How to Make a Varanasi Brocade

The extensive process of hand weaving a varanasi silk brocade; from the sketch to the final product

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Varanasi's Textiles

Varanasi is well known for its different styles of weaving, created to obtain patterns termed as brocade. Every step of the process of creating a Varanasi brocade is handled by designated workers. The head of a weaving establishment is also called a grihast, and the simple weaver is the karigar or a bunker. Women who set the warp on the loom are tanharis. They usually set the warp on the beam. The chain of processes, often numbering eighteen, ends with the dhobi, who irons the finished piece.

Banarasi Weaving: Surroundings (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The city area of Varanasi is a tangled chaotic maze of narrow lanes, crowded cross roads, cycle rickshaws, shops and establishments making and selling myriad things, from steaming tea to bicycles and brocades. In the quieter inner by-lanes are the weavers, dyers, spinners and polishers.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his store (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The master weavers, who have graduated to being sellers, sit on thick mattresses, gaddis, covered with white sheets and bolster pillows, for their clientele who have to be shown dozens of saris before they can make their final choices.

Aptly, they are commonly known as gaddidars, those seated on the mattresses.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Process of weaving a Varanasi Brocade

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Graphing the Designs

Studies on the weaving traditions of Varanasi led to a finding that patterns carved on the Buddhist stupas at Sarnath were used as textile designs in the Gupta period in the 8th and 9th centuries. These textiles were called devadushyas. Calendaring processes on the textile show that those very same methods followed then, are used even today. In the weaving areas of the city, far from temple bells, there is only the clack of the loom, and only hard work is worship.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Considerable calculations and meticulous planning go into the first step of weaving a traditional brocade sari in the holy city of Varanasi.

A motif is worked out on a meticulously numbered and measured graph paper.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The graph paper design of the motif to be woven is filled with colours after counting the tiny squares equivalent to the computer’s pixels.

Naqshabands, pattern makers, would be the equivalent of today’s designers. They would draw intricate patterns on the paper, prepared on a small loom, to be followed by the weaver on the larger draw loom.

The original designs used to be drawn on a sheet of mica with a steel pen. Later they were made on paper and placed within a grid so that each section could be replaced separately on the loom.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's studio (2018-02) by Sribhas Chandra SupakarDastkari Haat Samiti

Subhash Suparkar of Varanasi is a veteran weaver and designer who takes pride in the excellence of his output.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

This geometric design, prepared on a graph paper, will be transferred onto long sheets or cards, and punched with holes to be used on the jacquard loom.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Multiple rows of holes are punched on each card, each row of which corresponds to one row of the design and the many cards that compose the design of the textile are strung together.

An average sari uses 1500 to 2500 cards, while a more elaborate pattern would raise the number of cards ten-fold. Jacquard designs on saris tend to have a slightly mechanised look.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The graph paper diagram is given to the card punchers to prepare the strips to be attached from the top of the loom. The person who punches the cards as per the design is known as the patthakati.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Holes at specified levels are punched onto the cardboard strips, following the pattern on the graph. It is a task that has to be performed carefully and accurately so that there is no flaw in the woven pattern on the textile.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Yarn and Other Raw Materials

Zari is the gold or silver thread used for weaving or embroidery. In earlier times, when precious metals were not so costly, real silver was used and given a gold wash or plating. Old zari saris were melted down into real silver after the silk threads in between began to wear away. Nowadays, zari is either made laboriously by hand in Varanasi or bought from the mills in Gujarat.

Zari threads are the signature element of a Varanasi brocade sari, where the shimmering metallic designs are in shades of copper, silver, or more often, gold.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The original method was to melt down a pure silver ingot to make wire or strips called pasa, which were beaten to form wire not more than 13 microns in width. 400 kilometres of zari wire contained 1 kilogram of silver.

Here, a stock of zari in different hues lies on a shelf waiting to be stretched on the warp or weft of a loom.

