of Textiles in India
has a diverse and rich textile tradition. The
origin of Indian textiles can be traced to the
Indus valley civilization. The people of that
civilization used homespun cotton for weaving
their garments. Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo
Daro, have unearthed household items like needles
made of bone and wooden spindles, suggesting
that the people would spin cotton at home to
make yarn and finally garments. Fragments of
woven cotton have also been found at these sites.
The first literary information about textiles
in India is available in the RigVeda, which
refers to weaving. The ancient Hindu epics,
and the Mahabharata
mention a variety of fabrics in vogue during
those times. The Ramayana refers to the rich
garments worn by the aristocracy, and the simple
clothes worn by the commoners and ascetics.
Information about ancient textiles of India
can also be garnered from the various sculptures
belonging to the Mauryan and the Gupta ages
as well as from ancient Buddhist scripts and
murals. Legends say that when Amrapali, a
courtesan who lived in the kingdom of Vaishali
(in present day Bihar), went to meet Gautama
the Buddha, she was attired in a richly woven
sari, which testifies to the technical achievements
of the ancient Indian weaver.
India had numerous trade links with the outside
world and Indian textiles were popular in
other countries of the ancient world. Indian
silk was popular in Rome in the early centuries
of the Christian era. Several fragments of
cotton fabrics from Gujarat have been found
in the tombs at Fostat (older areas of Cairo
city, the country’s capital). Cotton
textiles were also exported to China during
the heydays of the silk route.
Silk fabrics from south India were exported
to Indonesia during the 13th century. India
also exported printed cotton fabrics / chintz
to Europe and the Asian countries like China,
Java and the Philippines, long before the
arrival of the Europeans.
In the 13th century, Indian silk was used
as barter for precious commodities from the
western countries. Towards the end of the
17th century, the British East India Company
traded in Indian cotton and silk fabrics which
included the famous Dacca (Bengal) muslin
besides substantial quantities of the same
fabric made in Bihar and Orissa. The past
traditions of the textile and handlooms is
still discernible in the motifs, patterns,
designs, and weaving techniques, employed
by the weavers even today.
Surat in Gujarat was one of the oldest centres
of trade in cotton textiles. This textile
reached Surat from different parts of India
which would be sent back after processing
(refining, dyeing, stain removing etc).
Manufacturing of cotton and silk fabrics
was the main industry in Surat, which attracted
the Dutch as well as the English in the 17th
century. During the 16th century, there was
a vast market for textiles of Surat in South-East
Asia, the Gulf countries and East Africa.
During the Mughal period, products like pagdi
(turban/headgear) made with golden thread,
cloth for sashes and veils, were very well-known.
was a painted or stained calico cloth
(Calico is a fabric made from unbleached, often
not fully processed, cotton) printed with flowers
and other devices in different colours. It was
a popular choice for bed covers, quilts and
draperies. During the 17th and 18th centuries
it was imported to Europe and later produced
there. Initially Europeans reproduced Indian
designs, gradually adding original patterns.
was also painted in a similar fashion. With
the help of wooden blocks, beautiful designs
and motifs were printed on cloth. Owing to its
ideal location on the river bank, bleaching
of cloth was developed as a specialized occupation
crowning glory of Indian textiles was Kinkhab
or 'Brocade'. This is a fabric woven out of
silver threads, which makes it very expensive.
The thread is drawn out of silver and then plated
with gold. Therefore, the expensive dresses
made with brocade are meant only for special
occasions – weddings, religious rituals
and ceremonies, attending of durbars or royal
courts and such like. For the Mughals this fabric
epitomized the refined taste and the high level
literal meaning of Kinkhab
is ‘less dream'. Owing to the
high content of silver and gold threads, the
texture becomes abrasive to the skin which makes
one almost sleepless and hence few or less dreams.
The brocade became a rage among the early European
settlers in India.
An interesting but little-known fact about brocade
is that it is woven keeping its reverse side
on the loom. To ensure the accuracy of design,
a mirror is placed below it. Despite its cost,
a large variety of colour combinations, designs
and motifs, has made brocade a fairly popular
The textile known as Patola
forms the traditional garb of a Gujarati bride.
The term 'Patola' is derived from the
Sanskrit word pattal (a spindle shaped
gourd). Patan in Gujarat is famous for the manufacture
of Patola. Its technique is also complicated.
