Indian Textiles: Nature & Making

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Discover India’s wealth of materials and techniques for making and decorating textiles

The Fabric of India
The story of textiles in India is one of the oldest in the world. The earliest surviving Indian cotton threads date to around 4000 BC and dyed fabrics from the region are documented as far back as 2500 BC. India’s textiles were so central to its identity abroad that in ancient Greece and Babylon the very name ‘India’ was shorthand for ‘cotton’. India’s textiles are embedded in every aspect of its identity. Courtly splendour was proclaimed by magnificent fabrics and religious worship still finds expression through cloth. Global trade systems were formed on the export of Indian fabrics, and the hand-making of cloth continues to shape India today.  
Nature and Making
India’s rich natural resources for making and decorating textiles are unrivalled. The varied geographical regions and climates provide a huge range of plant fibres and natural dyes for the cultivators, weavers, dyers, printers and embroiderers of the subcontinent. Over centuries, most regions developed specialities based on local resources: the golden silks of Assam, the fine cottons of Bengal, the red dyes of south-east India. Textile makers use an astonishing range of skills to process raw materials and produce regionally distinctive dyes, weaves, prints and embroideries.
Raw
Cotton and silk are the raw materials most associated with Indian textiles. India supplied cotton cloth to the world for centuries. The country also produced an astonishing variety of hand-made fabrics for domestic use until industrialisation changed how cottons were made and sold. India’s wild and semi-domesticated silks (quite distinct from that of cultivated mulberry silkworms) continue to provide a huge range of yarn and fabric for local use. Other animal fibres used to make textiles include sheep’s wool and yak- and goat-hair. Finished textiles are also often decorated with natural products – insect wings, mica and cowrie shells.

Woven winds
The ancient Romans called India’s finest cottons ‘woven winds’ because of their airy lightness. The country’s cotton fabrics range from the sheerest muslin to robust pieces for everyday use, though fine cottons in particular were much sought after and are a key element of India’s supremacy in textiles.

Silk skeins
Different species of silkworm produce different silks. Silk is reeled or spun from the filaments of the silkworm’s cocoon and then woven. India’s ‘wild’ silks come from the larvae of the Antheraea genus of moths, which are native to eastern and central India. Mulberry silk was introduced to India from China about 2000 years ago. Different parts of silk cocoons are used to make different textures of silk yarn. Muga silk filaments are reeled from the cocoon resulting in a smooth and shiny fabric. Eri silk cannot be reeled so the fibres are spun like wool, giving the cloth a soft rather than silky surface.

Silver and gold
For lavish decoration, embroiderers use thin strips of silver or gilded silver (zari). These can be in the form of fine wire, or flattened and crimped, or wrapped around a silk core to make thread. Metal-wrapped thread can be woven on a loom to create luxurious fabrics or ribbon (gota) which can be stitched onto cloth.

Dye
India’s natural dyes, especially those for blue and red, have been renowned for millennia. Blue dye was so closely associated with India that the ancient Greeks took its western name – indikos (indigo) – from the country itself. Red dyeing with fixing agents (mordants) was known to the Indus valley civilisation by about 2500 BC. Fixing the colour is the great challenge of dyeing cloth. Indian dyers’ use of mordants was key to their mastery, which was unrivalled until the invention of western chemical dyes in the 19th century.

Indigo
Indigo takes its name from ‘India’. Derived from the leaves of shrubs in the Indigofera family, the dye has been used for millennia in most regions of India to colour yarn and fabric (especially cotton) in shades of blue. Indigo is a substantive dye, which fixes without the help of a mordant. To make patterned cloth, the dyer may use a ‘resist’ such as wax or string to prevent some areas turning blue, as on the spotted 19th-century turban at right.

Indigo Dyeing
Cheepa family, dyers
Kala Dera, Rajasthan, India

Ikat sari
This sari is made using the single ikat technique where the dyer has coloured the crosswise weft threads with a pattern before weaving them with the plain lengthwise warp threads. In double ikat, both warp and weft are pre-dyed with a pattern. Skilled weaving then ensures that the two sets of patterned yarn match up precisely, revealing the complex design. Neeru Kumar designed this contemporary piece inspired by African colours and patterns. She collaborates with ikat weavers from Odisha to develop her range of saris.

Chintz floorspread
The extraordinary detail of the scene on this floorspread was achieved through a complex dyeing process called kalamkari, or chintz. The design was drawn by hand using a combination of mordants and liquid wax, before the whole cloth was submerged into red and blue (indigo) dye baths. Final details in yellow were painted onto the surface, layered over the reds and blues to make oranges and greens. The Coromandel Coast was renowned for its kalamkari textiles, and this piece is one of the finest surviving examples.

