I have always been a fan of this gorgeous fabric. The crisp texture, the sheen, the vibrant colours and the variety of motifs and designs. I have incorporated silk be it in the form of curtain panels or cushion covers at home, even silk sarees get me thinking on how they can alternatively be used in home decor. Stores such as FabIndia have some lovely home furnishing products in silk, and the expensive rates are the only reason I’m not buying more of them. But after my trip to Narayanavanam in Andhra Pradesh, I have come to realise the immense effort behind silk weaving especially in handwoven products and the rate we pay for it is more than justified for the hours of labor invested to produce this lovely material.
On the outside the village looks like any other, simple looking traditional homes, simple people and their chores of cooking, visiting the nearby temple and kids playing on the streets. But if you peer into one of the low laying windows of these homes, you can be transported into a world of grandeur, colour, texture and pattern; the world of silk. This village has been producing silk sarees for many generations dating back to decades before India got its independence. The art has been passed down several generations and they swear by handwoven silk. While there seems to be no comparison to handwoven silk products, the sad truth is that this is a disappearing craft. Machine weave is picking in popularity because of its ease and need for less time and human resource. Also the current generation among the weaver community are interested in better paying city jobs and are unwilling to carry on tradition.
This made seeing every step in the process of creation even more special and mesmerising for me. Here is my day at learning the art of creating silk sarees, my patient guides were CMRC silks, popular vendors of silk sarees in the region and my father-in-law who hails from the weaving community:
Q : Where does the raw silk come from?
A : We do not produce silk in this region. Silk farming happens in regions of Karnataka around Bangalore and we receive silk thread from there. The process in Narayanavanam begins at the dyeing stage.
Q : What is the first stage of creating a silk saree, here in Narayanavanam?
A : As you must have seen, silk sarees are produced in a range of colours. Sarees can be of a single hue, double hue or even multiple hues. The raw silk comes in an off-white or creamy colour and we dye these in different colours depending on the saree.
We have specially built stoves in the open to boil the different dyes in water, we wash the raw silk and then dip them in these dyes, ensuring all parts are completely dyed, by repeatedly turning and dipping. Then we again wash it multiple times in water and allow it to sit for a while in a fixing agent to ensure permanency of the stain. The entire process may take between 2 -4 hours. The silk is then set to dry and kept aside for the warping process.
Q : What about the Jari thread?
A : We get the Jari thread from Surat. The genuine Jari have silk thread coated with real silver and then coated in gold thread. Jari that is cheaper may not have silk core and silver coating. They are also available in different colours, most standard being silver and gold.
Q : What process do you do with the Jari?
A : They come in small spools, we first transfer it to cut plastic pipes with the help of a simple device. This process is done first to make it smoother and reduce the possibility of breakage. This Jari on the pipes is then again transfered based on the saree design, for the border or bhuttas, by another rotational device. This final spool with a particular quantity of Jari is sent for the weaving process.
Q : Do you follow a similar process with the silk thread as well?
A : Yes after the silk has been dyed, we send it for the warping process, where the silk thread is stretched and set according to the saree pattern. Breakages are repaired, loose threads removed, it is set in a taut manner between two end devices as the entire thread material for either eight or twelve sarees is sorted through. This is entirely a manual process and what makes handwoven sarees special. The sorted silk thread is then rotated on wooden beams, with cardboard sheets inserted in regular intervals for protection. The time taken for this process ranges between 4-6hours. This is then sent to the weaver.
Q : How old are these devices and machines?
A : These instruments or at least parts of it can be as old as 100 odd years, some even more than that. Certain parts are replaced as and when required due to wear and tear.
Q : Please describe the weaving process.
A : The weaving machine is simple and complex at the same time. In handloom weaves, the weaver has to use both hands and feet in a continuous process. The main saree body material that has been through the warping process as in the above step is horizontal threads of the saree. The vertical threads are loaded on something called the weft, the weft is a block of wood with both sides pointed and a hollow in the centre where the vertical thread spool is loaded. There is a rather simple machine that sets the thread on this spool. The weaver sets the horizontal silk threads through the weaving machine, as there will be threads that get pushed up and those that get pushed down during the weaving process. The weft moves like a bullet from end to end as the vertical threads are weaved in with the horizontal. A separate line introduces the Jari thread for border, body designs or bhuttas. Small bhuttas are done with the hand, while larger designs are done either with the weft by hand or with the Jacquard method. The up and down movement of the weaves is controlled by the foot pedals and the weft is controlled by hand. Throughout the process, glue is applied across the saree in small parts as the weave progresses. The weaving process differs based on the complexity of the saree design and takes anywhere between 1-3 days.
Q : What is Jacquard?
A : Doing large Jari designs and patterns by hand can be extremely time consuming, so there are cards punched for a particular design when fed into the weaving machine and thread sorted accordingly, weaves the corresponding pattern much quicker.
A single pattern is made up a lot of cards, and can be as many as 100 or more.
Q : If done manually, how long does a single Jari pattern take versus the Jacquard method?
A : When done manually a single line of big Jari pattern can take between 2-4 hours, using the Jacquard the time can be reduced by more than half.
Q : After the weaving is complete, is the saree ready to be sold?
A : Yes the saree is ready to be sold. However in case of minor stains or crumpling of the fabric, we send it for a process called Polishing. This is a simple process where the saree is stretched across both ends and natural glue is mixed with water and applied and set to dry. This removes any variation in colour and makes the saree look better than ironed! You can even get your old sarees polished to restore that fresh out of the store look.
Q : And the final step?
A : The next is a final quality check and re-folding the saree to showcase the parts such as border, body and pallu better. Then it is ready to be viewed and bought by customers.
Q : Do you sell only sarees?
A : Business sees a spike during the wedding season, but sometimes these sarees get bought for other purposes, such as recently tourists bought a good deal of silk sarees to be used as home furnishing. We do produce certain other products such as home furnishing on custom orders.
Hope you enjoyed the walk through of the silk weaving process as much as I did. So do you have ideas on how we can creatively use silk sarees in home furnishing?