Threads That Bind

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Let me tell you a little secret that not many people know about me. When it comes to clothes I am a complete traditionalist and a total slave to hand woven textiles. I think there is something magical about weaving. So much of the personality of an artisan is imprinted in the fabric that they create. Someone once said “perfection is boring” and I absolutely agree. There is so much beauty, sensuality and a charm in a fabric that is made by a human hand as opposed to a machine. You can see where there was a pause, a change in the pattern, a reconsideration and sometimes a minor correction here and there. The threads speak volumes.

Perhaps, because I am a South Asian, I find that nothing is more sensuous than a saree and by that I mean pure either silk or cotton hand woven yards of magic. Don’t get me wrong, I do love high fashion and beautiful tailoring and I love its modernity and simplicity but I do not fall in love with them with the same fervor as I do when I see a traditional handloom saree. It is perhaps part of my cultural makeup or the influences I grew up with. Be it a Benarasi, Baluchari, Chandheri, Maheshwari, Kota, Ikat, Patola, Uppada or Paithani , they are all are treasures with their rich heritage of master craftsmanship but the queen among all of these is a pattu (pure silk) Kanjeevaram.

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Kanjeevaram’s are woven in a small town 60km from  Chennai in South India called Kanchi. These sarees are woven in pure Mulberry silk in bright resplendent Indian colours, there is a lot of history behind the colours and motifs that the weavers use but I will leave that for a separate post.

The Mulberry silk is extremely fine and durable. It has an astounding luster, sturdiness and finish. The silk thread used for weaving Kanjeevarams is actually three strands of silk that is twisted together to form one single thread. This is what gives the Kanjeevaram its durability that will last for thirty to forty years.

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To weave a Kanjeevaram saree three shuttles are used. While the weaver works on the right side, his aides works on the left side shuttle. The border color and design are usually quite different from the body. If the pallu (the hanging end of the sari) has to be woven in a different shade, it is first separately woven and then delicately joined to the main saree.

Weavers use the ancient craft of three-shuttle weaving and interlocking weft to get this effect. The saree is ornamented with pure gold zari. The motifs are from temple sculptures — religion, architecture or nature-based. The Petni technique changes colours, extracted from leaves, barks and seeds. The saree weighs from  500g to 1Kg, 2/3-ply threads help increase the weight. Weaving a Kanjeevaram is a tedious task but the hard labour is an imprimatur of its grandeur and luxury.

Strangely enough none of the raw material used for these sarees come from Kanchipuram itself. But sarees these were being woven from the time of the Pallava kings. Artisans from Tamil Nadu, Saurashtra and Karnataka, possibly invited by the king, congregated here to pursue their art. The pattu-nool (thread) came from Karnataka, zari from Surat. Families wove together, as several hands were needed to wind the thread in the beam. Temples bought saris to drape goddesses, and kings for the boudoir. Temple tourists bought them as blessed memento. The sarees later went to Chennai, the wealthy trading centre close by. Production and marketing combined seamlessly.

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Paradoxical as it may sound (when you look at the pictures you might agree) for me there is a strange minimalism in wearing a Kanjeevaram and traditional temple jewelry as opposed to heavily embroidered sarees. There is something pure and non-fussy about it that is timeless and classic. I guess that’s what resonates with the purist in me. I am not one for much embellishment and surface ornamentation and although I see most North Indian brides in beautifully embroidered heavy lehengas and cholis I prefer the artistry to be embedded in the fabric rather than sewn on top.  Most of the time you hardly see the fabric and hence cheap synthetic ones are used and covered in heavy threads baubles and diamante. Although modern Indian brides prefer designer lehengas with their heavy embroidery in the South no wedding will be complete without a traditional Kanjeevaram . With ample use of pure zari (gold dipped thread) and intricate motifs inspired by temples which are a blessing to the woman who is getting married, it is like looking at a tapestry spun from gold. There is something so simple, so minimalist about that decadent silk and the temple jewelry (which is actually intricate and heavy yet somehow miraculously muted) seem to only bring out the sheen of the silk even more.  Recently I attended a wedding in South India and I spent the greater part of my time taking pictures and admiring the beautiful silk sarees of the bride and all the guests and instead of concentration on ceremony!.