Banarasi Weaving: Surroundings (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

It is a common sight to see workers carrying yarn and zari threads along the narrow streets of a weaver’s area in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Silk yarns hang from a ceiling in a weaver’s workshop in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: Surroundings (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Some yarn and threads are transported informally from a shop or workplace to another establishment.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Dyeing Units

Yarn for weaving is either bought when already dyed, or else they are dyed according to specifications by skilled dyers near the workshop space. Dyeing yarn is a tough and tedious process in the small establishments that serve handloom weavers in Varanasi. The yarn is boiled to remove the gum left by the silk worm, till it attains a floss-like quality. It is sorted and tied into hanks. These are then dyed in a variety of brilliant colours. 

Banarasi Weaving: Market (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Seen here is a small shop that sells a variety of dyestuffs to the weavers.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

This old dyestuff shop is over one hundred years old, and still in use in Varanasi. It has old and new weighing scales and weights, and retains an aura of an ancient tradition.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Scores of different dye powders and other colouring materials are carefully marked and stacked for sale in the almost antique shop.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Yarn dyeing follows old simple methods when serving this old traditional craft practice.

The yarn is boiled to remove the gum left by the silk worm, till it attains a floss-like quality. It is sorted and tied into hanks. These are dyed in a variety of brilliant colours. The yarn is then wound onto a wooden five-spoke wheel before being wound onto spindles.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dyeing yarn is a tough and tedious process in the small establishments that serve handloom weavers in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

When only small quantities of yarn are required, dyeing is done in a small open area or courtyard, in or near the weaver’s establishment.

Banarasi Weaving: Market (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Pre-dyed yarn is also sold to weavers who need larger stocks, by shopkeepers who are in the profession of handloom weaving.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02) by Abdul MajeedDastkari Haat Samiti

Weaving Process

Varanasi is well known for its different styles of weaving created to obtain patterns termed as brocade. The basic technique is to create a supplementary weft that overlays the woven cloth with its warp and weft as the base.

The area without a pattern is skipped, revealing the base weave underneath. The pattern emerges in low relief and can be done in silk or with gold and silver thread. It presents a textured effect, rather like embroidery.

Banarasi Weaving: Process of weaving (2018-02-01)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Sometimes gold and silver threads are a part of the basic warp and weft or part of the overlay.

When the patterns are in plain silk threads, they give an embedded appearance. When the silk background is hardly visible, because it is overlaid solidly with gold and silver, the fabric is called a kinkhab.

If the background is entirely gold or silver and the pattern is in silk, it is called minakari.

Banarasi Weaving: Weavers shed (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The jacquard is a mechanism rather than a loom. It is more a ‘head’ that could be attached to a power loom or a handloom.

The head controls which warp thread is to be raised during the shedding process. Multiple shuttles could be used to control the colour of the weft during picking.

Since the new jacquard method allows for the yarn to be picked up according to the required pattern, it is possible to create a greater number of complicated designs.

Many weaving establishments converted to the jacquard loom from the draw loom. The carding system replaced the fine drawings of the naqshaband, although they still formulated the basic layout, which got transferred to a system, much like the computer.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's shed (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A young woman transfers coloured threads onto small shuttles that are thrown by the weaver back and forth across the warp thread while weaving.

Banarasi Weaving: Bobbins with thread in a weavers shed (2018-02-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Multiple threads are attached from the spindles to the punched cards above, which will in turn direct them according to the designated pattern on to the yarn stretched out on the loom.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Zari threads shimmer in the dim light of a handloom weaver’s workplace in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The zari threads are stretched along the warp when the weavers start to weave a shimmering ‘tissue’ sari, as the metallic gold sari is called in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The warp threads, stretched out on this loom, indicate the body of the sari will be blue and the end piece, the pallu, will be in red. It is likely that gold threads will be interspersed in the weft.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The weaver settles wayward threads among the lengths that have been stretched on the warp.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02) by ShamsuddinDastkari Haat Samiti

Shuttles are being readied to pass through the warp to provide the weft colours and designs in a handloom workshop in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02) by Abdul MajeedDastkari Haat Samiti

Light passes through the zari yarn, which will be woven into the blue silk yarn on this handloom in Varanasi.

The early Indian draw looms are similar to the Iranian looms of the present day. It has harness structures for the base ground and another for the pattern to be imposed on this ground.

