How many varieties of silk are there? Which fabric was used 30,000 years ago? And which textile did the Romans call ‘woven wind’? Read on to discover why textiles are as interesting as the garments they’re used for.
Weaving is as old as human civilization, but the fabrics themselves are unique to each culture and region. Soil and weather affect the quality of textiles, while the innovations and techniques that are used to craft them have cultural roots. What does that leave us with? A treasure trove of fabrics to indulge in! Here’s a selection of some of the world’s finest.
Mulberry silk: The fabric of choice for handloom Kanchipurams and Banarasi silk sarees, mulberry silk is a stronger and smoother variety of silk. It’s produced by silkworms (Bombyx mori) that feed on mulberry plants, and the finest quality is grown in Karnataka. Mulberry silk fibres are long and durable, have a pearl-like glow, and absorb dyes easily.
Eri silk: The misty hills of India’s north-eastern region are famous for eri silk, which gets its name from the Assamese word for castor, ‘era’. The silkworms are reared on castor plants, and the silk that’s harvested has thermal qualities. Dense yet elastic, eri silk fibres are heavier than other types of silk.
Tussar silk: The silkworms that produce tussar silk belong to the moth genus; they feed on trees that grow in the forest, such as jamun and oak. Tussar silk has a grainier texture and a natural golden colour, which gives handloom tussar silk sarees their inimitable look and feel. Traditionally, this variety of silk was associated with the eastern states of India, but central India is also becoming known for its tussar silk yarns.
Muga silk: Once exclusive to Assamese royalty, muga silk is a geographically-tagged variety that grows in the wild. It’s produced when the Assam silkmoth feeds on som and sualu leaves, and has a beautiful luster. Like tussar silk, which is also a wild silk, muga silk has a natural golden sheen. You’ll recognise these qualities at once when you see the mekhala-chador, the traditional Assamese outfit in off-white with black and red motifs.
Chiffon: The gauzy, sheer fabric was made famous by French couturiers; Indian maharanis would pair floral chiffon sarees with pearl necklaces, propelling the fabric to the apex of glamour.
Chiffon can be made with pure silk, cotton or paired with nylon, rayon or polyester. The crêpe yarns are twisted and placed in S-shaped or Z-shaped formations, resulting in a netted weave.
Organza: Crisp and translucent, organza is preferred for its airy and luminous qualities. Typically, organza is made from silk; more affordable versions have a mix of polyester or nylon. The smooth, shimmering fabric is a favourite for occasion wear, from kurtas and lehenga sets to, of course, sarees.
Crêpe: There are many types of crêpe, real and synthetic. Georgette and crêpe de chine are examples. Originally, crêpe was made from silk that wasn’t degummed (the sericin coating on the fibres wasn’t removed); this gave the fabric its wrinkled texture. Handloom Mysore silk sarees use crêpe, which gives them their fluid drape and lightness.
If silk is traced back to China, cotton takes pride of place in India. Archeological finds suggest that cotton was in use even 6,000 years ago. Cotton is harvested from a shrub of the Gossypium genus, and the light, breathable fabric is ideal for tropical climates. Indian weavers transformed cotton into a canvas, so much so that even the simplest handloom cotton saree is a work of art. The ancient Romans called Indian cotton fabrics ‘woven winds’, and Bengal’s fine muslins were especially coveted during the Mughal era.
A blend of cotton and silk, this fabric is a more recent innovation. It has the sheen of silk and the breeziness of cotton, making it ideal for summertime events, workwear and even daily wear. Cotton-silk sarees have been adapted to different weaving styles, from Chanderi to Maheshwari.
Linen, which is derived from the flax plant, was used even 30,000 years ago! It could well be the oldest fabric in the world. It’s airy, durable and dries faster than cotton. It’s perfect for warmer climates and is often used for layering in colder ones. Pure linen tends to wrinkle quickly, but that’s part of its appeal. Linen has always been a popular choice for western wear, but now handloom linen sarees are becoming trendy additions to one’s saree collection.
As sustainability becomes more important, we’re creating more eco-friendly fabrics and revisiting cultivation methods. Textiles are both a heritage and a futuristic experiment. They are, in every sense, our woven history.