The Indian handloom sector with its fine art of weaving and dyeing, produces some of the most exquisite fabric and a lot of it goes into creating Saris, the Indian dress that is perhaps the most graceful ethnic attire in the world. Women drape six yards of fabric around their waist and falls pleated like a skirt till the floor, with a blouse worn on top. The grace and charm of the sari remains unmatched, and it is universally admired by young and old alike.
Traditional designs and ethnic weaves have given way to trendy saris that use western styles, combination of fabrics and glitter to attract, in contrast to the muted grace of traditional weaves, which with all the gold and silver can never be garish. Markets are full of these flashy saris, in vogue today, but out of fashion in no time. However, India boasts of classic weaves and designs that have timeless appeal, and signify class, charm and sophistication that remain unmatched. Thus, a Paithani sari can be a show stealer, and a Pochampally worn by airhostesses of the national airline, Air India, draws admiring glances at airports across the globe.
I would love to gift each one of these classics to my daughter, as ageless treasures that will last a lifetime and beyond. But I realized that she and so many of my young friends are not even familiar with many of the traditional Indian sari varieties. For some reason, their knowledge is limited to Benarasi and Kanjeevaram!
So, in an attempt to educate myself and those around me, I set out to discover and learn about Indian ethnic handlooms and weaves that go to create the beautifully charming sari.
Benarasi- Benaras/Varanasi is home to some the finest tissue and silk sarees with intricate weaves, motifs and intricate borders, using thread and gold. Pure silks with a touch of gold are called Bafta and brocades of variegated silk are called Amru.
Baluchari – Silk saris from Bengal, woven in Murshidabad and Bishnupur. They are famous due to the weaving of mythological scenes on the pallu of the sari. Baluchari in gold is called Swarnachari.
Bhagalpuri – Tussar silk saris with a distinct dying style from Bhagalpur, Bihar. The city lies on the banks of the Ganges and is called the silk city.
Bandhani/bandhej – Made by tying the sari fabric with thread at several points, thus producing patterns likeleheriya, mothra, ekdali, shikari…depending on the way the threads are tied. Once processed, bandhani produces dots, squares, waves and stripes.
Bomkai- Bomkai saris are also called Sonepuri saris produced by Bhulia community of Subarnapuri district of Odisha. Bomkai designs are those from a village named Bomkai of Ganjam district.
Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh) – traditional saris made in Chanderi, MP, in silk, cotton and cotton silk. Floral art, geometrical designs, coin and peacock designs are most commonly woven into them.
Dupion Silk- a plain weave silk that is crisp that has fine thread in the warp and uneven thread reeled from two or more entangled cocoons in the weft. The fabric that comes out is tightly woven and is lustruous, But considered to be rough silk.
Dhakai Jamdaani- special cotton saris made in Dhaka, Bangladesh, light as a feather and almost transparent, with intricate motifs. Jamdaani weave is exclusive since brocade looms are used along with a supplementary weft technique. One sari can take 9 months to weave. Tangail jamdaani comes from tangail district in Bangladesh and have traditional broad borders, lamp and fish motifs. SHantipur jamdaanis are from india and have striped motifs, while the Indian Dhaniakhali Jamdaani has a tighter weave compared to shantipur and tangail, have bold colors and dark contrasting borders.
Traditional jamdaanis were only in pure cotton and dhakai muslin was the world’s finest. Now cotton, cotton silk mix and pure silk are made.
Dharamavaran- small town in AP known for its silk weaving of saris in muted colors and double shades with gold borders and contrasting pallu-quite similar to Kanjeevaram.
Eri silk- this is the most exclusive and purest form of silk from Assam and the silkworms used feed on castor plants. Eri silk is considered the father of all forms of cultured, textured silk and the only domesticated silk produced in India which does not involve killing the silk worm-hence it is also called Ahinsa silk or fabric of peace, and therefore the preferred fabric for Buddhist monks and vegans. It is also produced in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Bihar Orissa etc. Eri silk threads are shorter and this makes the silk very fragile.
Gadhwal- Saris woven in Gadwal, mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh-body of sari is of cotton while border and pallu are of silk. Gold zari is used to enhance the sari. The whole sari can be folded and packed into a match box.The weave used is interwoven weft technique.
Gajji silk- this comes out of a satin weave on silk fabric. Shiny, and used in tie and dye saris in Gujarat.
Himroo shawls and saris-himroo is unique fabric from Aurangabad, made with silk and cotton and woven with gold thread into saris and shawls. The use of pure gold thread makes both shawls and saris very expensive.