The weft and the warp are dyed separately, before
weaving, according to the selected design.
Thereafter, as the weaving takes place, exact
intended designs emerge. Because of its complicated
manufacturing process, very few designs are
available and the Patola are classified
according to the designs like Wadi Bhaff
which has a flowering creeper motif or 'Nari-Kunjar'
in which motifs of female figures and elephants
appear. The colours used in the Patola of Patan
are so fast that a Patola may get torn
or worn out but its design would never fade.
It indeed takes a very long time to manufacture
a Patola, which makes it very expensive.
A specimen of Patola art
double Ikat Patola
originated in Gujarat, Orissa and Pochampalli
in Andhra Pradesh. The double Ikat Patola from
Orissa and Patan in Gujarat require very intricate
weaving. Prices can be astronomical, because
a Patola is valued for the purity of its silk.
was brought to India from China by the three
(Parsi) brothers named Choi, who settled down
in Surat to evolve a unique fabric - a harmonious
blend of Indian and Chinese styles. According
to a connoisseur, “The tanchoi is a densely
patterned heavy fabric with no floats on the
reverse; the unused threads are woven into the
foundation at the back.
Traditionally the face of the
fabric has a satin weave ground (warp threads)
with small patterns made by the weft threads,
repeated over the entire surface.” The
designs are usually found interspersed with
bands usually on grounds shaded bright blue,
purple, green or red. Flying birds, paired cocks
and floral sprays between these from the usual
uncluttered patterns, while the pallu
is filled with the design from edge to edge,
usually figuring peacocks, and baskets of flowers,
sometimes even hunting scenes.
Tanchoi,a precious fabric
native to the town of Baluchar in Bengal. It
was way back in 1704 A.D that the first Baluchar
weaving took place. At one stage no gold or
silver thread was used in the making of the
fabric. The important feature is the white outlining
of the motifs like animals, vegetation, miniscule
images of human beings, vignettes from the Ramayana
marriage processions, brides in palanquins,
horse riders ethnic musicians to name a few.
Nowadays Baluchari style sarees are woven using
highly mercerised cotton thread and silky threadwork
ornament in bold colors. The cloth is very fine
with a soft drape.
named after the village of Shantipur in Nadia
District of West Bengal, which is inextricably
linked with the “Vaishnava
culture propagated by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
These saris have an exceedingly smooth texture
and lend at touch of sophistication to the wearer.
The origin of the word Jamdani
is uncertain. According to a popular version,
it came from the Persian words jama
(cloth) and dana (diapering). In
other words Jamdani basically denotes diapered
cloth. Another version holds that in Persian
the word jam meaning flower and dani
a vase or container.
A typical Baluchari saree
earliest mention of Jamdani and its development
as an industry is to be found in Kautilya's
Arthashashtra (book of economics) wherein
it is stated that this fine cloth used to be
made in Bengal and Pundra (parts of
modern Bangladesh). Jamdani is also mentioned
in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea
and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian
travelers and traders.
The base fabric for Jamdani
is unbleached cotton yarn and the design is
woven using bleached cotton yarns so that a
light-and-dark effect is created. Alexander
the Great in 327 B.C mentions “beautiful
printed cottons” in India. It is believed
that the erstwhile Roman emperors paid fabulous
sums for the prized Indian cotton.
The dominant feature of the jamdani
is its magnificent design which is essentially
Persian in spirit. The method of weaving resembles
tapestry work in which small shuttles of coloured,
gold or silver threads, are passed through the
weft. The jamdani dexterously combines
intricate surface designs with delicate floral
sprays. When the surface is covered with superb
diagonally striped floral sprays, the sari is
called terchha. The anchal
(the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulder)
is often decorated with dangling, tassel like
corner motifs, known as jhalar.
Jamdani- the dream fabric
most coveted design is known as the panna
hazaar (literally: a thousand emeralds)
in which the floral pattern is highlighted with
flowers interlaced like jewels by means of gold
and silver thread. The kalka (paisley),
whose origin may be traced to the painted manuscripts
of the Mughal period, has emerged as a highly
popular pattern. Yet another popular pattern
in jamdani is the phulwar,
usually worked on pure black, blue black, grey
or off-white background colours.
