Discover India’s wealth of materials and techniques for making and decorating textiles
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.
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.
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.
Cheepa family, dyers
Kala Dera, Rajasthan, India
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rajasthan Khadi Sangh led by Giriraj Singh
Kala Dera, Rajasthan, India
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.
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’).
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.
Sankalan embroidery design and production house
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.
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.