Textiles of India
Sample Itinerary: Textile Tour...
The spectrum of variances in textile traditions in India is much larger than one would expect in any similarly sized geographical or population expanse. The main reason for this variety is that textile traditions are material manifestations of the large spectrum of separate ethnic sub-groups. Secondly, they have had close to two thousand years to unfold and develop their intrinsic identities, thereby meaning the deviations in textile traditions have had sufficient time to bloom. Thirdly, over the centuries, several migrations into India have occurred - though they carried with them their skills to a totally new geographical area, original resources for their craft may not have always been available and substitution may have been forced. Further, local tastes and patronage may have forced adaptation or mutations giving birth to new variants of the old tradition.
Linked with the textile traditions is the handloom tradition in India, which is complex and ever changing. Many regions are known for producing a certain type of fabric or sari, and that is how most fabrics and saris get their names - from the place they are woven. Most handloom production occurs in private homes, where the entire family is engaged in some aspect of weaving.
The landscape of Indian textiles is extremely varied and complex and presents an interesting matrix to study.
The beautiful valley of Kashmir is famed for its shawls - pashmina and shahtoosh (the latter is banned now). Pashmina weaving began some 400 years ago in the Kashmir Valley and was earlier considered the choice fabric of the royal families in India. The pashmina wool comes from changthangi or pashmina goat which is a special breed of goat indigenous to high altitudes of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet. Pashmina shawls are hand spun, woven and embroidered in Kashmir.
Jammu lies in the foothills of the Himalayas and its textile tradition has much in common with that of its neighbouring states, Punjab and Haryana. The most notable textile of Jammu is the block-printed calicoes of Samba which is reputed to have been a centre of textile production long before many other famous Indian textile towns.
Weaving of durries (floor spreads) in myriad motifs and designs especially by young girls in the villages has been a long-standing tradition in Punjab.
The holy Ganges dominates the state of Uttar Pradesh and so does its tradition of silk. Varanasi region is the traditional weaving centre of Banarasi Brocades. Banarasi brocade is an interweaving of colored silk and gold threads to form the most attractive floral designs. The brocades are without doubt India’s most fascinating silken fabrics. While Madanpura village is known for its highly sophisticated designs, shades of colours and effective use of gold and silver zari, Alaipura village’s silk is considered coarser and is mainly used for furnishing.
West and Central India:
The prosperous state of Gujarat and the princely land of Rajasthan have long been famous for the cultivation of cotton and for the early use of dyes. The textiles in the region have a fascinating range of dyed and block printed fabrics.
Block printing comprises pasting of carved wooden blocks soaked in different colours (also vegetable dyes) on the fabric. In this hand block printing, the design is first drawn on wood using a sharp needle and then the desired design is carved using the chisel, hammer, file, nails etc. The printing involves laying the cloth/fabric, which is to be printed, on flat tables and impressions are made using the beautifully carved blocks. The most important centres for block printing in this region are Sanganer, Jaipur, Bagru and Barmer in Rajasthan, and Anjar, Deesa, Ahmedabad, Jetpur, Rajkot, Porbandar and Bhavnagar in Gujarat.
Tie-and-dye work, in which clothes are tied, either with string or rubber bands into some sort of pattern, is also well-known here. This form involves the use of resist or barriers to protect certain portions of the fabric from the dye, thereby enabling several colours to be used on the same fabric. Some of the well-known styles of tie-and-dye works are bandhani, lehria, mashru and patan patola.
The other important weaving centres in the region are Paithan and Aurangabad in Maharashtra and Maheshwar and Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh.
The durrie, a simple rug that was once used as an underlay, has now become one of Rajasthan’s weaving traditions. Weavers sit on looms in villages, creating an interesting blend of patterns in an exciting combination of colours. Made from cotton yarn in areas such as Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, woolen durries made from camel hair are also available!
Silks of Bengal are acclaimed the world over. The best-known Bengal silk, which carries its legendary name, is the Baluchari sari - a product of exquisite design, and fabulous weaving technique.