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In the West you hear a lot of fuss about couture and artisan work and there is a lot of value placed on craft but Asian women sometimes forget that we have exquisite artisan work that is much more rich and intricate and a whole lot more affordable. Kanjeevarams are not cheap but there is a vast price range that makes if obtainable and for such a piece of art that will last you a lifetime I think it is worth it rather than a trend that will fade quickly.

With changing times younger people sometimes think that these designs are too old fashioned and are more suited to their mothers or grandmothers. I have a lot of friends who think these are old school and the blouse designs are archaic etc etc. But if you look closely at some of the pictures you will see real beauty and a kind of sensuality in the modern avatars of the saree that we see, the so called art silks and the cocktail versions. A lot of new designers are reviving the old crafts and bringing in contemporary colour palette and I am so heartened to see these being celebrated. We need more patrons for these dying crafts. Many of the younger generation of weavers are leaving the looms for work in the cities and this is a tragedy because these is so much beauty and heritage here that should be preserved.

There is depth and hidden power in this weave, there is luster and the patina of centuries of artisan-ship. It’s opulent and at the same time subtle. I remember listening to an interview of one of my favourite designers Manish Arora, who is truly Avant garde and modern in his designs, when asked what should a bride pick up for her wedding he said, “A traditional Kanjeevaram, you can never go wrong with that”.

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20 thoughts on “Threads That Bind

  1. It is treat to read about handwoven fabrics and see the vibrant colors all in one place. I am a Bachelors in Textile Design ( weaving major). I had started my own set up of handlooms as soon as I graduated as I had done my Thesis on Ikat . No one in Pakistan knew about Ikat at that time and I had to sit and tie the warp of cotton thread on my own for me Ikat designs and then dye the warp in natural dyes as none of the dyers here knew how to for Ikat. I then did some orders of Jamdani( supplementary weft) as again no one in Pakistan knew how to.

    Ever since I have graduated and started my own set up of handlooms I have been dying to go to India but, sigh!!!!!!!!! been refused visa.

    I hardly wear shalwar kameez anymore as I only wear handwoven cotton, cotton silk and pure silk sarees. My sister now sends them to me from SanFrancisco .

    I have been looking for Kanjeevaram sarees here but, no one makes them here and the people who do import are selling at a high price( double of what one can get in India for).

    You are so right, all the hand loom owners have either shut down their handlooms or have put motors on the handlooms, killing the original art. The artisans here are paid peanuts as daily wages for handloom weaving.

    It is indeed a dying art( in Pakistan at least). I have heard that Bangladesh and India are the only places where still artisans are not letting go of this art easily.

    The rich and vibrant colors are breath taking on silk. Colors like indigo, madder and saffron are some of the rare natural colors.

    I can go on and on , but I need to stop 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Beauty absolutely a Beauty.
    Got some which belonged to my Grandmother & my Mum.
    My Daughter loves them too.
    Definitely be sharing this article with her.
    They never date. There is something about it.
    The Temple Saris / The Paithanis / kanjeevarams
    Luxurious. In every-way.
    They all tell a beautiful story
    One looks so Graceful in adoring one of them
    They are AGELESS.❤️
    Just oozes Class
    The work that goes in making them is an Art
    Proud of this Heritage
    Always on my list when I visit those shores.
    Just love them.
    ❤️

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Kanjeevaram!!!

    I love this post soooooo much because even though I am from North india we are all obsessed with traditional handloom sarees ( well I don’t know how to wear a saree, but still crazy for them).
    Kanjeevaram over bling anyday.

    There is something so rich, classy yet very elegant about the fabric . Some might say it’s overwhelming but no, you just need to drape well and not go all OTT with jewelry . They look lovely with temple jewelry . I love the colours so much and the craftsmanship is breath-taking.

    I think I have raided my Grandma and Mom’s closet so many times, just to try these beauties , their durability and shine is something else. Doubt any Indian bride’s wedding trousseau is complete without a Kajeevaram .

    I don’t know if some of you are familiar with Nalli , they do supply the sarees online and they are a trusted brand , who I feel has done real well reviving the craze for traditional sarees all across India , paving way for brands like Raw Mango etc .

