30 Indigenous Textiles from India & The Stories Behind Them
30 Incredible Indian Textiles, One From Every State
Around India In 30 Indigenous Textiles & Their Tales
Homegrown textiles have had a rich history in shaping our country’s culture over the years, and with the recent Make In India campaign shedding light on the sector as one of the mainstays of our economy, our curiosity was piqued as to how many different kinds of indigenous textiles actually exist in India. Scanning through our vague associations with them over the years, khadi was one of the first to come to mind thanks to its immense role in the pre-Independence Swades movement, helmed by Mahatma Gandhi. The ubiquitous zari and kancheepuram saris came next for their head-turning quality that's ensured people's desire to own them for so many decades, while Bandhani fabrics seem to resurface every Navratri to make their presence felt. Besides which, cotton, of course, is our only real respite from the summer. The deeper we dug, though, the more we realised how little we really knew, and how much more there was to unearth from the luscious fabrics of the land. Luckily, contemporary designers from the subcontinent aren't nearly as clueless.
From the still-teething ‘The Ikat Story,’ by Chandni Sareen, and Homegrown favourite, NorBlack NorWhite’s reinterpretations of ancient textile practices in a contemporary way, young designers' dedication to give back to the very artisans that inspire them is refreshing, to say the least. In honour of our new-found knowledge however, we decided to share our discoveries with you. Look no further for a bonafide textile tour around India, where we take a look at work ranging from simple to intricate, only to realise what is at stake if these struggling industries give up the ghost. Another very interesting aspect we noticed was how closely tied in to women’s lives these textiles are, since it is generally the women in society who do the weaving, stitching, and other processes required to turn textiles into garment.
To start with, knowing about the varied textiles in the country is the first step towards their preservation. Since documenting every single one that ever was and still is a task more appropriate for a historical book however, we decided to focus on a favourite textile from every state instead. If you want to go deeper still, there's a link at the very end that might have just what you're looking for.
[For easier reading, we have divided the states into five zones - North and Central, West, East, South and North East.]
A. North & Central India
Jammu and Kashmir
I. Pashmina shawls
The gorgeous Pashmina shawls of Kashmir hardly need an introduction. First woven in Kashmir, this textile is made of the finest type of cashmere wool, deriving its name from the Persian ‘pašmina’, which translates charmingly to ‘soft gold’ in Kashmiri. The wool itself comes from one of the three breeds of the Pashmina goat - namely the Changthangi or Kashmir Pashmina goat, the Chegu, and Chyangara or Nepalese Pashmina goat - and the shawls are handspun locally, and woven in Indian Kashmir and Nepal.
II. Chamba Rumaal embroidery on Khaddar
Practised in some areas of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu - at one point, important centres of 'pahari' painting - ‘chamba rumal’ refers to a curious visual art form, involving distinct embroidery or ‘kashidari’ on a ‘handspun cloth with untwisted silken thread’. Persian for ‘kerchief’, or a square piece of cloth, the ‘rumal’ on which the embroidery is done is generally made of unbleached muslin or khaddar, and this unique art form originated, and eventually flourished, in the erstwhile region of Chamba way back between 17th-18th century AD.
Punjab, Chandigarh & Haryana
III. Phulkari and Bagh embroidery
Phulkari and Bagh are essentially two kinds of embroidered clothes, which are traditionally made and worn by the women from Punjab. The embroidery in the former is more of an aesthetically pleasing design on the base cloth - characters, forms and designs - created on the durable, handspun khaddar fabric, which is often used as a head cover.
Bagh, on the other hand, literally means ‘garden of flowers’ and the entire fabric is covered with the design without sparing an inch; this is basically the more elaborate, intricate cousin of the Phulkari - so complex and intricate, that the base colour is finally obscured by that of the design.
Definitely one of the dreamier names on this list, ‘zardozi’ literally translates into sewing with gold string in Persian. How about that? Lavish like you might have expected, this is a delicate craft involving ornamenting cloth by hand with various precious and semi-precious materials. Traditionally, this was done by artisans patronised by the Nawabs of Awadh, and eventually caught on with the affluent in all parts of the country. of Uttar Pradesh.
