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Quietly flows the yarn

Brinda Suri, Feb 26, 2017 0:52 IST

Motley modifications

Shawls in Kullu-Kinnauri patterns. Photo by author
A friend, whining about tailoring costs and delays, wistfully said how she wished her grandmother’s era was still around.

“She was one of the most elegantly dressed in our family, and all she wore was an unstitched garment. Since the age of 14 years, she had draped a saree. And how gracefully she had carried it off, without the blouse or petticoat. She bought herself one saree annually, and the order for that was placed with the village weaver in advance. No tailors required!”

Draped, or just running metres of wrapped cloth, has success​fully been used as attire down the centuries.​ Perhaps the oldest form of garment, in this part of the world Harappan era figurines stand evidence to that as they portray men wearing cloth around the waist, akin to today’s dhoti, while some are shown sporting a turban.

Moving westward, the ancient Roman toga and stola as well as the Greek himation and peplos,​ ​are still considered classics.​ In Latin and Central America, variants of the poncho such as the lliklla, q'ipirina and sarape, as also shawls like the manta and rebozo continue to be worn with pride. In West Asia and Africa, loose robes or the one-piece kaftan, and a variety of headgear, have traditionally been worn. In the Far East, the sarong and the shawl-like sabai are widely seen on both men and women.

Wear about


The unstitched garment has a long history across the world, but it’s primarily in the subcontinent that it continues to be such a dominant form of urban and rural attire. Notwithstanding the influx of structured styles, it’s high street fashion here. Its status remains present continuous, despite the swing towards, well, for want of a better word, Western attire.

India’s rich textile heritage has ensured we have an incredible range of handspun, handwoven and hand-embellished fabric in intricate and compelling designs. There is, of course, the industrial variety too; its relative ease in production having played a role in cheaper variants flooding the market, but on the flip side, making sure traditions continue.

Look around you and you’ll find every home definitely owning some pieces of unstitched apparel. It’s not just the saree, the showstopper among them all, but the mundu, lungi, veshti, panchey, dhoti, tehmet, laacha, angavastram, odhni or dupatta to mention a few found in the wardrobes of the country and its neighbours. The headdress, a symbol of honour and status, has also been a significant part of men’s attire across the subcontinent. The Sikh dastaar, Rajasthan’s saafa, Mysore and Kolhapuri peta, Coorgi vastra, Pathani khula pagri etc are a mere handful of examples.

Furthermore, each region may have a garment used in similar fashion, but it is constructed to different specifications. If we put that down to statistics, almost every individual in the country will have an unstitched piece not matching the other. That is mind-boggling. One of the reasons for that is India still largely shops in the unbranded sector. Such garments let the wearer portray a sense of individuality, unlike branded wear that can be recognised from a distance.

When speaking about unstitched clothing in India, the seven sisters of the North-East — the states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura — as well as Sikkim, are the crowning glory with a huge repertoire of richly handwoven attires.

The sarong in its many variations governs the indigenous apparel of men and women in the region. It’s women-wear, however, that attracts eyeballs. So if Manipur has the phanek, Mizoram is proud of its vibrant puan.

In Meghalaya and Nagaland, the Khasi tribe wears the jainsem and the tap-moh khlieh, the tartan patterned shawl pinned at the shoulders; the Garo women can be seen wrapped in the eking and dakmanda; a Jaintia lady will wear the thoh khyrwang and use the kyrsha, a long piece of silk, as headgear; while the Rabha tribe woman wears the elegantly woven ruphan. Whereas the sarong is usually paired with a blouse, women of Tripura’s Khakloo tribe wear just two pieces of running material. And, do they look stunning! Their short width risa is a skilfully embroidered piece for the upper body while the longer, broader rinai is wrapped around the waist and reaches the knees. In Assam, the distinctive three-piece mekhela chador is a prized possession.

The region is dominated by close to thousand tribes and sub-tribes, and each is fiercely loyal towards their customs. One of these is never wearing a shawl of another tribe and proudly flaunting your own. The gorgeous hand-woven shawl thus remains the single most essential piece of garment found across the region, particularly so in Arunachal and Nagaland.

That apart, in the colder northern and western parts of the country too there is an astounding range of woven or embroidered stoles, shawls and sashays for both men and women. In Ladakh, the bok worn by women has a vibrant design on the outerside and yak or goat skin on the inside. Goucha, the robes Ladakhi men wear, will always have the tie-and-dye skerag, a waistband, holding it together. Across the Zoji La, Kashmir has been sourcing pashmina from Ladakh and using it to make gorgeous featherlight shawls. These are basically of two varieties: sozni, which is woven pashmina adorned with delicate needle embroidery, and kani, the handwoven patterned shawl.

Himachal too has a wealth of woollen weaves with Kinnauri and Kullu patterns. These can be seen on regular-length shawls and mufflers, but are most striking on the doru, the short-broad stole draped by women in Kinnaur, and the pattu, a longish woven piece worn over an outfit and fastened with the help of a broach by women in the Kullu region. Men wear the longer, broader loi which is usually plain. In Punjab, the phulkari bagh, a broad handspun, handwoven cotton shawl, is deftly embroidered by grannies for their granddaughters’ trousseau. In rural Punjab, during winters men often wrap a chequered khesi, a thick handspun cotton shawl. Across the hills in Uttarakhand, no wedding is complete till the bride is adorned in the deep saffron pichoda, a cotton hand-printed stole which has holy significance. Once married, women wear the stole at all ceremonial occasions.

