1. Brocade, Uttar Pradesh:
While brocade, as a technique, has existed for long in various parts of the world, what makes Benarasi brocade unique is the use of precious gold and silver yarn in Mughal-inspired motifs. It came into prominence under Mughal patronage during the 17th and 18th centuries. This year also marks 10 years of Benarasi brocade receiving its own GI (Geographical Indication) tag by the Government of India. It’s a huge moment for Benarasi weavers because it means that only brocade woven within the six identified districts of Uttar Pradesh can legally be sold under the name of Benarasi brocades or saris. Many Indian labels like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Sanjay Garg, Good Earth, Ritu Kumar, Anju Modi, Sabyasachi, among others, have consistently worked with Benarasi brocades and silks to create ever newer ways of celebrating an age-old weaving tradition.
1. Brocade, Uttar Pradesh
2. Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh:
Handwoven Chanderi owes its sheer, lightweight quality to the use of mill-spun cotton and silk yarns. In the late 1890s, local weavers replaced handspun yarn with mill-spun ones on their handlooms, creating a new, hybrid fabric. The tradition of weaving Chanderi textiles and saris goes back as far as the 11th century. The Mughals loved the fabric so much that they established a karkhaana (workshop) in Chanderi, which remained operational until the late 1670s. Then, with the dissipation of the Mughal Empire and the advent of the British, the Scindias of Gwalior revived the weave, and encouraged local artisans to create fine textiles and saris. The fabric itself comes in many varieties: plain, woven with gold/silver zari, or patterned with zari motifs that are woven into the fabric using the extra-weft technique. And its signature sheen is the result of not degumming the silk yarn (to prevent the delicate threads from breaking) while it is being woven.
2. Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh
3. Kanjeevaram Silk, Tamil Nadu:
It’s important to know that while Kanjeevaram refers to silk saris and fabrics, the centre for all weaving activities is called Kanchipuram—an ancient and important town that was once part of the famed Vijayanagara Empire. In the early 1500s, King Krishnadeva Raya encouraged weavers to create this rich textile, which features figures from Hindu mythology, designs inspired by local flowers and creepers, and the signature zig-zag ‘temple spire’ design. Kanjeevaram saris are woven exclusively with pure Mulberry silk, which is endemic to South India, and gold and silver zari that comes from Gujarat. While the weaving technique is similar to Benarasi brocade, what differentiates the two are the origins and cultural inspirations that affect the designs, colours, and motifs used in each. That, and the fact that the body of the sari, its borders, and the pallu are all woven separately and then interlocked together neatly and seamlessly. A Kanjeevaram sari is a must-have for married women in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, and is worn with pride during festivals.
4. Jamdani, West Bengal:
Legend has it that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb once scolded his daughter for desecrating the dignity of his court by exposing her body in sheer, see-through garments. To this, she replied that she was wearing not one, but seven layers of cotton. This story, whether true or not, sums up why Jamdani was so coveted by the royalty and nobility of India—and officially patronised by the Mughals—and still enjoys a legendary level of veneration amongst textile connoisseurs. Made with handspun and handwoven cotton, Jamdani uses the extra-weft technique where the weaver manually introduces opaque motifs on a base of translucent cotton while weaving. The test of a true Jamdani, it is said, lies in submerging the fabric in water. The fine muslin base should all but disappear, and the motifs appear to float freely. Today, many qualities of Jamdani—from not too translucent ones to super-sheer ones made in fine silk—are available all across West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is truly the only Indian weave—once reserved for the royalty—that has been embraced by a wide-ranging clientele that cuts across all sections of society.
4. Jamdani, West Bengal
5. Kalamkari, Andhra Pradesh:
The name literally translates as ‘pen-work’, which is exactly what Kalamkari is. What’s fascinating about this fabric is its origin: for a long time now, travelling storytellers have used illustrated fabrics to narrate religious and mythological tales across central and south-central India. The Patachitra of Odisha and Bengal is one such example. That gave birth to Kalamkari and its rich vocabulary of mythological motifs and themes. But under the Mughal patronage, it evolved even further to include geometric and floral designs that the nobility of Delhi could use without causing religious offence. Today, Kalamkari comes in two iterations: the Srikalahasti style and the Machlipatnam style. The difference between the two is immediately visible: the Srikalahasti style of Kalamkari is entirely hand-drawn, while the Machlipatnam style uses block-prints to make outlines that are then filled in by hand later. It was the latter style that gained popularity under the Mughals.
