Plastic bow koodais are now chic purses and clutches

The humble wire knot basket, an ’80s school lunch bag staple, is now making a comeback in the form of clutches, shoulder bags, laptop bags and beach bags.

The humble wire knot basket, an ’80s school lunch bag staple, is now making a comeback in the form of clutches, shoulder bags, laptop bags and beach bags.

The koodai sits in a school hallway, a steel tiffin holder comfortably seated inside. Another is filled with vegetables as its owner holds it firmly by its braided handle. Yet another is worn over the shoulder: it is now a shoulder bag in acid colors.

Who would have thought that the humble basket, a school lunch bag staple of the 1980s, would become something so chic? Handwoven with colorful plastic yarn, knotted baskets are now tote bags, clutches, laptop bags, beach bags, cell phone pouches, water bottle holders …why, there are even soap dishes with these intricate knots. The past two years have seen some interesting experiments in knot baskets; partly driven by social media and partly by the versatility and convenience of the format.

S Bhuvaneswari, based in Coimbatore, has been making baskets since she was 14 years old. The 44-year-old has started trying out new shapes and designs as part of a lockdown experiment. “My daughters encouraged me to sell them on social media, and that’s how Koodai Kalanjiyam took shape,” she says. Bhuvaneswari’s homecoming gift baskets are among its best sellers: they are tiny baskets in the shape of hearts, squares and circles. “People buy them for baby showers, weddings and also for Navaratri,” she says.

The koodai cookie looks like tiny cookie squares arranged row after row

The koodai cookie looks like tiny cookie squares arranged row after row | Photo credit: Harini Radhakrishnan

With the government’s ban on single-use plastic, Bhuvaneswari says wire baskets are eco-friendly and pocket-friendly alternatives to plastic bags. “A basket lasts up to 20 years,” she says. “It is ideal for transporting vegetables and steel containers and is robust.” She customizes them based on color, shape and size. “Young women now use them as handbags, for which I make longer handles,” she says, adding that actor Nayanthara popularized it more when she carried koodais in the movie Kaathuvaakula Rendered Kaadhal.

Koodai Kalanjiyam's return gift baskets in the shape of hearts, squares and circles are some of their popular products

Koodai Kalanjiyam Hearts, Squares and Circles Shaped Return Gift Baskets Are Among Their Popular Products | Photo credit: special arrangement

Bhuvaneswari is constantly trying new forms. She makes pen holders and organizers, and also weaves baskets with the “amla” knot, in which the knot is shaped like a hexagon as opposed to the commonly used square knot.

“There are so many variations you can try with the knots,” says Erode-based KS Shanmuga Priya, who also sells on Instagram via her Thilaga Koodais page. “There are star-shaped knots, those with beads woven into them, Sivan can which resembles the eye, and the more intricate cookie pattern,” she explains. The former look like tiny cookie squares laid out row after row, and baskets in the pattern are among the most expensive. “It’s time-consuming and labor-intensive, which is why I take 20-25 days to ship an order once it’s placed,” she says.

Shanmuga Priya works with three basket weavers in her neighborhood. “A lot of things have changed for koodai. It’s no longer just for senior crafters; I’m in my thirties and also starting to learn the trade,” she says, adding that customers are looking for trendy color combinations. “We recently did a black and white one and some pastel colored beach bags.”

Coimbatore-based S Abinaya started a business and Instagram page named after her mother-in-law Saraswathy, known as Saras, at home. “She raised her two children alone by multiplying the trades, including the weaving of wire baskets”, explains the 30-year-old, who is also an artist. She plans to collaborate with Chennai-based designer Sruthi Kannath to create a line of “premium clutches and small clutches in metallic thread and embellished with zardozi and crystals.”

The Sivan 'kann' basket whose knots look like an eye

The Sivan ‘kann’ basket whose knots look like an eye | Photo credit: special arrangement

At Manjal, run by the M.Rm.Rm Cultural Foundation (an organization that works to revive rural crafts, textiles and architecture in the Chettinad region), plans are underway to offer baskets knotted with angular shapes, incorporating leather and fabric into the design, according to Durga Gopalan, the project coordinator. “We are working with a design company on this, and the women who weave the baskets for us, all based in villages in the Sivaganga district, are interested in trying something new,” she adds.

There has been an upsurge in knotted baskets lately

There’s been an upsurge in knot baskets lately | Photo credit: special arrangement

Durga says there has been a “resurgence” of knotted baskets lately. “In Chennai, they are popular among the Korean community. We have at least one Korean customer who buys these bags from us every day,” she says, adding that they offer shoulder bags, crossbody bags and beach baskets in the pattern.

There are people who cherish koodais as vintage collectibles. T Padmavathi, 63, who grew up in Thanjavur, says the first basket she ever wove is still in good condition. “It’s a combination of purple and pink. He must be over 50.