In the cooler parts of the Nillgiri hills of the Western Ghats that run through the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Toda tribe wears the characteristic black-red-cream pugur or embroidered shawl. In the East, the Mirgan tribe of Kotpad in Koraput district, Odisha, is known for its organically dyed and handwoven stoles and shawls.

Developing economy & the dress

Even though Asia has a longer-lasting tradition of unstitched garments, countries like Japan, Thailand, Korea and China have completely switched to Western wear, draping customary attire only during ceremonial occasions. “The subcontinent, however, still sees the majority wearing traditional attire as, perhaps, our people are largely in rural areas and don’t get too affected by Western wear, which does not suit the kind of work done by them in the fields, forests and homes,” says Jaya Jaitly, founder-president of Dastkari Haat Samiti and a cultural activist. “If all other practices — like religion, cultural festivities, food and entertainment — continue as per local practices, clothes do not change so fast. Where city influences and work styles have come in, Western wear is adopted more quickly.”

Dressing has a lot to do with how one wants to portray oneself. It’s eventually about identity, whether of community or country. In societies where rituals and social norms dominate, sticking to custom is part of the culture. “In Asia and Africa, the unstitched tradition has either continued or has been revived after colonialism. In the West, the effects of industrialisation led to machine-cut and stitched clothes taking over and spreading rapidly, while we were still steeped in our traditional identities through dress, food and language. The men in the upper classes in countries that were colonised wore suits as a part of the ‘ruler’ class, whereas women continued their traditional dress, whether unstitched or not,” adds Jaitly.

According to J P Bali, trendswatcher and fashion writer, “The flowing piece of fabric continues to inspire. Whether it’s the Grecian-inspired drapes, which was only a piece of fabric draped around the body, or the casual sarong, worn a lot in the East, these are being turned into designer pieces now. In India, the unstitched garment has managed to survive despite the influences from the West, as it has continuously reinvented itself to the modern context.”

Cinema and television soaps have also indirectly influenced society and helped tradition stay on course. Social media is another express tool now. Smriti Irani’s
#SelfiewithHandloom being such an instant hit on Twitter is a small illustration of that. Besides, the millions of selfies, reviews, photos posted within seconds and online campaigns also spread the good word.

While on the subject, how can we forget The Great Indian Wedding (factory) that is vastly responsible for creating a fashion industry? It has also lent a hand in reviving many a fading costume style. Today, lakhs of rupees are spent on embellishing bridal attire, and for that, almost always the past is dug into.

Designers are going back to their roots and fusing contemporary and conventional with great flair. The high priestess of Indian haute couture, Ritu Kumar, has been singularly responsible for resurrecting tradition and giving it a new direction. A band of talented young Indian designers such as Rahul Mishra, Gaurang Shah, Shruti Sancheti and Shravan Kumar Ramaswamy have brought refreshing ideas on the design table.

They have determinedly been working on reviving traditional Indian weaves and fusing them with modern sensibility in an effort to establish a new idiom where the past and the present blend seamlessly like the weft and warp of a fabric. Designers from the North East — for instance, Arunachal’s Yana Ngoba Chakpu — are taking the region’s weaves to international ramps and presenting to the world India’s rich textile legacy in a contemporary vocabulary.

Among all traditional draped apparel, the saree has been reinvented the most. The saree was the dress of the national struggle and post-Independence, it has been reinterpreted constantly. Through the decades, designers have been applying Western draping and construction methods to it, as a result of which the saree falls in the haute couture category. Its accompanying blouses are statement pieces now, and even the petticoat is receiving significant thoughts.

“In the saree there have been experiment​s with its basic silhouette. The blending of contemporary demands has brought about an assortment of sarees. There are pre-draped, pre-pleated, fish-cut etc. Besides, the modern fashionista is going back to her roots by asking for antique embroideries like zardozi to be refurbished and used in her contemporary outfit, giving a fresh lease of life to the fabric and embellishment. In fact, this trend of going retro has been on for a few years now. And the urban saree has, in fact, been revived, courtesy this trend. There is a lot of stress on keeping in shape now. The saree best highlights feminine sensuality,” elaborates Bali.

For the Indian diaspora, spread around the globe, and the well-heeled Indian, the contemporary saree is a stylish substitute to Western garments. Corporate leading ladies have also set a commendable trend of being draped in a saree and confirming its status as business-wear as well as a pan-Indian fashionable attire.

Considering the easy availability of Western bespoke clothing and branded prt-a-porter, will traditional wear endure? Jaitly feels, “It depends on how fast we shift from an agriculture-based society to an industrial and technological-based one. Also, how much migration takes place from villages to cities. Of course, reverse migration takes place too, when rural development and infrastructure improves.”

A way of ensuring that traditional garments maintain their position is by supporting the handloom sector. Though the government does its bit, it needs to be a joint effort between the government helping weavers and creating opportunities for improvement and marketing, and the society reaching out to wear handloom in any form. The whole nine yards and the smaller yards have come a long way. Hopefully, they will continue to hold sway.

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