6. Muga Silk, Assam:
Mentioned in texts from the 7th Century CE, Muga—a variety of Tussar silk—has been the pride of Assam since ancient times. However, there’s no way to ascertain when exactly the culture of harvesting and weaving Muga silk began in the Northeastern state. It may well go even further back. Reserved for royalty until a few decades ago, Muga is known for its naturally golden tint, shimmering glow, and high durability. Unlike Eri Silk, Muga isn’t cruelty-free and animal activists have been petitioning against this form of sericulture for a long time now. But it’s still in demand, because it’s known for becoming shinier and smoother with each wash, thanks to what Assam Silkmoths eat—leaves of oak, fragrant cinnamon, magnolia, and michella. Muga silk was protected under the GI tag in 2007, and since then, the industry has flourished, producing running yardages as well as the traditional Assamese mekhela-chador. Owning a Muga set is de rigueur for Assamese women, and almost all religious ceremonies and festive occasions are marked by the donning of Muga mekhela-chador sets.
6. Muga Silk, Assam
7. Eri Silk, Meghalaya:
Also known as Ahimsa Silk, its most important feature is its strong, almost-woollen texture. It’s a result of adopting a cruelty-free process of allowing the Eri silk moth to escape its cocoon, and then harvesting the cocoons for fibre. The Eri silkworm is also the only other completely domesticated silkworm—meaning it depends on humans—apart from the domestic silkmoth that feeds on mulberry leaves. Eri worms, though, eats castor leaves. The unique texture of Eri silk makes it an ideal fabric for winter garments and wraps, and even upholstery. The close weave, achieved because of the soft coarseness of the yarn itself, provides excellent insulation against the cold, and also makes the fabric ideal for constructed and stitched garments. It has “the elegance of silk, the comfort of cotton, and the warmth of wool,” writes Dutch fashion commentator Lisanne de Bakker. It’s also a favourite among designers who are looking at consciously or ethically produced alternatives to regular silk, like British designer Lucy Tammam, who has used Eri silk in haute couture dresses.
8. Paithani, Maharashtra:
Shining like liquefied gold, with bright silken motifs of peacocks and floral vines running all over the sari, the Paithani is one of the most exquisite and expensive saris in India: literal poetry in gold. The origin of the Paithani sari goes back to 200 BCE, with the silk-and-gold weave becoming legendary during the rule of the Satvahana dynasty, whose capital was Paithan near Aurangabad in present-day Maharashtra. The mark of a true paithani, till today, is that it is handwoven only in pure silk and gold zari. But that wasn’t always the case. Originally, Paithani saris had a fine-muslin body field (with gold zari running through, of course) with only the borders and pallu featuring silk to achieve colourful designs. Over time, cotton yarn gave way to silk and a new, more luxurious Paithani emerged.
8. Paithani, Maharashtra
9. Ikat, Odisha:
One of the oldest and most complex weaving traditions known to man, Ikat has existed separately in various cultures ranging from Africa to Central Asia and India to Southeast Asia. Essentially, the master weaver tie-dyes silk or cotton warp yarns in pre-set patterns, and then matches that with pre-tie-dyed weft yarns, creating complex motifs ranging from geometric to floral to abstract. Some weavers can even weave Arabic couplets from the holy Quran into flowing lengths of fabric. A Telangana Ikat sari, featuring a stark black-and-white houndstooth pattern is now part of the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Designed by Indian fashion label Abraham & Thakore and woven in Puttapakka by master weaver Ganjam Govardhana, it is a testament to the artistry of India’s Ikat artisans who produce some of the finest examples of the craft to be found in the world.
9. Ikat, Odisha
10. Punja Durries, Haryana:
Before the Mughals introduced Persian carpets to India in the 16th century, we had durries. Woven from cotton, wool and even camel hair, India had a rich tradition of weaving floor-coverings that, according to some Buddhist texts, goes back to 500 BCE. After the advent of the Mughals, though, local durrie weaving evolved to new heights. Persian carpet weavers were introduced to Indian artisans, who began following the new design aesthetic. Over time, the local weavers’ eye and sensibility grew beyond traditional motifs, and they began experimenting with new designs as well. In particular, the town of Panipat is, today, a major centre of durrie weaving. And there, the craft takes its name from a metallic ‘claw’—panja in Hindi—that’s used to settle woolen yarn into the cotton warp base. These durries represent an often-overlooked aspect of India’s booming weaving culture: that of textiles used not on the body, but in our dwellings.
—Varun Rana is the Content Lead at Good Earth