The elegantly glistening, smooth, luxurious fabric of silk has a special place in the hearts and minds of most people across the world, especially Indians. So charmed and awed are we by this lovely fabric that we naturally associate silk with richness and class.
Saree – the Indian fashion statement…
Sarees are one of the most popular Indian ensembles. They are worn by Indian women at almost all stages and ages of life. In India, the most vital occasions of life are incomplete without a saree. It may be worn by the lady of the house, the closest female guests, or may form an important gift – but, saree is always present in Indian festivities in some way or the other! From prominent women leaders to the most successful women of India to the simplest of the women – saree finds favour with everyone.
Silk + Saree
Once you understand the importance of Saree in the Indian culture, it is not really difficult to understand the magnanimity of the Silk Saree - the most glorious and most loved among all the saree types. Silk is the most loved fabric, and is considered absolutely grand. So, all the special sarees are supposed to be in – no surprises there – lush silk. Rightfully, an Indian woman’s wardrobe or wedding trousseau is incomplete without silk sarees.
Silk Sarees are a part of every special occasion in India. They are worn on weddings, and are gifted on key events. They are even treasured and saved for generations. During weddings, mothers, grandmothers, grooms gift rich, heirloom silk sarees, along with the wedding jewels. Considered as sacred and auspicious, silk sarees are even offered to the revered Goddesses and to respectable women relatives. Such is the importance of silk sarees in India! This tradition may vary slightly in every region of India, but it manifests, in some or the other form, in every part.
The Versatile Yarn
An important reason for the popularity of silk is its versatility. Silk is a natural protein fabric, and there are many variants of silk – so there is no dearth of texture variation.
Sarees are flat fabrics i.e. they are worn unstitched. One cannot bring in novelty with any kind of stitching/ cut. The design, color, fabric and texture variations are, thus, extremely important. Silk is one such yarn that takes on all these aspects most beautifully. Weaving fabric and intricate designs from silk yarn leads to creation of stunning sarees. No other fiber can produce the same effect or weaving pattern as silk!
The natural tensile strength of silk (it is a protein!), despite its smoothness and luster, is absolutely unique, and so is the depth of its texture, its absorbency and pliability. It is not slippery or flimsy like synthetic materials, and is commercially extracted in white/ off-white yarn.
Thus, it can be easily blended with other yarns, and can also be dyed in multiple ways. Many sarees are created with cotton-silk blends. Saree staples Zari and brocade are created by blending silk with metallic yarn. The stunning effects and colors of silk sarees are, thus, seldom possible in any other fiber.
Production of silk is done naturally as well as commercially, through a process known as Sericulture. Also known as Silk Farming, sericulture refers to rearing of silkworms (usually at a commercial scale) for silk production. It is an important cottage industry in many Asian and European countries. China, India and Japan are major producers of silk. Although silk, in our minds, is most popularly associated with mulberry silk worm Bombyx Mori, varieties of silk yarn can be produced by many other insects as well.
Wild silk is a popular silk variety. It is difficult to obtain than the commercially produced silk yarn, but is prized for its ravishing texture. Tussar silk is a variety that is produced from non-mulberry source. Muga silk is another variant that is popular for its resilient golden-yellow silk yarn. Other non-mulberry variants are Eri Silk, Anaphe Silk, Mussel Silk, Spider Silk, Coan Silk and Fagara Silk.
Brief History of Silk
Silk is known to have been first developed and popularized in China. Originally, it was the domain of only the royalty, and later of the elite. Silk was one of the most important items of international trade, during pre-industrial times. References of silk and sericulture in India can be found even in Indus Valley Civilization and Harappa archaeological records. Silk is known to have reached the Western world from Asia, through the famed Silk Road.
India also has had a long association with silk. Archaeological discoveries link use and production of silk through Sericulture in the South Asia to the times of Indus Valley Civilization. Besides being one of the largest producers (along with China) of silk in the world, India is also the biggest consumer of silk. Since ages, silk has been associated with wealth, royalty and auspiciousness in Indian culture. Other countries/ regions with deep silk connections include Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Middle East, parts of (medieval and modern) Europe and Americas.
Silk In India
Use of silk was originally done for the royalty, and in India too, silk fibers were used to craft Brocade. Combination of metal fibers and silk fibers woven painstakingly resulted in fine Zari and brocade fabrics. The Indian ancient centres of silk weaving, a process that was vastly influenced from techniques used in Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan, included regions of Gujarat, Malwa, Southern India and North Indian cities of Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Lahore (erstwhile India – now Pakistan), Azamgarh and Murshidabad.
