave exclusive, intricate fabric designs in cotton and silk fabrics. The master weavers also have shown their talent in clothes made out of Tossar silk.

Today, the handloom sector in Orissa is at cross roads as its market is being eaten into by less expensive, powerloom and mill products. Weavers have therefore, begun to diversify their product range. They are producing yardage for dresses, furnishing bedlinen, cushion covers and upholstery. Home furnishing productions are being made in the State. ‘Kotpad’ scarves, ‘Dhalapathar’ curtains and Sambalpuri bed covers are examples. The product of Orissa handlooms are second to none and are exquisite and artistic and have been welcome in foreign markets.