All too often, textiles of the world are something we see only in pictures, they are not physical things forming part of our daily lives. For a long time, that was the case with me and the textiles of India: even as I studied textile history, even as I married an Indian, I rarely encountered the textile output of that nation’s rich cultural heritage outside occasional museum exhibits or peeks inside sari shops. It remained something only read about in books, something that perhaps only existed in the past tense.
All this changed when I first visited India. What I had previously seen only in books sprang vividly to life. In India, textile traditions are still a living thing and a part of daily life for the millions of people producing and purchasing handicrafts of all kinds. I also found a kindred spirit there: Manisha, my sister-in-law. She too loves textiles and is very knowledgeable about traditional Indian arts and crafts. As we explored fabric stores and sari shops together, it was handloom fabrics that fascinated me the most. I was especially drawn to the woven fabric known as jamdani. It is a specialty of Bengal, the cultural region encompassing parts of eastern India and the nation of Bangladesh. Jamdani fabric is made there both for saris and as yardage to be used for clothing and accessories.
The word jamdani is supposed to derive from a Persian word for a flowered or spotted fabric. That is an apt description, albeit rather vague. In this handloom weaving technique, flowers, spots, or other motifs are added to the fabric during the weaving process. As the weavers create the fabric on a hand-operated and non-electrified loom, they add each motif by hand using separate threads. These inlaid design threads become part of the fabric, but are not part of its structure. In other words, they’re decoration: they are not holding the fabric together. Like embroidery or printing, this decoration enriches the cloth. But unlike those techniques, in jamdani weaving the design is made at the same as the fabric comes into being. The ground fabric is often made of semi-sheer cotton and the design is added using a slightly thicker thread. This gives some texture and opacity to the jamdani detailing, which otherwise seems to float on the cloth, especially in a traditional white-on-white color scheme (as shown above).
Jamdani weaving cannot be mechanized, and it requires a great deal of skill to execute. This makes it labor-intensive, and hence it can be expensive. Perhaps this is part of why jamdani weaving is becoming an endangered art form in the present era of fast fashion. But human craftsmanship and skill are what gives the cloth its elegance and beauty, and make it something worth cherishing. (Not to mention that handloom fabrics are sustainable, too!) Manisha and I felt that jamdani would surely appeal to other fabric lovers besides ourselves, so we started an online shop offering handloom fabrics to the sewing community.
We had the privilege of visiting some of the rural villages where these fabrics are made, and seeing the process with my own eyes was exhilarating. This was a world apart from reading about handloom fabrics in old books! The weavers we met were understandably proud of what they make. They were happy to show us the different stages of fabric production, from preparing the loom, to the intricate steps of adding the pattern among the threads as the fabric is woven. It literally “takes a village”, since many people’s skilled hands are involved in making the cloth.
Handloom fabrics have been woven in similar places and circumstances for perhaps thousands of years. The ancient Romans loved cotton fabrics exported from Bengal, Jane Austen’s heroines wore gowns made of them, and nowadays they inspire fashion designers in India and elsewhere. Jamdani is one of the most versatile of handloom fabrics; designs can range from the minimal to the most intricate imaginable, from traditional to modern, and yet they seem totally timeless. The weavers are always willing to adapt to what’s in demand, and this adaptability is part of what keeps their art form alive even in the twenty-first century. For me, this is what makes jamdani fabric so fascinating: it’s a piece of textile history, a part of the continuum of humans and clothing, and yet something we can embrace in our daily lives as we sew with it and wear it.
Crill, Rosemary, ed., The Fabric of India. London: V&A, 2015.
Gillow, John, and Nicholas Barnard, Traditional Indian Textiles. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Lynton, Linda, The Sari. New York: Abrams, 1995.
Arts of Bengal (ex. cat.) London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1979.
Kristine can’t get enough of handloom fabrics and started Loom & Stars with Manisha to share the textile love. Learn more about these fabrics and get inspired to sew sustainably at their online shop, loomandstars.com.