The traditional nilambari,
dyed with indigo, or designs such as toradar
(literally: a bunch or bouquet) preserved in
weaving families over generations are now being
reproduced. Other jamdani patterns
are known as phulwar, usually worked
on pure black, blue black, grey or off-white
For traditional jamdani weaving,
a very elementary pit loom is used and the work
is carried on by the weaver and his apprentice.
The latter works under instruction for each
pick, weaving his needle made from, buffalo
horn or tamarind wood to embroider the floral
sequence. With a remarkable deftness, the weft
yarn is woven into the warp in the background
colour from one weaver to the other.
The butis (motifs) across the warp,
the paar (border) and anchal
(the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulder)
are woven by using separate bobbins of yarn
for each colour. The fine bobbins are made from
tamarind wood or bamboo. After completion the
cloth is washed and starched.
Jamdani, because of its intricate
patterns, has always been a highly expensive
product. According to historical accounts, Jamdanis
custom made for the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb
in the 17th century cost over thirty pounds;
evidently the jamdani fabric was essentially
meant only for the affluent nobility, in those
The region in and around Dhaka (now in Bangladesh)
became synonymous with this wonder fabric. Trading
accounts reveal how the Jamdani travelled
to the courts of the Mughals in the 15th
- 16th century period. For the Mughals
it was fashioned into elaborate angarkhas
(upper garment/shirt) worn by both men and women;
it also travelled from Dhaka through Agra, to
Bukhara, Samarkand and other parts of West Asia.
In the centuries that followed Jamdani was procured
European export companies which retailed it
in cites like Hamburg, London, Madrid, Copenhagen
and so forth.
There is historical evidence that Himroo
style of shawl weaving was brought to Aurangabad
(in Maharashtra) by the monarch Mohmmad Bin
Tughlak when he shifted his capital from Delhi
to Daulatabad. The designs for Himroo involved
pull the design threads and master weaver has
to weave with two - three coloured threads.
Aurangabad's Himroo was used by royal families,
and it is said that Himroo was sent to royal
families in Delhi also. Popular motifs and designs
elephant, peacock, parrot, are used abundantly
used on these shawls.
The first Kanjeevaram
sari is believed to have been woven around 400
years ago. The origin of this saree can be traced
back to the ancient temple town of Kanjeevaram
(a.k.a Kanchipuram) in modern Tamil Nadu.
The Kanjeevaram saree is characterised
by gold - dipped silver/ pure gold threads that
are woven onto rich, beautiful, brilliant silk
The borders and the pallus carry ornate
zari work. The designs involve vertical
and horizontal lines as well as checks. The
colours range from vibrant orange to mauve to
purple, green, maroon, blue and rust.The heavier
the silk, the better the quality of the saree.
Peacocks and parrots, swans, mangoes and leaves
are the commonest motifs. Another important
character of these sarees are the vertical sets
of caret (triangular) signs/marks lining the
borders; they resemble pinnacles of temples
and hence probably the name.
sarees are woven in near opaque white surfaces
with contrasting borders in red, black, purple,
and orange, emphasized by a serrated edge motif.
Gradually the border was broadened to six or
even eight inches, and adorned with a variety
of stripes in muga (a kind of raw silk,
native of Assam) or zari (fine glittery
thread of gold or silver and the embroidery
made using them). Known as ‘Maatha
Paar’ or ‘Beluaari paar’,
these borders are often woven in two colours
e.g. black and red. Having a tighter weave than
the tangail or shantipuri, it is more
hardy and durable.
Dhanekhali, a native of Bengal
is a village in Bangladesh. This saree has an
unusually fine and smooth texture. There is
invariably a pattern running through every alternate
weft thread. The borders of traditional tangail
sarees displayed motifs such as padma
(lotus) pradeep (earthen lamp) and
the famous “aansh paar’
(fish scales look). Starting with a single colour
on the border, the weavers have begun to use
two to three colours to render it a ‘meenakari’
effect. The emphasis is on rich warm colours,
both vibrant and muted. The focus is on the
anchal (the part that goes over and
beyond the shoulder) and the border, which may
have alternate lines of contrasting shades with
an interplay of small paisley, rosette and geometric
designs. Tangail sarees are often highlighted
with gold or silver thread, which heightens
A pretty tangail saree
(a.k.a Kosa silk), is valued for its purity
and texture. It is drawn from cocoons especially
grown on arjun, saja or sal
trees. Available in natural shades of gold-pale,
dark, honey, tawny, beige and cream, Tussar
is considered an ideal as well as auspicious
wear for marriages, religious ceremonies and
other important social functions. (The original
rich gold shade Tussar is sometimes
dyed, producing colours of a very special hue
Earlier only natural dyes were
used which included yellow from the palash
(flame of the forest) and kusum flowers,
red pollen dust of the rora flower
and the deep rose red from lac. But with time
the range of colour and motifs have increased
dramatically. The commonly available shades
are Dhaniya (light green), Mas
(deep blue), Kariya (black), Anchi
(deep purple), Jamalla (purple), Darra
(deep rose red), Katha (maroon), Narangi
(orange), Rani (deep Indian pink),
Phiroza (turquoise) among others.
