Saturday, August 29, 2009

Silk in the Indian subcontinent

Silk in India, as elsewhere, is an item of luxury.For more than four thousand years, this cloth produced from the cocoons of caterpillers, has been associated with crowned heads and riches throughout the different ages. As a designer once said "Silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand". It was China that was the birth place of the production of raw silk and silk weaving. The fiber produced was so treasured that it became a measure of currency and reward. The imperial courts in China even established factories to weave silk fabrics for ceremonial use and for gifts to foreign powers.

China was exporting silk to countries as far away as Rome, as early as the second century B.C. China remained the major silk producer for centuries. The Chinese silk industry was highly organized and supported by the state which made silk into a veritable cash crop. Thus, silk became the industrial wealth for China, and its production was a jealously guarded secret so that it could retain its monopoly of the trade. Imperial law decreed a death penalty for those who disclosed the secrets.
The silk route

The Sassanids, realizing the trade potential in silk, became intermediaries for the Chinese silk trade. Sassanids were mainly responsible for the export of silk from the East to the West. Silk both woven and raw was traded to Mediterranean countries via Parthia and Syria, from where it made its way to Europe. Silk fabrics, influenced by Chinese prototypes, were also woven in the Sassanian weaving centers of Khurasan, Kashan and other places. Soon these silk brocades became known for their beauty and were exported to other countries. Sassasian polychrome silk became very famous during this time. These were the most sought-after gifts, presented to Emperors by envoys and traders. Khurasan was renowned for this fabric. These later would also influence Indian silk brocades.

Sericulture was taken outside China in the second century A.D. According to legend, it was smuggled out by a Chinese princess who was married to a prince of Khotan in Central Asia. She hid the silk cocoons in her coiffure and took them to her adopted country. The introduction of sericulture made Khotan prosperous. Over the centuries, silk weaving also became popular in other areas as well, particularly in Persia, and in the region around Syr Darya and Oxus rivers. Khotan, Bulkh, Kashgar, Bukhara, Khurasan, Kashan, Damascus and Gujarat in India became the known centers. Persia especially was a dominant center early on and Persian weavers were in great demand. Damascus became particularly famous for making such highly coveted patterned satin fabrics known as "Damask satin". Later Timur, the central Asian conqueror, deported the weavers of the damask cloth from Damascus to Samarkand and Bukhara.

One such group of Persian Zoroastrians migrated from Southern Persia (Faristan) to Saurashtra in Gujarat and are called Parsis in India. The weavers among them must have introduced to this region the Sassanian motifs and techniques popular in their own country. Since they came from the area around the Persian Gulf, known for its high quality pearls, their beautiful embroided borders use real pearls. The influence of these Gujarati fabrics greatly affected the rest of the Indian brocade industry as far as technique and design were concerned – migrating Gujarati weavers were responsible for setting up many new weaving centers and re-enforcing existing ones.

Silk Goes to India

The brocade weaving centers of India developed in and around the capitals of kingdoms or holy cities because of the demand for expensive fabrics by the royal families and temples. Rich merchants of the trading ports or centers also contributed to the development of these fabrics. Besides trading in the finished product, they advanced money to the weavers to buy the costly raw materials that is silk and zari. The ancient centers were situated mainly in Gujarat, Malwa and South India. In the North, Delhi, Lahore, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Veranasi, Mau, Azamgarh and Murshidabad were the main centers for brocade weaving. Northern weavers were greatly influenced by the brocade weaving regions of eastern and southern Persia, Turkey, Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Gujrati masons and weavers were brought by Akbar to the royal workshops in AD 1572. Akbar took an active role in overseeing the royal textile workshops, established at Lahore, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri where skilled weavers from different backgrounds worked. Expert weavers from those distant lands worked with the local weavers and imparted their skills to the locals. This intermingling of creative techniques brought about a great transformation in the textile weaving industry. The exquisite latifa (beautiful) buti was the outcome of the fusion of Persian and Indian designs. Brocades produced at the royal workshops of other well known Muslim centers in Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Persia were also exported to India. Under the Mughals, sericulture and silk-weaving received special encouragement and silk cloth produced in the Punjab came to be prized throughout the world. Lahore and Multan developed into major centers of silk industry. The tradition continues.


Silk brocades, texturally, are divided mainly into two groups.