Anyone like the sound of white-on-white? Chikan’s probably the most exciting type of embroidery for you, then. While there are a handful of theories on how it originated, most agree that chikan was invented in Lucknow, during the Mughal rule. The most popular of these origins stories however, is undeniably that of Noor Jahan, the wife of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, being the one behind this painstaking embroidery that is done by hand on textile fabrics such as muslin, silk, chiffon, organza and net. Lucknow remains the heart of this wildly popular industry, but embellishments such as Mukaish, Kamdani, Badla, sequin, bead and mirror work have been incorporated over the years that give it an even more elaborate, traditional look.
VI. Kashipur block printing
Block printing is one of the oldest - and also often considered as one of the most artistic - methods of printing textile and articles from bedsheets and sarees to handkerchiefs, lungis and pagdis by hand. Kashipur in Uttarakhand is known for having mastered this process, and most of the printing processes are done on utility items.
Another beautiful textile from the region: Picchaura painted textiles are another kind we adore from Uttarakhand, especially thanks to the detailing that goes into it. Traditionally, a Pichhaura veil is part of a bride’s attire, painted by a group of women for the special occasion with swastik motifs and dots - the colours used are generally red and yellow to symbolise conjugal life, health and prosperity.
VII. Bagh block printing
Closely linked with the garment traditions of the Bhil and Bhilala tribes or Jhabua and Dhar, Bagh block printing is found in this state smack bang in the middle of India, with cities like Bagh, Ujjain, Mandsaur, Indore and Gwalior especially associated with the craft. The printers are known as Khatris and trace their origins to Rajasthan; they are historically Hindus who accepted Islam but retained their names. Characterised by geometrical patterns of floral motifs done on blue, red and black backgrounds, the art is today struggling, and it’s only the printers who are open to experimentation who are able to earn their livelihood from it.
Other beautiful textiles from the region: The Malwa region of the state is known for their tie-dyed odhani and lugda textiles, traditionally worn during marriages and festivals.
VIII. Pata weave
The Pata weave is a thick, unbleached cotton sari that is handspun; white with a striking maroon border on either ends, this is quite a showstopped, produced by Paneka, a non-tribal weaving community. These guys take it back to the 16th century when it comes to technique, using the pit treadle loom for weaving and designs often include animals, butterflies, birds and trees alongwith bows, arrows, temples and pitches, done in extra weft technique. The most typical feature from this region though, is the interlocked kumbh motif - a temple design borrowed from the paintings of Orissa) done in the pallav to broaden into the deeper, red base.
IX. Bandejh tie-dye
This is possibly one of the most popular Indian handicrafts both within the country, as well as outside of it. A variety of patterns such as Mothra, Leheriya, Ekdali and Shikari are created after dyeing a fabric, and then tying it tight with a thread at several points. The lush colours of bandhani intermingle on the patterned fabric - yellow, red, blue, green, and black - reflecting the rich traditions of Rajasthan.
Other beautiful textiles from the region: The block prints of sanganer and bagru prints are other rich offerings from the desert state of Rajasthan. While the colourful block prints of Sanganer are mostly flowers and geometric designs created on a white or off-white background, Bagru prints are very similar, but employ a much smaller range of colours, and are mostly on a red, black or blue background.
X. Crochet Lace
The nuns of Santa Monica Church and Convent in old Goa brought intricate needlework like crochet, tatting and lacemaking way back in the 17th century and their legacy endured till date. Traces of these can be found in garments like stoles, albs and edgings for everyday wear as well as the ceremonial attire of women, and traditionally, a new bride would create her own clothes and pieces of fabric and carry them to her in-laws’ house to make an impression with her skill; think floral and geometric designs.
Daman & Diu
XI. Crochet & Lace work
Much like Goa, exquisite crochet and lacework take the limelight with this Union Territory. You’ll find intricate cutwork, shadow work, cross stitch, satin stitch and long stitch embroidery coming out of this region. Mostly a domestic skill passed on from one generation of women to another, it is even compulsory in school for all girls, and the whole community stitches their own clothes.