Cross cords, hanging from above, lift the warp threads according to the pattern laid out by the naqshaband.

The framed harness is called a jala for its net-like appearance, as yarns criss cross downwards from the upper frame.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02) by Mohd NoorDastkari Haat Samiti

An elderly weaver sits by his loom in Varanasi, with years of experience written on his face. A portion of a jacquard sheet hangs on the left.

Banarasi Weaving: Process of weaving a motif (2018-02-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Slowly, a buti, a motif, appears through the shuttle movement on the weft of a sari. Buti, which is a flower but has come to mean a design with scattered flowers, leaves, birds, paisley motifs, circles or chevrons developed from Mughal times.

Banarasi Weaving: Banarasi weaver (2018-02) by Abdul MajeedDastkari Haat Samiti

Most butis have their own names, which are listed for common use in combination with straight or diagonal stripes, in clusters or scattered singly across the entire fabric.

Some of the formal names are mehrab, ashrafi, angoor, resha, kairi, gulab and kamal, with the suffix of buti attached depending on whether it was a single motif or a trellis.

Banarasi Weaving: karigars workshop (2018-02) by Ram Lal MoryaDastkari Haat Samiti

Ram Lal Maurya is an eminent master weaver who is also been awarded the designation of Shilp Guru, which recognises him a master teacher of his craft.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Polishing and Finishing a Banarasi Sari

Among the multiple processes required to finish a handwoven sari, is the skill of cutting the extraneous threads off the reverse side of brocade and jamdani designs.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Lengthy pieces of cloth are rolled on machines to undergo machine polishing.

Banarasi Weaving: Finishing Process (2018-02-04)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The craftsman fits the sari on a wooden frame for the polishing process.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Polishing is the first finishing process for a Banarasi textile before it can be processed further.

Banarasi Weaving: Finishing Process (2018-02-04)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Once the saree is fixed on the wooden loom, it is polished using a spray to add finishing touches.

Banarasi Weaving: karigar's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Once the handwoven fabrics are taken off the loom, they are typically wrapped around square wooden beams and stacked upright.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Small ends of threads that stick out after the sari is taken down from the loom are tidied with needles.

Banarasi Weaving: female karigar (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Tradition has it that the new bride of the family would settle the unruly yarn, while the oldest woman in the family would wind the thread around the first bobbin.

It is interesting that women are customarily involved at the beginning of the process and are the ultimate wearers of the sari as well.

Here, women members of a weaver’s family in Varanasi paste small shiny zircon stones onto zari woven sections of a freshly woven handloom sari to create additional glitter.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02) by Haseen Mohd.Dastkari Haat Samiti

The reverse side of a gyaser piece shows how the technique results in heavy fabric with many coloured threads.

In Buddhist traditions, each colour and design represents a particular feature that is auspicious.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The person who cuts away the extraneous yarn on the reverse of the cloth is called the katorna.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A woven piece is finally checked meticulously over a lighted surface to ensure there are no cuts or flaws on the fabric.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan at his workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

At times, two persons or more are required to carry out the quality checking process in a handloom establishment in Varanasi.

Banarasi Weaving: Artisan's workshop (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

At the very end of the hand weaving process is the role of the dhobi, the man who irons the textile piece and folds it perfectly, to be unfolded next only when it is shown to a customer.

Banarasi Sari weaving (2018)Dastkari Haat Samiti

See more of how the Banarasi Sari is created.

Banarasi Weaving: Karigar's showroom (2018-02)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Read more about Banarasi textiles here:
- The Marketplace
- The Holy City of Varanasi
- Banarasi Sarees and Textiles

Credits: Story

Text: Jaya Jaitly and Charu Verma
Photography: Sunil Kumar and Charu Verma
Artisans: Maqbool Hasan, Haseen Mohd., Sribhas Chandra Supakar, and Ram Lal Morya
Ground Facilitator: Charu Verma
Video Documentation: Sunil Kumar and Charu Verma
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Cinematic Video:
- Director: Jyoti Neggi
- Production: Studio Gola

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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