The history of cotton textiles in India can be traced back to the period of the Vedas. It is not possible to find out from the available literature as to how and when the industry of weaving came to be located at Maheshwar.
The only mention about it occurs in the Arthashastra of Kautilya – that great politician, statesman and economist of his times. The Arthashastra mentions Madhura, Aparanta, Kalinga, Benares and Maheshla country on the banks of the Narmada. below Jabalpur as being the centres of manufacture of the cloth of the finest variety.
A vague tradition as per an old weaver from Maheshwar, that in the former days when the means of communications were not developed. The cloth of Maheshwar used to be transported to other areas on camel backs and traders coming here from far and near to purchase the cloth manufactured here.
There is a complete blank between the period of Arthashastra and the period when Ahilya Bai reigned over the Holkar State. She may easily be said to be the mother of the modern industry of Maheshwar and the history of Maheshwar sari-weaving can be traced from 1754 i. e. from the beginning of Ahilya Bai's rule. She said, invited skilled weavers from Gujarat and Mandu and helped them to establish themselves here in this craft. Mention found in some book .. and in the accounts of the travelers who visited this place that costly cloth of the finest variety, especially saris, of 200 count yarn and silk with figured effects and interwoven with silver and gold threads, was being produced here in her time and continued to be produced till the recent past.
Ahilya Bai, the benevolent HoIkar, rejuvenated the Maheshwar industry to meet the demands of exquisite saris for the royal family. Records available to show that she used to send these saris to other parts. where girls of her family were married and in this doing. she increased the popularity of these saris in other parts also.
Due to her efforts, the weaving industry in Maheshwar grew considerably in size. Business in saris and Maheshwar-woven cloth was recorded in lakhs of rupees and merchants and whole-sale buyers poured in Maheshwar from all parts of India. They used to stay there, sometimes for more than a fortnight to get their orders executed.
The Maheshwari sari, as they used to be called, especially known for their special simple border design which had been evolved here and which still remains their special characteristic. It is said that it was Ahilya Bai herself who had designed the simple border: it is curious to see this border still being the most liked border design in the saris manufactured here.
Maheshwar industry had the privilege to get the royal patronage to such an extent that it came to be looked upon as their ancestral industry and a symbol of the property of the Holkar Ruler and her Government.
Apart from the patronage of the Holkars, the handloom weaving industry rose to prominence for another reason -- it had very few competitors during the period. But this supremacy could not long maintained. Soon came up other centers which produced cloth of equal, if not superior, quality and catered to the local tastes and requirement. These were the weaving centres at Banaras, Chanderi, Belgaum, Dharwar, Nagpur, Burhanpur and Madurai.
The industry continued to progress satisfactorily till about the first decade of the present century till this time, though there had already come other competitors in the field of sari production. Maheshwar could still boast of its fast colours and of its beautiful designs. The artisans here had originally used indigenous dyes but with the development of the German dye industry and the import of their products in India, they were quick to take recourse to fast German colours and shades.
But then comes the bang and the boom of the war, and Maheshwar weavers were deprived of the dyes that were giving life to their craft. As happend at those times, spurious dyes came into the market and the weavers also started making their own dyes from al roots. These fugitive dyes were the main reason for the downfall of this industry since the fast colours were no longer there.
The almost all-India market for Maheshwari saris soon began to dwindle and a stage came when, as it said merchants and consumers would not even touch sari if they suspected it to be the Maheshwari one. The looms of the weavers became idle and they came to almost a hand-to-mouth existence. Many of them left Maheshwar and those that remained ran into heavy debts. It appeared that the sari-weaving industry was going to die after all
Ref: Census of India, 1961