The resplendent Tussar
is a type of silk traditionally woven in Bengal.
It comprises plain red borders set against a
smooth natural ground, with widely spaced motifs
(generally paisleys) etched diagonally from
the lower border to the waist. This is also
regarded as one of the most pure fabrics, hence
suited for wearing for special occasions and
religious ceremonies. Garad
very expensive, which makes it a highly coveted
from Orissa features ornate borders and heavily
embroidered drapes with touches of Ikat work
in some instances and are popular with tourists
and locals for their ethnic feel and tribal
look. With motifs drawn from the Shakti
cult predominant in Orissa's tribal and rural
culture for centuries, these sarees are coloured
in the subtle hues which are present in nature.
The word kontha
in Sanskrit means rags. In Bengal Kantha
evolved out of necessity to drape or protect
oneself against the cold. It is a brilliant
example of the art of recycling. When the
silks, muslins and cotton sarees became worn-out,
the housewives and other womenfolk, instead
of throwing them away, gathered them up in
layers and stitched simple but pretty little
patterns all over the square/rectangular pieces.
These became light blankets which could be
used throughout the year.
Another legend relates the
origin of kantha to Lord Buddha and
his disciples. It is believed that they used
to cover themselves with thrown away rags
patched and stitched together, in tune with
their vows of austere lifestyle. In recent
years Kantha embroidery has become
so popular and so widely acclaimed, that the
medium shifted from useless rags to expensive
silks and cottons.
The Bomkai, Orissa's pride
Kantha - from waste
Handloom weaving is Assam's largest and oldest
industry. Weaving has been a way of life in
Assam since time immemorial. Handlooms of Assam
are not confined to a particular group of people
or to a particular region. Assam was one of
the first places where the practice of rearing
silk-worms and culling the silken thread from
the cocoons began to be practiced.
Assam’s weavers bring
forth diverse varieties of silk namely endi,
muga and pala. The most outstanding
of the three is muga - royal and exotic.
This beautiful fabric combines beauty (owing
to its scintillating golden colour) with strength
and durability. Unlike other silk fabrics, muga
is washable at home. However due to low porosity
of the threads Muga can neither be bleached
nor dyed. This fabric is extensively used in
making Mekhala Chador - the traditional
dress of the Assamese women.
Endi derives its name
from the castor leaves on which the silkworm
feeds. This silk has a yellowish tinge and is
available in both rough as well as smooth varieties.
It is extensively used in winter for warmth.
Pala is obtained from the silk worms
that feed on the leaves of the mulberry trees.
A saree made of Muga silk
The Nagas attach great importance to their costume,
worn on ceremonial or festive occasions, besides
those for daily use. The designs and colours
vary not only from one tribe to another but
also from village to village. The designs portray
the wearer’s position in society. Simple
straight lines, stripes, squares and bands,
varying in width, colour and arrangement are
the most traditional design and motifs of this
region. Naga womenfolk are masters in their
choice and combination of colours.
Tsungkotepsu, the decorative warrior
shawl is typical of the Ao
tribe. Exclusively for men, this shawl may be
worn only by someone who has taken heads in
war or offered a mithun (local bison)
as sacrifice. In Naga society, this ritual can
be performed only by rich men). The cloth has
a median white band on a dark base; on either
side of it are horizontal bands of contrasting
black, red and white. The median band is black
in colour and includes figures of mithun
(symbolizing wealth), elephant and tiger (symbolizing
valour), human head (representing success in
head-hunting) and other motifs like the spear,
dao (sickle/scythe like instrument),the
There are several varieties of woven cloths
worn by the Angami tribe. The
predominant pattern comprising white, red and
black bands is called loramhoushu,
while black with red and yellow bands called
lohe. The Angami
priests don the phichu-pfe, which portrays
their distinct social status. A kind of black
shawl, ideal for rough wear (used by both sexes)
is known as ratapfe.