Interestingly, the traditional Christian wedding trousseau is generally stitched by the mother-daughter duo together, a few months before the wedding, worked in cream or beige colours on a soft cotton fabric. Think pastel shades along with a smattering of yellow, white, lemon and maroon, and motifs of floral designs and cherries, grapes and strawberries; the latter are popular as a symbolic representation of fortune and good luck.
XII. Bandhani tie-dye
Bandhani (like the Rajasthani bandhej) is the technique by which patterned textiles are created by resisting parts of a fabric with knots on it before it is dyed. Kachhi Bandhani has really fine dots and a distinctly sophisticated sense of composition, and although the dots can vary in size, it is the contours or the kaff of the dots formed that really tells about the quality of the craftsmanship.
Other beautiful textiles from the state:
Patola weaves are practised in various regions with slight variations based on local taste, with the warp and weft threads tied and dyed before being woven. Mata ni Pachedi, literally translating into “behind the mother goddess”, is a cloth inscribed with the image of a goddess’ temple. Legend has it that the people of the nomadic Vaghari community of Gujarat were barred from entering temples, so they made their own shrines with depictions of the Mother Goddess on cloth - an ingenious solution giving birth to a sacred art.
XIII. Dhurrie weave
Three solid types of dhurrie are churned out by the Maniyar community - plain flat weaves (shatranji), jainamaaz, prayer mats with the niche placed in the direction of Mecca, and chindi or rag dhurries. Woven on frame looms in several districts of the largest cotton-growing states in the country, dhurries are also being woven currently by displaced mill workers from the vidarbha region, with assistance and training from NGOs.
C. East India
XIV. Khatwa appliqué
The applique and patchwork of Bihar, locally known as Khatwa, is perhaps one of the most environmentally-friendly crafts on this list. The art utilises waste pieces of cloth as raw material, and is usually executed in white on vivid colours, such as red or orange. Khatwa is used exhaustively across garments. Whether it’s as wall hangings and shamianas or cushion covers, table cloths and even women’s personal garments and blouses, this type of embroidery in ubiquitous, found with motifs such as human figures, flowers, trees, and circular and quarter circle cutwork.
This kind of work had caught on famously with royalty in the past, but is today sustained by the work of voluntary organisations who support women artisans and their work.
Another beautiful textile from the region: Sujani embroidery is something of a community activity, with women coming together to create a quilt with bits of old sari and other pieces of cloth, all bound together with tiny running stitches, embroidered with remarkable delicacy and skill. Essentially a term for straight-running stitch embroidery on layered cotton, sujani is an incredibly labour-intensive textile with 105-120 stitches per square inch, but what we really found interesting was how this age-old practice among women creates a unique narrative within the stitches - it is their experiences, tales and realities they are stitching onto the cloth at the end of the day. A fine running stitch on the base cloth is outlined and filled later with tiny other stitches in coloured thread, all telling a specific story.
XV. Tasar silk
Tropical Tasar silk production traces its origins back to the Chota Nagpur plateau of India, covering much of Jharkhand. But its extensive history has pretty much been lost over the years. A veritable way of life for the tribal people and forest dwellers of Central and Eastern India, it is the economic backbone for the communities, thanks to the initiation of several welfare measures taken by the Central Silk Board and the State Government. Arjuna and Asan trees are found aplenty in the forests of the region and it is these species that are breeding grounds for the moth which creates the cocoon from which Tasar yarn is eventually reeled.
The technique known as Ikkat (also spelled Ikat) is possibly one of the most ancient techniques of dyeing fabrics in the world, with several different continents having had their own tales of its origins. The term for the yarn, tie-resist-dyed textile, is itself a derivation from the Malay ‘mengikat,’ which means to tie or to bind. Ikkat in Orissa however, dates back to the 12th century with the migration of Patan artisans from Gujarat to Orissa, who brought the craft with them. There’s single Ikkat (either the warp yarns or the weft are dyed) and double ikkat (warp yarns and the weft are used together in different parts of the fabric, tied with extreme precision to form a pattern); both of which are both renowned for their skilful patterns; while the Vichitrapuri and saktapur saris standing out with their unique motifs of duck, fish, creepers, lotus, and other animals.