Ikkat- Ikkat is a dyeing technique in which a resist dyeing process is used on the yarn before dyeing and weaving. The result is a blurred kind of design with no sharp outlines. Initially typical of weaves in Gujarat and Orissa, ikkat is now used all over.
Khandua/kataki/ maniabandi – traditionally red In color these saris are woven in Cuttack, this ikat sari is worn for weddings and offered to Lord Jagannath. They have the text of Gita Govinda on them.
Kalamkari- is a hand painted and block printed cotton textile, with intricate designs, sharp lines and organic colors. Used now in silk and other fabrics as well.
Kantha-a type of embroidery used in Bengal and Bangladesh. It uses a simple stitch in muted shades with extensive use of black. Ideal on tussar, a silk type used widely in east India.
Kosa silk- is a variety of tussar silk and obtained from a worm similar to the silkworm. It is sturdy but soft and comes from Chattisgarh in soft earthy shades.
Kanjivaram- come from Kanchipuram and are some of the finest silk saris worldwide. The silk comes from Karnataka, the gold from Gujarat and the sari weaving is done in Kanchipuram. Typically, the sari and the border are woven separately and then interlocked.
Maheshwari-woven out of silk and cotton fiber, with gold zari added, these are a specialty of maheshwar MP. They have reversible borders and the trademark five stripes in the pallu.
Mangalgiri- Woven in Mangalgiri in Guntur district of AP-they are made out of pure cotton on a pit loom. They are generally plain with gold embellished borders, are airy and light weight. They are woven in silk for weddings etc.
Munga-Muga silk comes from Assam an is one of the rarest varieties of silk. It is golden yellow in color and comes from a semi cultivated silk worm. It is fine but strong and its golden luster increases with age.
Narayanpet- a small town in Mahbubnagar district in Telenganathat is popular for its handloom in silk and cotton. These typically have checks and a wide border on both sides. The saris are woven using the interlocking weft technique, and have a fine weave count. Eight saris can be woven simultaneously on a single loom. Most affordable.
Pasapalli – handloom sari from the Bargarh district of Orissa which generally has a checked pattern, in black and white similar to a chess board, which supposedly inspired these saris.
Patola-this is a double ikkat woven sari, made generally out of silk. A specialty of Patan, Gujarat, double ikkat involves wrapping the warp and weft threads so as to resist the dye as per the pattern. This tying is repeated for each individual color that has been decided. The bundles of thread are carefully knotted before dyeing. There are only 3 families left in Patan that create these patola saris. One sari can take 6 months to a year to complete.
Paithani- woven in a small town called Paithan in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The first paithanis were in cotton but over time the fabric evolved into fine delicate silk. Hand woven out of silk, typical features include a square, oblique design and a peacock or other distinctive motifs on the pallu. One color is used for weaving lengthwise and another widthwise. Paithani saris are some of the most exclusive wardrobe treasures.
Pochampali- originates in a small town called Boodhan Pochampally in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh. It is a cluster of 80 villages which have traditional looms weaving century old designs. Using ikkat patterns and geometrical designs on silk, cotton, or silk-cotton mix, the basic tie and dye technique is used.
Sambhalpuri- A specialty of Sambalpur Orissa, these handloom saris use sambalpuri Ikkat in which threads are first tie n dyed and then woven into a sari. Sambalpuri sari varieties include Bomkai, bapta, sonepuri, barpali and Pasapali saris.
Taant-these are traditional Bengali saris, cheap and made of cotton. Typical designs include a thick border and woven motifs, and are used for daily wear all over Bengal.
Tanchoi- Silk sarees with a satin finish, with intricately woven designs using double warp plus 2-5 colors on the weft to create exquisite patterns. The art of weaving was adapted from the Chinese technique by Gujaratis but later, the weavers from Varanasi were able to produce finer and cheaper Tanchois.
Uppada- aresilk saris of the Jamdani variety but woven in Uppada, Andhra Pradesh. Using cotton warp, these use a lot of gold and the texture is almost translucent. All these are hand woven and take months to complete
Venkatgiri- are handwoven cotton zari sarees made in Venkatgiri, Andhra Pradesh. The saris are light and soft, besides being very durable. Recently the Jamdaani technique from Bangladesh has been incorporated into Venkatgiri saris to weave the most unusual saris.
Tussar silk is wild silk produced from an unraptured cocoon. Ghicha and Matka silk comes from an unraptured cocoon.