Among the Sangtam
tribals, the sangtam rongsu shawl is
meant exclusively for the valiant warriors.
The cloth on a black base has four grey bands
at the top and another four bands of the same
colour at the bottom. Another decorative shawl
woven by this tribe is called supong
which is commonly used by the affluent menfolk.
A colourful Naga shawl
Another variety of
(The tribal textiles of Bastar region are woven
manually. The commonest motifs include animals,
birds, huts, bows and arrows flora and vegetation,
pitchers, temples and so forth. These textiles
are worn by the tribals on important occasions
like dances, weddings and religious ceremonies).
Cotton Fabrics are one of the
famous and attractive handicrafts made by the
Bastar tribesmen. The tribals also churn out
a fabric made of kosa silk threads
obtained from a kind of worm found on trees
in the forest, which are hand woven and hand
printed by the tribals themselves, who incidentally
trace their antecedents to the medieval, secular
saint-poet Kabir, who was a
weaver by profession. The hand printing is generally
done with the natural vegetable dye extracted
from maddaer (aal) trees, found in
the forest of Bastar.These fabrics includes
cotton saris, dress materials and drapes.
weaving is done in heavy cotton, with a count
between 10 and 20.The pallu and borders
are generally tinged with natural hues of brown
or terracotta obtained from Indian madder
besides black obtained from rusted iron. The
dramatic designs are highly attractive and appealing.
The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is
renowned for its Chanderi
and Maheshwari sarees.
The Chanderi cotton sarees
are ideal summer wear. Usually in subtle hues,
they possess an air of unmatched sophistication.
On the other hand the Chanderi silk
sarees generally have a rich gold border and
two gold bands on the pallav (the part
that goes over and beyond the shoulders). The
more expensive sarees have gold checks with
lotus roundels all over which are known as butis.
The hallmark of Chanderis lies in its
reference to nature. The typical motifs are
earth and sky, hunting scenes, the tree of life,
men and women, birds, fruits, flowers, heavenly
A Chanderi saree
sarees, from the town of Maheshwar, on the banks
of the Narmada, available in both cotton and
silk are the last words in simplicity. The entire
surface of such a saree is either chequered
or plain or has stripes, combined with complementary
colours. A speciality of this sarees it is reversible
border, which makes it wearable on both the
sides. of the saree which can be worn either
side, is a speciality. Interestingly, the pallav
(the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulders)
of Maheshwari saree is characterised by three
coloured and two white alternating stripes.
Maheshwari sarees are rendered in silk also,
which are of course more expensive than their
Among the most breathtakingly beautiful sarees
made in India figures the Paithani
sarees, woven exclusively in the Paithan region
of the western state of Maharashtra.The gold
with their exquisitely beautiful designs depict
the blend of the aesthetic with the symbolic.
The Rig Veda mentions a golden, woven fabric
and the Greek records mention gorgeous Paithani
fabrics from the well-known, ancient trading
or Paithan (in Maharashtra).
The typical, traditional paithani used to be
a plain sari with a heavy zari
and ornamental pallav
that goes over and beyond the shoulder). However,
today motifs abound in these sarees: stars,
parrots circles, peacocks, flowers asavali
(flower and vine), narli
and paisleys. In the bygone centuries, the zari
used in making Paithanis was drawn from pure
gold. However, nowadays silver is substituted
for gold, in order to make these sarees ore
affordable to many people.
The Peshwas (political rulers of Maharashtra)
in the 18th century had a special love for
Paithani textiles and it is believed that
Madhavrao Peshwa is believed to have asked
for a huge supply of dupattas dotted with
asavali prints, in shades of red,
green, saffron, pomegranate and pink.
Interestingly, the Nizam of erstwhile
princely state of Hyderabad too is believed
to have nurtured a penchant for the Paithanis,
which made him undertake several trips to
the obscure town of Paithan to secure the
fabric for personal use. His daughter-in-law,
Niloufer, was instrumental in introducing
new motifs to the designs on the borders as
well as the pallav (the part that
goes over and beyond the shoulders) designs.
Paithani-the pride of
A beautiful Maheshwari saree