Kam means little or scarcely. Khwab means a dream and it’s said that even with such a name ‘Its beauty, splendor and elegance can be hardly dreamt of’. Kinkhwabs are heavy fabrics or several layers of warp threads with an elaborate all-over pattern of extra weft, which may be of silk, gold and / or silver threads or combinations. There may be three to seven layers of warp threads. (Tipara means three layers and Chaupara means four layers to Satpara meaning seven layers). Kin means golden in Chinese. Its specialty is in profusely using the gold and silver thread in a manner that sometimes leaves the silk background hardly visible.

When the figure work is in silver threads with a background of gold threads it is called ‘Tashi Kinkhwab’. This is a variety of ‘Kinkhwab’ which has a ground worked with an extra warp of gold [badla (flat wire) zari] and the pattern created with an extra weft of silver badla zari or vice versa. A satin weave is very often used, resulting in a smooth ground for the fabric. The heavy fabric appears to be in layers, as the warp ends are crammed drawing three, four and up to seven ends per dent for the Tipara, Chaupara up to Satpara respectively.

Zari is generally of two types Badla and Kala batto. Badla Zari was made of flattened gold or silver wire with the ancient method of making zari from pure metal without any core thread. This accounted for its peculiar stiffness. Sometimes cracks would develop in the metal during the process of weaving which resulted in the loss of its natural luster and smoothness. Therefore weaving with Badla Zari was difficult and required great skill. Often a touch of Badla was given to floral motives to enhance the beauty. This type of zari has mostly gone out of favor amongst the contemporary weavers and they mostly depend on polyester or pure silk as a substitute.


Kinkhwab was originally an elegant, heavy silk fabric with a floral or figured pattern known most for its butis and jals woven with silk as the warp and tilla as the weft, produced in China and Japan. Tilla in the earlier times was known as kasab. It was a combination of silver and tamba (copper) which was coated with a veneer of gold and silver.

Silk brocade of Banaras, Ahmedabad and Surat were well known in the seventeenth century. While Banaras continues to be a center of production of Silk Brocades, Ahmedabad and Surat have practically nothing to show today. On the other hand, Silk Brocade weaving has gained ground in the South of India.

Kinkhwabs have also been known as ‘Kimkhabs’, ‘Kamkhwabs’, ‘Kincobs’, ‘Zar-baft’ (Gold Woven), zartari, zarkashi, mushaiar.


These are called Katan (a thread prepared by twisting a different number of silk filaments) brocades. Pot-thans are lighter in textures (lower thread count) than Kinkhwabs but closely woven in silk and all or certain portions of the pattern are in gold or silver zaris. These fabrics are mostly used for making expensive garments and saris. Very often the satin ground weave is particularly used for garments fabrics. These fabrics are characterized by their jals which are normally made out of silk & tilla.

Bafta refers to a kind of wool that was used in Kashmiri shawls. When this wool became thinner and began to be used in a fabric, the fabric was known to be bafta-poth.


The cloth was distinguished by its butis woven in circular shapes that gave an impression of ashrafis (gold coins). The ashrafis were usually woven in gold zari.

This is a mixed fabric with a woven stripe or zigzag pattern. The warp and weft used were of two different materials (silk and cotton, cotton and linen, silk and wool or wool and cotton) in different colors. It was used mostly for lower garments such as trousers, the lining of the heavy brocade garments or as furnishing.

Gul Badan (the literal meaning of which is ‘flower like body’) was a known variety of mushru (cotton and silk) popular in the late 19th century. Sangi, Ganta, Ilaycha were types of mushru too. These were popular since ancient times and were known to be woven at all leading silk centers. One reason for their popularity was Islam. Since Islam does not allow men to wear pure silk, mashru (literally meaning permitted) became very popular amongst Muslims.

Himru or Amru

A type of Indian brocade is the Himru, a specialty of Hyderabad and Aurangabad, which is woven from silk and zari on silk to produce variegated designs, woven on the principle of extra weft. Himru can be very pretty with a pseudo-rich effect in general. It continued to be in popular demand on the account of its low price as compared to the pure silk brocades. Another point in its favor is that it can be woven very fine so as to give it a soft feel, thus making it more suitable as a fabric for personal wear than the true brocade.

The cloth is distinguished by its intricate char-khana (four squares) jal. These are woven like kinkhwabs, but without the use of kala battu (zari) instead badla zari is used.