Print
In India, printing patterns with wooden blocks is mainly associated with the north and west. Dress fabrics used small repeating floral patterns in several colours, requiring multiple blocks. Larger-scale motifs were printed for furnishings and tents. From the 14th century, if not earlier, western India used large blocks to produce huge wall hangings, which they exported to South East Asia. 

Block printed garment
Small repeating plant designs are typical of block-prints from the town of Sanganer, as is the fine cotton on which they are printed. Block-printing can also be used in dyeing. This scarf or shawl uses only red and black dyes, which would each need separate mordants to fix them – alum for red and iron for black. These would be applied with blocks and the cloth would then be dyed.

Skirt length
In the roghan work of north and western India an adhesive is printed onto the fabric and then overlaid with gold and silver foil or powder. This printed length was designed to be made into a skirt with the bold buta (paisley) design on red forming the lower border.

Carving a printing block
Yaseen wooden block makers
Sanganer, near Jaipur, India

The Disappearing Tiger T-shirt
‘The Disappearing Tiger’ is one of People Tree’s most popular designs. The clothing brand’s quirky T-shirts have become cult-favourites. Traditionally a textile printer’s skill lies in the exact placement of the block. Here the block-printers are encouraged to be freer with that process and bring their own unique touch to each garment.

Weave
Each part of India has its own weaving tradition, but Gujarat was the main centre of innovation for more than 500 years. As Gujarati weavers migrated, weaving techniques and technologies spread all over South Asia. The simplest type is plain weave, in which the weaver runs a weft thread evenly over and under a fixed set of warp threads. More complex weaves derive from this basic method. Looms in India ranged from the simple back-strap loom to complex draw-looms on which velvets and patterned silks were woven. Their use declined with the rise of the mechanised Jacquard loom in the 19th century.

Weaving
Rajasthan Khadi Sangh led by Giriraj Singh
Kala Dera, Rajasthan, India

Varanasi brocade
The brocaded silks of Varanasi are highly prized. The design, materials and weave of this 19th-century sari fragment are all typical. To make it, the weaver attached a woven sample (naksha) of the pattern repeat to the warp threads on a draw-loom. He then followed the pattern as a template as he wove.

Kashmir shawl
Patterned Kashmir shawls like this one are woven using the twill-tapestry technique. Tapestry weave involves inserting coloured weft threads by hand for each element of the design. These tapestry-woven motifs are set against the diagonal twill background of the field of the shawl. The familiar paisley pattern is known in northern India as buta or boteh (‘flower’).

Jamdani sari
Most Bengali muslins were woven as plain undecorated lengths but some were also patterned in the jamdani technique. In this distinctive weave, extra weft threads are inserted by hand to create patterns (‘brocading’). Jamdani weavers are traditionally Muslim men, while the weavers of plain muslin are Hindus.

Stitch
India’s embroidery is almost as famed as its weaving and dyeing. Specific regional styles have developed over centuries, using a huge variety of stitches and materials. The area most associated with embroidery is north-west India, where it was produced by men in professional workshops and by women at home. In the 17th century, the finest Gujarati ari (hook) embroidery was highly prized by both the Mughal court and European consumers. Other outstanding local styles include the kantha embroidery of Bengal, phulkari from the Punjab, and chikan whitework embroidery from Lucknow.

Ari embroidery
Sankalan embroidery design and production house
Jaipur, India

Pebble stream sari
The women of Bihar use a basic running-stitch known as sujni embroidery to patch together old fabric in quilts. Here it is used to create a luxury sari for the brand Jiyo! Designer Swati Kalsi worked with Guriya, Rani, Anisa and Khushboo Kumari to develop a pattern inspired by nature, which they called Pebble Stream.

Map shawl
Never intended to be worn, this 19th-century embroidery depicts the city of Srinagar in Kashmir.

Lake Dal and the river Jhelum are visible, as are the main mosque, fort and many smaller buildings.

Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, who may be the haloed figure in a boat (upper left), probably commissioned the shawl.

The wide range of materials and techniques used in India have been preserved and documented at the V&A.  Many of them were collected during the 19th century for what was once the India Museum in London (1801-79) before being transferred to the V&A. The museum’s collection of Indian textiles is one of the most important in the world containing rare courtly pieces as well as everyday textiles dating from the 16th century to the present. The Fabric of India (2015-2016) was the first exhibition to fully explore the history of Indian textiles. More information on the show and the V&A’s collection of Indian textiles can be found in the exhibition’s companion publication The Fabric of India. 
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