Kinkhwab – the most precious of the silk brocade fabrics - It was at the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar that the indigenous techniques of Gujarati (and other Indian) weavers mingled with the ones of the skilled weavers from across the world! The heaviest and the most precious brocades of the time – Kinkhwab – was developed, thence. Initially, this was woven using the real metal fibers (gold and silver).
Pot-thans or Katan is another type of brocade – or silk weave – that was developed later. It was lighter and less dense than Kinkhwab. Since it was more pliable, it was used to make the earliest of the royal brocade silk sarees. Mashru silk brocade, Gyasar and Amru were other silk brocade fabrics developed, over time.
Migratory weavers also developed another popular and frequently used silk fabric – Jamewar or Jamawar. This silk fabric had many prominent woven motifs. States of Jammu/ Kashmir and many parts of Pakistan now produce the finest Jamewar silk. Jamawar saris and shawls (made in Varanasi too) are highly prized, but each ‘real’ one of them takes meticulous efforts of over 3-4 months to be made.
The Grand Silk Sarees of India
Silk is a cherished fabric, and a multitude of weaving techniques and styles have been employed since ages - to craft amazing sarees from the silk yarn. Silks also have deep connections with the Mughal and Persian influences on the Indian culture.
A combination of many cultures, foreign influences and indigenous weaving/ production techniques has led to development of amazing and unique saree arts. It is astounding that almost every region of India has its own special, native silk saree. Most of these are hand-woven, handloom sarees, and are often made by either pure silk fiber or blended (with cotton yarn and zari) silk fiber.
Here we enlist some of the most known handloom silk sarees of India ones –
Assam Silk Sarees
Mangalgiri Silk sarees
Uppada Silk Sarees
Apart from the handloom silk sarees, many other varieties of power-loom made sarees are present today. Commercially produced silk fiber is used in umpteen sari varieties. From rich Banagalore silk sarees, Mysore silk sarees to wispy georgette and crepe sarees – the lush silk fiber is everywhere.
Pure georgette and crepe fabrics are also actually made using the silk fiber, and that’s how, silk is an integral part of the sari industry. Printed silk sarees, silk-cotton blended sarees and trendy designer silk sarees are other popular, contemporary variants of the silk sarees.
Silk Sarees Produced in Southern India
Silk and silk sarees are integrally mingled with the life and culture of Indians. This is truest for the Southern states of India, which are not only the largest producers of silk, but are also the major consumers of silk in the country. Deeply entrenched in the lives of South Indians, silk sarees are a part of all major life occasions – from birth to weddings and more. Silk sarees and silk ensembles are implicitly linked with many Indian classical dances and creative arts – like Caranatic music, Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dance forms etc.
The Southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu account for the maximum silk production in India. These states are quite ahead in natural textiles production overall. The finest silk – produced from Indian mulberry silkworms is also extracted the most in these states, especially Karnataka. No wonder, sarees from prominent centres of Karnataka are considered as the finest and best. Mysore silk sarees and Bangalore silk sarees are quite popular, thus. Mysore Silk Sarees use 100% silk fiber, along with high quality real Zari. Thus, the grandeur and appeal of these majestic sarees are unmatchable. Also, together the popular southern cities of Mysore and North Bangalore form the ‘Silk City’, accounting for the maximum silk production.
Rich Bridal Silk Sarees
While Printed Silk Saris are quite popular and well received as formal, office-wear sarees, and are sported by corporate leaders, educationists and prominent celebrities/ women routinely, various other types of Silk Saris are an integral part of the Bridal Sari and Wedding Sari lists. In fact, most popular and traditional Wedding Sarees and Bridal Sarees are made in silk.
Many variants and blends of silk have been developed over time to serve this purpose too. Since Bridal Saris are embellished and ornate, silk is blended with other materials to add to resilience and strength. The heavily embellished bridal sarees, decorated using hand embroideries of Zardozi, Aari, Tilla etc. also typically have a silk or a silk blend base.
Gharchola – a popular wedding saree from the western (Indian) state of Gujarat is typically made in blended cotton-silk fabric, as this saree is made using Bandhani technique (that involves fabric tying and dyeing). Panetar – the bridal saree of Gujarat – is also made in silk and a variant known as Gaji silk. The 9 yard sarees like the Nauvari of Maharastra are traditional sarees, and most of them are crafted in silk fabric.
All in all, silk sarees are a vital, non-negotiable part of every Indian woman’s life – so much so that words, pages and reams are insufficient to talk about their glory and grandeur!