Contemporary Trends

Kinkhwabs fabrics of India have earned a great reputation for their craftsmanship and grandeur. By and large, still continue to do so, even in the face of fierce competition from other types of woven and printed fabrics.

Kinkhwabs today are typically ornate, jacquard-woven fabrics. The pattern is usually emphasized by contrasting surfaces and colours and appears on the face of the fabric, which is distinguished easily from the back. Uses include apparel, draperies, upholstery and other decorative purposes.


Gyasar is a silk fabric of a Kinkhwab structure with ground, in which the gold thread is profusely used with Tibetan designs. The fabric is especially popular with Tibetans and used extensively in their dresses as well as in decorative hangings, prayer mats, etc.


Gyanta is a silk fabric of Kinkhwab structure of a satin body with or without the use of gold thread. These sometimes have a tantric design (which is also known as Tchingo) of human heads with three eyes woven in gold and silver threads on a black satin ground.


“Jama” means robe and “war” is yard. The base of the jamawar is mostly resham, with perhaps an addition of a little polyester. The brocaded parts are woven in similar threads of silk and polyester. Most of the designs seen today are floral, with the kairy (i.e. the paisley) as the predominant motif.

Today, the best jamavar is woven in Pakistan. This fabric is widely used in that country for bridal and special occasion outfits. The texture and weave of patterns is such that the fabric often gets caught when rubbed against rough surfaces (metallic embroidery, jewellery etc.) it must therefore be handled delicately when worn.



Banaras is situated on the Calcutta / Delhi rail route 760 km (475 miles) from Calcutta. It has always been a big textile center of silk weaving. European travelers like Marco Polo (1271-1295) and Tavernier (1665) do not mention the manufacture of Brocades in Banaras. Ralph Fitch (1583-91) describes Banaras as a thriving sector of the cotton textile industry. The earliest mention of the brocade and Zari textiles of Banaras is found in the 19th century. With the migration of silk weavers from Gujrat during the famine of 1603, it is likely that silk brocade weaving started in Banaras in the seventeenth century and developed in excellence during the 18th and 19th century.

Distinguishing Characteristics

The following are considered to be the main characteristics of the brocade fabrics of Banaras.

  1. Heavy gold work.
  2. Compact weaving
  3. Figures have small details.
  4. Metallic visual effects.
  5. Pallus
  6. Jal (A net like pattern)
  7. Mina work.

Banarasi brocade produced two sub-variants from its original structure namely:


  •  Katan
  • Tanchoi


Katan, a thread, prepared by twisting a different number of silk filaments according to requirement gives a firm structure to the background fabric. Katan is a plain woven fabric with pure silk threads. It consists of two threads twisted together and is mostly used for the warp of light fabrics.

Katan can be further classified into the following:

Katan Butidar: Fabric with Katan warp and weft with butis (designs and patterns) in gold or resham (untwisted silk).

Katan Butidar Mina: Katan Butidar with Mina work (design made out of zari thread) in butis.

Katan Butidar Paga Saree: Saree with Katan warp, resham weft, small butis all over body, closely spaced (about 10 cm (4") apart), about 5 cm (2") wide border and 30-55 cm (12-22") wide pallu.

Katan Brocade: This is a fabric with Katan Warp and Katan weft with figures in gold thread with or without mina, with the traditional styles being ‘katrawan’, ‘kardhwan’ and ‘Fekva’.

Katrawan: A technique or design in which the floating portions of the extra weft (laid from selvege to selvege) at the back of the fabric is cut.



Jangla: Plain fabric of Katan warp and Katan weft, with all-over floral designs in an extra weft of either silk or zari.

Katan Katrawan Mina: A fabric in Katrawan style with Mina.

Katan Motifs and designs

These days the currently used designs & motifs involving Katan are:


 Katan Jal Set: Over the years with minor innovations and influences from other materials, Jangla is now known as ‘Katan Jal Set’.

Katan Buti Zari Resham: Katan Butidar has evolved over time to become Katan Buti Zari Resham.

Katan Stripe and Katan Check are also popular variants found in the markets.


Plain woven body with one color extra weft, one color weft and one color warp. Relative to the jamawar, it is lighter and softer. Tanchoi could be further classified into the following:

Satan Tanchoi is the satin weave (four ends and eight picks or five ends and five picks satin) with the warp in one color and the weft in one or more colors. The extra weft in the design may also be used as body weft.