Another beautiful textile from the region: Famous for their traditional sari designs, the residents of the village Bomkai in the Ganjam district of Orissa are who we have to thank for producing the handloom Bomkai or Sonepuri saris. More specifically, it was Padmashri Kailash Chandra Meher, an art designer in the Weavers Service Centre in Bhubaneswar who had been creating textile designs for weavers and weaving organisations, who initially invented some of the older Bomkai designs.
XVII. Kantha (Patch Cloth Embroidery)
Literally translating into ‘patched clothes’, Kantha was actually born out of necessity to keep warm and protect the wearer against the cold. Since at the time of its invention (estimated to be about 500 years ago), thread and cloth were not easily available to the common people, they began to cut up overused saris or dhotis and stitching them up to form coarse embroidery. The thicker the cotton or number of layers, the coarser the embroidery. Kantha narrates the story of the artist though, and was often referred to as a woman’s form of self-expression. The real Kantha embroidery is known as doorukha, or double-faced, in which the stitches have been executed so skilfully that the details of each design appear identical on either side, standing out against the traditional colours of black, deep blue and red, symbolising the earth, sky, and space.
D. South India
XVIII. Paagadu bandhu tie-dye
Cloth patterned by tie-resist-dyed yarns is known as paagadu bandhu or chitki in this state, and more popularly, by the Indonesian term ikkat. A coastal town in Prakasam district, Chirala, is where this particular fabric was initially woven, with the use of ingenious technology such as the chitkaasu, a curved frame with pegs, on which the weft threads are grouped and tied for dyeing. Often, the whole family is involved and generic designs include simple, geometric or multi-coloured patterns and stripes, and even chevron forms.
Other beautiful textiles from the region: Traditional Kalamkari, involving hand painting or block printing on cotton textiles, and Telia Rumal, square cotton cloths produced for the Middle-Eastern, African and Burmese markets, are other head-turners from the region. Banjara embroidery and needlework from the gypsies and nomads of the state have also left a mark, making Andhra Pradesh something of a textile haven.
Is there any fabric as vibrant and rich as the legendary Kancheepuram saris of Tamil Nadu? Woven from fine silk with contrasting borders and a variety of zari motifs such as rudraksham, malli moggu, and gopuram, these are coveted from far and wide. Tanjore and Dharmavaram Arni are two areas in Tamil Nadu that are renowned for their silk weaves, with the former specifically known for its golden sarees that are used in temples.
Although traditionally associated with a piece of cotton, khadi can also be made from wool, and Indian khadi has woven itself into the nation’s cultural fabric with an unmistakeable sentimental value for most Indians. We’re talking of course about Gandhi’s movement for improving India's rural economy in the 20th century, during and after Independence, and it’s interesting to note how this indigenous textile factored into our fight for freedom by becoming a symbol of a homegrown product.
XXI. Karaikudi sarees
The reputation of these all-white stunners precedes them, complete with the gold band of the regal zari woven on the borders and the pallu. Processed on the traditional looms, a yarn count of 100 is used for the warp and weft. Understated elegance at its best, this one.
Other beautiful textiles from the region: Kochi’s lace and needle work are other feats of craftsmanship worth noting, with most of the lace, crocheted and embroidered pieces retaining a distinct old-world charm to them, reminiscent of designs once popular in Italy and Spain. Modern patterns too have made their way into fabrics today, the two primary production centres of these are Vimala Welfare Centre and Our Lady’s Convent, run by nuns. Products range from handkerchiefs to saris and tableclothes, with orders pouring in from all over the world.
XXII. Dhurrie/Navalgund weave
The Dhurrie weave or the Navalgund weave has a special sentimental value, traditionally being gifted to daughters when they get married. The origins of the Navalgund dhurrie can be traced back to the 16th century, and the tradition endures today, being woven only by women of the Muslim Sheikh community on a vertical loom, with two weavers generally sitting facing each other and weaving it together by hand. Famous motifs include the choukhas of the dice game board, peacocks and geometric designs.
Other beautiful textiles from the region: Kasuti embroidery - believed to have been derived from ‘kashidakari’ - refers to embroidery by hand, a skill requiring much training and dexterity. Consisting of four prominent stitches, a Lingayat bride traditionally wears kasuti embroidered Ilkal sari woven with characteristic borders and distinct colour combinations in dark red, green and black, whereas the handwoven blouse with the same embroidery is a staple in the giftbasket of a woman who’s expecting.