Bihar is the largest producer of tassar silk in India, Bhagalpur being the paradise for tassar weaving.
Assam is the home of several types of handloom silks, the most prominent and prestigious being muga, the golden silk exclusive only to this state and the finest of India’s wild silks. The loom is a prized possession in every Assamese home and weaving has been a way of life in the state since times immemorial.
Unlike other parts of India, where much of the spinning and weaving is in the hands of men, spinning and weaving in Nagaland is the exclusive monopoly of women. Weaving specimens from Nagaland comprise a wide range of wrappers and shawls, waistcloths and bodice, girdles, scarves and skirts resplendent with skilful colour combinations.
The state of Manipur is also known for its cotton and silk weaving while Orissa is known for its ikat textile.
South India was relatively untouched by the invasions that affected the cultural fabric of the North and hence has over the centuries retained its many ancient traditions of textile. South Indian silk, mainly made into saris, is one of the finest; the designs are traditionally Indian with special stress on borders and pallu (end piece). The silk produced here is said to have the capacity to endure strenuous washing on a granite stone! The towns of Kanchipuram, Kumbakonam and Tanjore are the major centres of silk weaving. The natural silk mainly comes from the Bangalore area (which has ideal conditions for rearing mulberry silk worms) and the zari (gold or silver wrapped thread) from Surat in Gujarat.
Cotton weaving is widespread in Kanchipuram, Coimbatore, Salem, Pudukkotai, Madurai and Karur. The artists in Andhra Pradesh produce the beautiful Kalamkari textile which derives its name from kalam meaning pen, and kari meaning work. In the 18th century there was kalamkari trade between Europe and India; the designs were known as cheeti, a word from which the European chintz was derived. Andhra Pradesh is also known for the Pochampalli silk saris with geometrical designs.
‘Bleeding Madras’ shirts of Chennai, made of hand-spun yarn woven in India became popular in the West in the 1960s. Dyes that were not colourfast were used, resulting in bleeding and fading colours that gave the fabric a new, personalized look each time it was laundered.
Traditional Indian Embroidery
Embroidery which is essentially meant to strengthen and decorate the fabric has always been an integral part of the household tradition in various parts of India.
The Kutch and Saurashtra region, which has a large population of pastoralists, is the richest source of folk embroidery in the world. Dress materials, wall hangings, quilts and animal trappings are embroidered, appliqued, decorated with beadwork and embellished with mirrors, sequins, buttons and shells. Each tribe passes on unchanged from generation to generation its own distinct designs, colours and range of stitches.
Phulkari, meaning flower work, is a spectacular style of embroidery peculiar to Punjab. Phulkari has its origins in the early 19th century when the women’s head cloth was highlighted with embroidered flowers. Over the years this embroidery became heavy and complex and the heavily embroidered head cloth came to be known as bagh (literally garden). In this style the embroidery covered every inch of the fabric making it completely invisible. In Punjab almost every ceremony is given a touch of additional colour and richness by the use of Phulkari on account of it being considered auspicious.
Lucknow’s chikankari is delicate, fine embroidery done in white cotton threads on plain muslin cloth. This embroidery was introduced from the state of Bengal into Lucknow, which is still the chief centre of its production. Lucknow’s zardozi and kamdani hand embroideries with gold and silver thread are also appreciated far and wide.
Kantha is the most popular form of embroidery practised by rural women in West Bengal. Kantha originated from the way in which Bengali housewives mended old clothes by taking out a strand of thread from the colourful border of their saris and making simple designs with them.
Appliqué is a decoration or trimming made of one material attached by sewing or gluing to another. This art is widely prevalent in the Eastern coast of Orissa. Applique work of Orissa comprises special canopies, fans, umbrellas and other decorative items.
The kasuti embroidery of Karnataka is a stylized form with stitches based on the texture of the fabric.
Another well-known embroidery in South India is the one by Toda tribal women living in the Nilgiri mountains. They wear a toga like garment which is embroidered with exquisite patterns.