Satan Jari Tanchoi: Satan Tanchoi with weft in the order of one silk and one gold thread (Jari), or two silk (double) and one gold thread.

Satan Jari Katrawan Tanchoi: Satan Jari tanchoi in which the floating, extra weft, gold thread at the back is cut and removed.

Atlas: Atlas is a pure satin body. Relative to other fabrics, Atlas is thicker, heavier and is shinier than other fabrics because of the extra use of zari. It is also known as gilt, because it is even shinier than the katan.

Mushabbar: The cloth is distinguished by its jal woven as bushes and branches of trees. The normal association with the design was that of a jungle.

Concluding Remarks

The most common & popular fabrics remains the banarasi, jamawar, pot-thans, atlas and katans. These are the fabrics that a person can usually find in our local markets and have a high level of demand. However the other materials like tanchoi, mushabbar, himru / amru, mushru, etc. have been relegated to selective niches in the market. Most people even after coming across these fabrics usually refer to them directly as jamawar due to the absence of such materials in popular use and lack of awareness in general of the availability of these fabrics.

Awareness of these materials will have to be started at the top with the elite of the society (since they are the ones who have the resources to buy these expensive clothing). Thus, we will require special exhibitions of designers who work with these materials, displaying of these materials at fashion shows, promotion of the clothing designed in the materials with the high end boutiques and awareness creation through experts & designers talk shows on television, radio, etc.




Traders introduced this Chinese silk cloth to India, mainly from Samarkand and Bukhara and it gained immense popularity among the royalty and the aristocracy. King and nobles bought the woven fabric by the yard, wearing it as a gown or using it as a wrap or shawl. Jamawar weaving centres in India developed in the holy cities and the trade centres. The most well known jamawar weaving centres were in Assam, Gujrat, Malwa and South India.

Due to its rich and fine raw materials, the rich and powerful merchants used jamawar and noblemen of the time, who could not only afford it but could even commission the weavers to make the fabric for them, as in the case of the Mughals. Emperor Akbar was one of its greatest patrons. He brought many weavers from East Turkestan to Kashmir.

One of the main reasons for the diversity in the designs of the jamawar cloth was the migratory nature of its weavers. Ideas from almost all parts of the world influenced these designs.

The Indian motifs were greatly influenced by nature like the sun, moon, stars, rivers, trees, flowers, birds etc. The figural and geometrical motifs such as trees, lotus flower, bulls, horses, lions, elephants, peacocks, swans, eagles, the sun, stars, diagonal or zigzag lines, squares, round shapes, etc. can be traced through the entire history of jamawar and are still being used but in a rather different form in terms of intricacy and compositions, thus creating new patterns.

Indian weaver predominantly used a wide variety of classical motifs such as the swan (hamsa), the Lotus (kamala), The Tree Of Life (kulpa, vriksha), the Vase of Plenty (purna, kumbha), the Elephant (hathi), the Lion (simha), flowing floral creepers (lata patra), Peacocks (mayur) and many more. Mythical creatures such as winged lions, centaurs, griffins, decorative of ferocious animals, animals formally in profile or with turned heads, animals with human figures in combat or represented in roundels were also commonly used motifs. These motifs have remained in existence for more than two thousand years. However, new patterns have consistently been introduced; sometimes some of these are even an amalgamation of the existing patterns. Such attempts at evolving new designs were particularly noticeable from the 10th century onwards, when patterns were altered to meet the specific demands of the Muslim rulers.

The bull or the swan, arranged between vertical and diagonal stripes can still be found in the silk jamawar saris of India. Patterns with small flowers and two-coloured squares (chess board design) are seen, used both as a garment and as furnishing material – bed spreads with same kind of pattern are still woven in some parts of Gujarat.

Jamawar dating back to the Mughal era however contained big, bold and realistic patterns, which were rather simple with ample space between the motifs. The designs stood out prominently against the background of the cloth.

