On a chilly January morning, Jamal Khalifa was sitting inside the Barisal bedding store that he built five years ago. He began the venture business with hopes of making a living out of the skill he has mastered over the last 30 years - making traditional quilts and mattresses.
Jamal was 11 years old when his grandfather first engaged him in his bedding store business in Barisal, primarily because Jamal was not a very studious nor too keen to go to school.
Jamal never looked back, till now.
Over the following 30 years, Jamal made hundreds of cotton mattresses, jajim, and the iconic red quilts. But with time, there came a change in the market. His quilt-making skill appeared to gradually lose relevance with every consignment of imported synthetic blankets and mattresses that made its way into the market.
In his distinctive Barisali accent, Jamal reminisced about how prestigious it was to know this craft once upon a time. "There was a time when parents and relatives used to say that if the young boy in the family is not doing well in studies, they should not worry as he can learn the skill of quilt-making and his life will be sorted. But now, you will not find such artisans anymore," said Jamal.
Even five years ago, Jamal made at least 100 quilts in the winter season, but this year, he could not even make 20. Jamal has now started to keep synthetic blankets beside the rolls of traditional fluorescent red fabric. And with every passing day, the dust on that red roll thickens while the colourful shiny blankets get sold within a week of bringing it in the store for sale.
Md Khorshed Alam has a similar story. But unlike Jamal, this old man does not crave for the golden days of red quilts. Khorshed Alam believes that "if you are a true businessman, sell things, whatever you find - do not cry over the lost products."
His Arman Bedding store on the ground floor of Annexco tower at Fulbaria is a blanket store now.
The alleys of the capitals' blanket market are getting more colourful every day. Because, besides the local blankets that are produced in the textile factories of Narayanganj and Gazipur, these alleys are flooded with shiny blankets imported from China.
And perhaps this is why people like Jamal Khalifa or Md Khorshed Alam are filling their bedding stores with exported synthetic blankets and mattresses and transitioning away from their decades-old skill of making the traditional red quilts.
But why is the red quilt quietly taking the exit gate?
According to the business owners, it is because the quilt-making profession has lost its prestige and also because of the quality of the product. Jamal explained the predicament as, "What is a good quilt? Good quality cotton (jum cotton), good quality fabric and good craftsmanship."
The quiltmakers told us that the jum cotton or the cotton from the hill tracts is the best type for quilts. At Tk450 per kilo, this cotton is not commercially produced. So if someone wants a perfectly-made quilt, one might need to spend from Tk1,850 to Tk3,000. And it takes from four to seven days to make a single quilt.
"Nowadays people do not want to invest that much time. And also because you would not find good craftsmen these days, as people have moved on from this profession," further explained Jamal, sitting in his empty store.
Another reason for the quilt industry's decline is that the cotton industry has had a major shift towards imported cotton.
"Instead of our very own traditional Shimul or Bombax ceiba, the market is currently dominated by the cotton imported from Indonesia. Other than that, we produce a lot of shredded fabric cotton in the factories from recycled fabric," said Dr Mominul Islam, the Senior Scientific Officer of the Bangladesh Cotton Development board.
As a result, the local cotton industry is losing its market while recycled fabric cotton is what is left for the quilt-makers. This recycled cotton is commonly known as 'karpas' to the quiltmakers. "The worst-kind of cotton to put into a magical quilt," said purist Jamal. This lep or quilt does not sustain for long while the jum-cotton ones can be used for more than 25 years.
The world of colourful blankets
In a crowded room full of people between the ages of 15-50, if you ask what they use - a traditional quilt or a modern blanket - you will most likely hear the older generation say 'a quilt' while the younger people would say 'blankets.'
The blanket alleys of the capital's Fulbaria Annexco tower market and the Dhaka trade centre - the wholesale markets of blankets - are usually crowded with customers of all ages. Annexco tower has more than 80 stores on its ground floor.
Fahmida Rashid, a new grandmother, was there to buy a brand-new blanket for her grandchild. She said, "When we were little, our grandmothers made little red quilts or leps for us. But now, the blankets are also available in many designs, colours and themes as well."
Fahmida was looking for a Frozen-themed blanket for her granddaughter.
This phenomenon can be explained by the advancement in technology and the economic reality of this country, which, in turn, have propelled the transition from red quilts to synthetic imported mattresses.
"People have more money now. Instead of waiting seven days for a quilt, they will simply buy blankets from Fulbaria or Gulistan," said Jamal.
According to McKinsey Global Institute, 2019, Bangladesh imports 47 percent of the total textile and fabric required in the country, from China, and that includes the synthetic and wool blankets that are sold in the markets. Political and cultural organisations buy blankets for donations, which is another reason blanket sales are rising.
The blanket sellers said that for the last two to three years, at the beginning of the winter season, they sell blankets worth more or less Tk2 lakh individually. Although this year sales are much lower, sellers are hopeful that the sale will rise with the severity of winter.
Jamal Khalifa, on the other hand, is planning to turn his Barisal bedding store into a full-fledged blanket and mattress store. He said, "It is almost like letting go of a part of my soul. But I have a family to feed, my children are growing up and I need to earn more to provide them with a good education."
Now, Jamal sits in his store, listens to the philosophical lectures of Islamic scholars and sells synthetic blankets in between. But deep down, he waits for a customer, who will want to know about the magic of a top-notch red quilt, about the premium jum cotton he can collect from the traders of the hill tracts areas and about the craft of quilt-making that he has been learning all his life.