Walking In on the Sari

Walk. That’s my one-word gospel for all who will listen in on the best way to discover. Meander. Be curious, the good kind. Because stories wait around corners, discoveries often plonk themselves on one-way streets. And some are found in messy backrooms of squeaky clean shops lined with mannequins and smiles. Like this woven tale of the people, history, and fabric that go into the making of the Indian drape. There’s more than just five yards to the sari, trust me.

In India, the weaving fraternity is loosely divided into powerloom (commercial, large-scale, using machines) and handloom (done by hand at homes and in clusters, using traditional wooden looms). The latter, of course, comes with the tags of handmade love, preserving culture and heritage, empowering communities, sustaining livelihoods, and so forth. Handloom buys are distinct, too – there’s bound to be a thread line showing, a color difference. But its imperfections give it its distinct identity.

On one of my exploratory walks around Mattanchery (there’s ALWAYS something to be discovered here), I happened to stop at a handloom co-operative society. Co-operative societies are clusters of weaves, artisans, and the like brought together by trade and work in tandem with the government to sell their craft. While the shelves were packed with all things handloom, there was the faint but unmistakable sound of wood meeting. In a setting of yards of cloth, it meant only one thing: weaver at hand.

As a person often left at the mercy of the sari and its ways, I have immense respect for it. With a good look at what goes into its making, this respect now borders on awe.

Here’s the humble understanding: spools of thread (cotton, silk) are first prepped to be woven into a sari and soaked in water. At where I was, the thread was spun using a charkha (spinning wheel). To this country and its people, it’s a reminder of Mahatma Gandhi and his call to self-reliance. Colors are decided – while the one in the photographs shows pink, the final sari was purple; a combination of pink and dark blue threads. The choicest the color, the greater number of colors involved, higher the final price. Want some touches of gold? That comes at an extra.

Post the colors, the pattern banter begins. The scale, size, and intricacy of the design depends on what the sari is intended to be used for – weddings, daily wear, festivals, etc. Common ones are flowers, birds, gods and goddesses, temple motifs. The patterns are then punched out in holes on thick cardboard and mounted atop the loom. This is the jacquard. And these are customized for each pattern. Threads are passed through anywhere between 8-30 jacquard boards to weave one pattern.

A weaver sits at the head of the loom and works pedal-like contraptions to move the loom. It takes anywhere between three days to two weeks to weave one sari. Also, the rear of the design faces the weaver. He sees his work only after all five yards and more are woven. Some perseverance that. Patience, too.

My weaver friend insisted that I see his work. Wouldn’t take a ‘no’. So I knelt down, crept under the loom and looked up to see work in gold, his hands blocking the light for me to see better. It was beautiful, and humbling.

To the sari, more respect. To the weaver, a promise to revere the work of his hands. To the discoveries on foot, where are we headed next?


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