E. North East India
XXIII. Handloom weaves
Handwoven by Sikkimese women, like other oriental carpets, these carpets are also hand knotted and then woven in fixed vertical looms kept standing against a wall. This is an art that requires a ridiculous amount of skill and concentration, and the carpet designs are generally vibrant, full of mythical birds, flowers like the lotus, snowlions, Buddhist signs and so on. One of the most popular motifs is the Tanga, a medallion or a coin that is also often found on wood carvings and paintings.
XXIV. Eri and Muga Silk
Weaving and sericulture are lifelines in Assam, large contributors to both the culture and economy of the state. Muga, the golden silk and eri, ahimsa silk, are regional specialties and it is the unique texture and the thermal qualities of the fibre that make it special; but it is the design potential and versatility of spinning, and its eco-friendly processes, that make eri a viable fibre of the future.
XXV. Endi silk
Endi or errandi silk is a lush offering from Arunachal Pradesh that has quite the endearing story behind it - made by Samia cynthia ricini that feed on the leaves of Castor oil plants, the manufacturing process of Eri allows the pupae to develop completely and it is only the open ended cocoons which are used to produce the silk, which is why it is known as ‘non-violent’ silk. Soft and warm, this is perfect for shawls and quilts.
Bodo women don dokhanas or draped skirts, chaddar, upper cloth, and jhumra along with shawls made from eri silk, and endi shawls are positively revered in Bihar and Nepal, generally exchanging hands as gifts. to others.
Striking figures of mithun (the local bison), elephants, tigers, Dao and spears adorn the Naga Tsunkotepsu or Ao warrior shawls, to name just one of many garments that the people of the land excel in crafting, in a direct reflection of their rich culture. The designs of the shawls vary from tribe to tribe, and can be accessorised in various ways; they can be worn with large, beaded neck pieces, donned along with various outfits, ranging from traditional Indian to casual wear.
Another beautiful textile from the region: The Rongkhim warrior shawl is another distinct garment with a lovely, gory history behind it: featuring patterns in red symbolising the blood of the enemy, only a member of the Yimchunger tribe who had beheaded in battle had the right to don this beast.
XXVII. Moirangphi weave
The Moirangphi is traditionally a temple design, and was actually invented by the Manipuri princess Moirang Thoibi. Resplendent in designs of red, green, black and blue woven into the borders of chaddars and sari, moirangphi is ubiquitous in the region.
Another beautiful textile from the region: Lashinphi is another little-known gem, a light quilt with different designs in shades of golden orange, green, blue and red, which replace blankets when the chill of winters set in.
XXVIII. Mizo puan weave
It is only women who take to the loom is this state and puan, a draped and uncut rectangular cotton cloth with deftly crafted edges and prominent horizontal borders, is used to make the traditional costumes of Mizo men, draped around the entire body. The woman’s puan is generally worn over a blouse, and can also be worn as a wrap skirt. Thenzwal, a village located south of Aizawl, is renowned as the hub for the puan weave, with 67 entrepreneurs employing about 200 professional weavers to keep the movement going strong.
XXIX. Nakshi Kantha
Derived from the Bengali ‘naksha’, which refers to artistic patterns, the early kanthas included red, blue and black embroidery on a white background and it was only later that more vibrant colours like yellow, green and pink also started creeping in. The running stitch is the main stitch for this, known as the ‘kantha stitch’, and while this used to be produced for families initially, its revival has meant that it is today produced for commercial uses.
XXX. Endi silk-weaving
The Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes residing in the area have injected a versatile creativity in the garments of the area, and the local women weave in their spare time using back-strap or loin looms, except the Garos who also use frame-looms. They besides which a variety of short staple cotton is used by the Garos to create the traditional attire of the people here, with carefully proportioned and placed motifs stealing the show; traditional attire includes dakmanda, a kind of blouse worn by women resembling a lungi, and a daksari, a dress that is wrapped around the body and looks like the Assamese mekhla.
Another beautiful textile from the region: Endi silk weaving from Meghalaya is known for its texture and how durable it is.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari
Image & Design Credit: Furqan Jawed