    I think i can go on and on about this . But the pics be so distracting .

    I love this post so much!!

    P.S. Manish Arora be all love . His collection with Amarpali is to die for.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh Raw Mango is another one of my absolute favourites. I have one its so light it can actually float. And you are spot on about Manish’s stuff for Amrapali. Theu are works of art. Then again the man uses Benares brocades in contemptory patterns.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Chani … all the saree pictures put up by you are a dream …

    I too just go crazy and weak-kneed when I see a Kanjeevaram saree …
    I have a beautiful collection of them from my marriage …
    my mom and mom in law both gave me either chiffons or Kanjeevaram silks !
    Just loved wearing them for years … and they still look as good as new …
    Have given some to my daughters too … No trousseau is complete without some
    of these …
    Sadly the quality that we got earlier is not available anymore …
    and the good ones are available at an exorbitant price … over a lakh of rupees …
    the silk is not thick enough and the weave too is not fine and neatly done anymore …
    and the sarees are just over starched !
    So what we have from earlier should be treated like pieces of jewellery and preserved …
    Bollywood has some actresses who wear a lot of silk sarees … Rekha … Kiron Kher …
    Vidya Balan … it really gives me great pleasure to see them in the most beautiful sarees …
    Actually in North India people are more fond of Banarasi silks and Tissues … which are
    also beautiful but frankly cannot be compared to the rich beauty of a Kanjeevaram silk …

    Having lived in the south for a few years I have learned to value these beautiful pieces of art …

    Thank you Chani …

    Liked by 4 people

  5. This was a treat to read!

    I love silk sarees. I was so happy when my mum told me I could have her old sarees. Even though we hardly get to wear them, it’s that feeling of owing them. Them being part of you and forevermore.

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  6. Absolutely beautiful fabrics and workmanship and delightful for someone from western culture to read about them! I hope the old crafts are taken up again and not lost, as you say Chan, these things are part of all our heritage and so valuable.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. you are right when u said a wedding is not completed without kanchipuram sarees. I am from south India and in my community its like a must for the bride to wear kanchipurams and pattu sarees for the close relatives..
    I love sarees almost any kind…

    Like

  8. Lovely Article like the Kanjeevaram Sari. Amazing how you brought out the beauty of the work and the Snaps of some Sari’s through their colors & Design.

    Like

  9. Beautiful collection of pics of kanjeevaram saris – I don’t wear saris but love to admire somebody in one of them
    Nice post chani

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  10. Chani iii! I love silk be it anything, but let me tell u I think a bride looks much better in a Kanjeevaram than any other outfit. The stand out so beautifully cause must ppl put on same dress design what are in the trends.

    I have always wanted to drape a saree But never got a chance. But will definitely wear a Kanjeevaram this August for my baby brother’se’s wedding which is actually a north indian wedding so am gonna look different from everyone.

    Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

    Like

  11. I love silk, and I adore natural dyes. There is purity in that kind of color. – In our neighborhood we had a lot of Tamil families so I grew up surrounded by women in Kanjeevaram sarees. The women in my family too worn sarees (except my grandmother) and one of my aunts definitely favored the Kanjeevaram for formal wear.

    I think it’s been around 5-6 years since I’ve worn a saree… I’m not that big a fan when I compare it to other eastern wear, but I have to admit there is a grace in this particular dress that isn’t easily matched by others, but in my opinion that depends mostly on the woman wearing it. Not all women can pull off a saree, period.

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    1. I totally agree with you. Some women just can not carry themselves in a saree and it is one of the most graceful attire .

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  12. At last Chani, something I am familiar with. Haute couture looks awesome but its way out of my league. Sarees however is familiar ground…a major major part of my wardrobe. All the pics showcased the vibrancy of colours & patterns of Kanjeevaram sarees.

    Personally though, I prefer my traditional cotton sarees whether handloom, printed or embroidered. For weddings the silk cotton ones are much easier & lighter to wear. I make it a point to buy a local saree when visiting new places…memoirs. The only problem is there is only so much one can keep, each saree has a memory & they last like..forever!

    Like

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