Complex patterns were developed only when additional decorative elements were included in the basic pattern. During later periods, the gap between the motives was also filled with smaller motives or geometrical forms. The iris and narcissus flowers became the most celebrated motifs of this era and were combined with tulips, poppies, primulas, roses and lilies. A lot of figurative motives were also used in the Mughal era such as deers, horses, butterflies, peacocks and insects. The Mughal kings played a vital role in the enhancement of jamawar by putting their inspirations into the cloth’s designing and visiting the weavers on a regular basis to supervise its making. Shining, decorative pallus were jals were the main designs of this time. The borders were usually woven with silk and zari.

After the Mughal period, the figurative motifs were discouraged by the Muslims and more floral and paisleys were introduced. However, inspiration was taken from these figurative motives and put into designs as in the case of using only the peacock feathers instead of the complete figure.

Another big change was brought about in 1985, where the source of inspiration was the Chinese Shanghai cloth. The patterns of the Chinese Shanghai were amended in accordance to the weave construction of the jamawar cloth and introduced in the cloth. This proved to be a very successful change and is still appreciated by many.

In recent years, the Indian government has attempted a modest revival of this art by setting up a shawl-weaving centre at Kanihama in Kashmir. Efforts to revive this art have also been made by bringing in innovations like the creation of jamawar saris by craftsmen in Varanasi. Each sari is a shimmering tapestry of intricate design, in colours that range from the traditionally deep, rich shades to delicate pastels. A minimum of four months of patient effort goes into the creation of each jamawar sari. Many of the jamawar saris now have matching silk shawls attached to them, creating elegant ensembles fit for royalty.


The Process Involved In the Making of Jamawar in Pakistan

It is woven on the jacquard loom. Joseph-Marie Jacquard, improving on the original punched-card design of Jacques De Vaucanson’s loom of 1745 developed the Jacquard system in France in 1804-05. The pattas, which are the punched cards, controlled the actions of the loom, allowing automatic production of intricate woven patterns . The bigger the motif, the greater the number of cards required to make them.

Pakistan makes its own yarn from the imported cocoons that come from China. The yarn is cultivated in areas like Orangi town & Shershah which is then sold to the weavers. The pure silk yarn, before it can be used, has to undergo treatment such as bleaching or washing (in soap) and then dyeing. In its raw state, the silk is hard due to the sericlan ; therefore it has to be removed. A single filament of the silk yarn is not strong enough to be woven on its own; therefore, it needs to be twisted in order to give it strength and hold.

A specific person who is called a naqsha-bandh first draws the patterns or designs on paper which are then transferred on a graph paper on a comparatively much bigger scale. Every square in the graph signifies a specific number of threads on the loom. The unfinished, rough ideas and sketches are provided to these naqsha-bandhs by the wholesalers and are thus plotted on the graph. The use of various threads in the pattern such as, zari, resham, polyester etc. are separated on the graph with the help of colours indicated on a key chart. The wholesalers later decide the main colours and this information are forwarded to the weavers. The naqsha-bandhs do not have say in the designing of the motifs and patterns. They do what they are told to do.


In this way, the pattern or motif is drawn on the graph paper to provide the weaver with the exact picture of each thread making up the design in the process of weaving. The designs and patterns are then transferred from the graph paper on a wooden frame and are referred to as the naqsha. The naqsha that is made with cotton threads is a smaller sample of the actual design, which is to be woven on the loom. The warp is then taken for the weaving process, which is carried out, on various looms such as the pit loom, jacquard loom and power loom. There is a vast difference between the outputs of the three types of looms. The power looms cannot match the intricacy that can be achieved using the pit or jacquard loom. This is the reason for the far superior workmanship that can be found in the earlier designs dating back to the Mughal era.


 Nowadays brocade is being produced on the power looms for its wide-scale production for the market. Several kannis or little wooden shuttles of different colors are used for a single weft line of the fabric. Up to 50 colours could be worked into one shawl made of the jamawar cloth. The most popular colours being zard, sufed, mushki, ferozi, ingari, uda gulnar and kirmiz.


This thread can also be twisted with gold threads in order to make zari . The zari fibre is doubled with the yarn to prepare it for the process of weaving. Another reason for twisting the zari fibre is to reduce its excessive shine. The zari fibre is wrapped on reels and is doubled with the yarn with the help of a machine, on cones. These fibres are then wrapped on reels with the help of a doubling machine. The threads are then steamed and wrapped on the final spools . The required threads (silk, zari, etc) are then taken to the charkha, which is a machine used to make the warp for the weaving process.




No comments:

Post a Comment