As November approaches, preparations for this year’s Deepavali festivities are fully underway. Homes are thoroughly cleaned and decorated, snacks are stocked up in bulk and new outfits and jewellery are enthusiastically picked out in anticipation for the celebrations. To get into the spirit of things, we take a closer look at one of the most culturally significant icons to come from India and South Asia, the saree.
With a history that dates as far back as 2800 BC, the saree has more than proven its lasting power and versatility. The length of cloth ranging from 5 to 9 metres long can be worn over a 100 different ways, depending on region, custom and lifestyle. And that’s not even mentioning the diverse materials that might make up the saree such as silk, cotton and brocade, or the methods of producing them, from mechanical looms to traditional tie dye.
While it’s unlikely we’ll be able to fully grasp the endless cultural variations, techniques and draping styles of every saree in existence, we can start with some basic terms. Here’s a quick glossary to kick off your saree exploration with.
Baluchari: A saree from West Bengal that uses silk threads, it comes in rich vibrant colours and features continuous depictions of mythological stories along the border and end piece.
Banarasi: One of the most popular types of sarees, it is known for its gold and silver embroidery with intricate patterns of leaves and floral motifs on finely woven silk. These opulent and grand touches make it a favourite for brides on their wedding day.
Bandhani: A bright tie-dye textile made by plucking the cloth with fingernails to bind tiny knots, creating different colours and patterns when dropped into dye vats.
Bengali drape: A method of draping from West Bengal, with only two large pleats placed at the front. The fabric is folded by half and brought over the shoulder twice, resulting in a regal appearance.
Border: The part of the saree which runs along the edges, adding an embellishment as well as physical weight so that the fabric falls elegantly in place.
Chikankari: A delicate, lightweight hand-embroidering technique used on light coloured cotton and Georgette fabric, ideal for hot and humid climates.
Choli: The blouse piece worn inside the saree, which can be made from the same cloth or one with a contrasting colour. Extra fabric is sometimes sold with the saree, so the wearer can sew a choli to go with it.
Kota Doria: A hand woven fabric with a checkered square pattern (called khats), which is created by interweaving cotton and silk threads of different thickness.
Ganga Jamuna: A silk saree with plain weaving, featuring bold, block coloured borders on the top and bottom, often in bright contrasting shades.
Gharchola: Distinguished by its square grid patterns, the gharchola is a saree style from Rajasthan that’s worn at weddings. Utilising Bandhani tie dye, it typically comes in festive colours like green and red.
Jacquard: A dense, durable weave that features a rich lustre and complex yet precise patterns. It was named after the inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard, who made the first automatic machine for weaving images onto silk.
Jamdani: A very lightweight muslin textile from Bengali, rich in geometric, plant, and floral motifs. Believed to be thousands of years old, this process of loom weaving is very time and labour intensive.
Kaccha: A saree draping style that goes between the legs and is tucked at the back waist to create a trouser-like bottom. The method does away with the need for a petticoat, and is said to have emerged when women in villages had to work in the fields during times of drought and famine.
Kalamkari: A detailed, hand painted cotton textile originating from Iran. The words ‘kalam’ and ‘kari’ translate to pen and craftsmanship respectively, as the drawn motifs of flowers and divine characters are made using a traditional pen and natural dyes.
Kanchipuram silk – A saree made from pure mulberry silk, the luxurious garment is a popular choice for bridal wear and special occasions. An added standout appeal is the strong colours of the borders that contrasts with the rest of the saree.
Konrad: A type of saree from Tamil Nadu that is popular in south India, characterised by wide borders and motifs of flora and fauna.
Nivi drape: The most common style of draping, it is worn by wrapping the saree around the waist, and then throwing the loose end over the left shoulder, leaving the midriff bare.
Pallu: One of the main components of the saree, the pallu is the loose end piece that is draped over the shoulder from the hip. As it lays over the midriff and chest, there is usually more decoration and embellishment concentrated at the pallu.
Pinkosu: A Tamil style of draping that sees pleats appearing on the back of the body, giving the front a clean, flat look. The method also adds contour and creates a curvier, more feminine silhouette.
Pleats: An important part of the draping process when putting on a saree is making a series of pleats in the fabric. The pleats give the material a flowing, elegant movement while making it easier to walk with the garment on.
Tant: A traditional saree from Bengal, it is woven from cotton and known for its lightness. Floral and paisley are common decorative motifs, while a thick border and a wide variety of colours characterises this type of saree.
Warp: The longitudinal thread in a fabric or loom.
Weft: The widthwise thread which goes over and under the warp.
Zari: The gold thread work that appears in many sarees, often considered the most valuable and expensive element of the garment. The Zari is woven throughout the saree but usually only shows up on the borders and the pallu.