Handloom Simplified

You’re out shopping for that party you are going to. And amongst the multiple varieties of clothes, you struggle to find out your perfect piece. And when you finally sit down and the shopkeeper starts explaining the material and the making of it- you go “What?” Has this ever happened to you? Or are you one of those intelligent ones who know what a Chanderi, Maheshwari, Banarasi and Chikan is?

The majority of us are not privy to the names of different materials and stitches of sarees or suits, so when the shopkeeper says that this is a Maheshwari saree from Rajkot with traditional Zari work- you say “Wow, this looks different!” Because of this, there is a chain of events that happens. The retailer, if he is not the real maker of these sarees tricks you into buying a saree at a higher price. The additional money you paid doesn’t even go to the actual artisan. The artisan gets hardly anything from this exchange and we are none the wiser.

Jaago Grahak Jaago!!

If we knew better, we would be able to choose designs better and find out exactly what we want rather than relying on just the physical attributes and the word of the shopkeeper. It also helps us to understand the hard work and passion that goes into creating each of these sarees and how invaluable each piece is.

To understand the differences between these different types of sarees and suits, we met a gentleman whom we made very good friends with because of his quick wit and humour. He took us to his workshop and explained the differences in great depth. He himself makes Maheshwari sarees but had a huge amount of knowledge about the different varieties.

What are the different materials in different types of sarees?

A Maheshwari Saree is a cotton and pure silk fabric, which may have zari or brocade in various designs like stripes, checks or floral borders. Actually, the fabric is Maheshwari from the town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh.

Chikan is a delicate and artfully done hand embroidery on a variety of fabric such as muslin, silk, chiffon etc. It is traditionally from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, where it originated.

Chanderi saree is made from pure silk, chaired cotton or silk cotton. The work on a Chanderi consists of traditional geometric designs, peacocks etc. with a gold or silver brocade. This art is from Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh.

A Banarasi saree is probably the most popular of the lot and is made in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The saree typically has zari work, jaal work and opulent embroidery made on finely woven silk and because of engravings, this saree can be a little heavy.

What is the history behind them?

Maheshwari sarees can be dated back to the 18th century and were initially made of pure silk. But with time, cotton has become a major fabric in these sarees. According to legend, Queen Ahilyabai Holkar ordered artisans from Malwa and Surat to design a special saree with 9 yards- this became the Maheshwari saree. But in recent times, the popularity of this kind of saree has diminished, although it still has some strong markets.

Chikankari can be traced back to 16th century when Nur Jahan used to make clothes using this art. Chikankari started out as white on white embroidery but presently, a host of different colours can be found.

Chanderi weaving started in 7th century and is mostly made on dark coloured fabrics. But there is a lot of copying by looms and most of the sarees you find will not be handwoven.

Banarasi sarees were actually brought to Varanasi by Gujarati artisans after the great famine of 1603. This craft picked up a great deal during the Mughal era.

What are the common designs on the sarees?

Some popular patterns in Maheshwari is a Chattai pattern (Mat pattern) or a Chameli flower. Another common pattern is Eent (brick) or Heera (diamond). In fact, each kind of Maheshwari saree will have a name of its own. The saree can be plain in the centre with designed borders or have checks and stripes in different variations. Chandrakala and Baingani are the plain kinds and Chandratara, Beli and Parbi are with designs.

In Chikan, white thread is embroidered on cool, pastel shades of light muslin or cotton fabrics. Nowadays, it is also done with coloured and silk threads to match fashion trends and keep Chikankari up to date! Some other recent additions are sequin, bead work, mirror work, Mukaish, Kamdani etc.

Traditional coins, flora patterns, peacock and geometrics are woven in Chanderi sarees. Honestly, these are one of the finest sarees in India with their gold or silver brocade, fine silk and opulent embroidery.

Banarasi sarees have different types depending on which the style and design varies. It may be pure silk or Katan, Organza or Kora with zari and silk, georgette or Shattir.

What are the main differences between them?

Chikan is usually done on cotton or light fabrics and these sarees would be very light and have subtle colours. Banarasi sarees have intricate gold and silver work on them and are usually heavy. Chanderi saree is very intricate and lightweight with a shimmery transparency. Maheshwari sarees have more linear patterns and use lesser motifs- these are generally solid colours with broad borders.

How has the market changed over the years?

Handmade sarees used to be unique some time back. My parents, grand parents, great parents all have been in this trade and it used to be a very big trade. But with advent of machines and copy-paste culture, retailers want sarees which are made quicker. Making something with hands takes time- you cannot compromise on the quality and finesse. But nowadays, the end product is the only thing that matters. A lot of girls do not even know how to tie a saree- how will it get sold?! Moreover, there is no recognition for the weavers who remain obscure and invisible. A painting on a canvas has the artist’s signature. A woven saree is as good as a painting because it has been made with the same feeling and hard work. But the saree ends up bearing the shop’s name, not the weaver’s. And a lot of times, the saree is made by machines so the weaver is not even there.

Do you think the market will revive?

Awareness is rising and improvements are already visible. There are a lot of initiatives happening for us and there are people recognising the real craft of our glorious country. Handmade will always be handmade- and a lot of people are seeing it now. Hopefully, things will get better even more.

After speaking to him, we knew that we have such great cultural heritage. We have so many artists in our country who make exquisite articles for not just us- but the world. And just like Yoga is more popular in international markets compared to India, a lot of these handmade articles are exported because that is where their true worth is realised. How can we not see our beautiful Indian handmade articles? We are sure that we will. For now, the differences between some different types of sarees and some bits about them is what we understood. So next time a retailer gives you information, why don’t you throw some back at him!