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Geometricity & Saris

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

This story was written for design, culture and travel publication by Sayali Goyal

Circles. Squares. Rectangles. Triangles.

Diamonds. Pyramids. Checks. Stripes.

Curves. Spirals. Dashes. Dots.

Zigzag. Herringbone. Serrated. Scalloped.

The universe has thrived on geometricity silently since time immemorial. We humans are made of it. We live with it and live by it. Probably that is why we get drawn to its symmetry and asymmetry even in design, fashion, art and craft. However, in contemporary clothing, we lend this concept to mostly prints and silhouettes. Whereas a sari (Indian drape), although fluid in nature, is geometric, too. It evolved from a three-piece Vedic ensemble (Antriya or lower garment; Uttariya or covering worn over shoulders; and Stanapatta or chest band). And for generations, it spoke and has been speaking a strong visual language using lines and shapes.

Sari Redesigning & Repurposing

Today, this silhouette is sometimes understood and other times misunderstood, especially when it comes to ‘upcycling’ (a rather overexposed word, though). The fact is; in contemporary sari repurposing, traditional aspects like shape and size; symbolic narratives through icnonography; folding and measurement methods sometimes lose their significance. Usually a sari flagged for recycling or repurposing either is an ignored one, a damaged piece or unravelled fabric (due to age). It could have intense or light decoration. Now, to recreate shapes out of this, ruthless chopping of the fabric is done without too much thought. Only the eventual wearable is kept in mind. Waste in form of katran (scrap) is huge. In such cases, the sari is seen as a mass instead of parts. In short, we ignore the weaver’s linear, vertical, diagonal or radial blueprint. So, to reopen this known-but-often-ignored dialogue of sari reuse in garments, let us look at a few aspects that could help take this philosophy to another level.

Sari Shape & Size

The sari’s skeletal form is pretty rudimentary—a rectangle. Typically, a contemporary sari is five to nine yards (4.5 metres to 8 metres) in length and two to four feet (60 centimetres to 1.20 metres) in breadth. ‘The Sari’ by Linda Lynton (Thames & Hudson) has a Table of Measurements (p.199), that sorts Indian saris according to region and type, proves this. So, if we break the sari’s rectangular form into blocks, we notice at least three major geometric chunks—entire base fabric or body (a.k.a. field), top and bottom longitudinal borders, and decorated (front) endpiece (‘pallu’ in Hindi). The fourth, seemingly-insignificant part is the inner endpiece—this denotes finish and is usually minimally-woven to close the drape. While reusing the sari fabric to make garments, the flow and angularity of these large chunks could be given importance.

Sari Iconography & Symbolism

After shape, comes the story a sari tells. It comes through the complexity of the weave, complimentary warp or weft inserts and other ornamentation. However, this does not ever affect the basic shape of a sari, as it is almost always woven on a fixed loom. If handloom, during the process, the sari weaver (and his or her family) consciously and sub-consciously attach and infuse everyday tales, things, people, emotions and happenings into its geometric chunks. The sari becomes a tangible symbol of the weavers’ collective surroundings, lifestyle and community. For instance, one of the most prominent motifs in the drapes of Odisha, Andhra, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu is the temple (triangle or step form). It could run along the length of the borders. Most sari-lovers would easily recognise this shape. It is called by different names in local languages and dialects—kumbho (Odiya); kumbham (Telugu); daanth (Bangali); or mottu/mokku (Tamil). It literally does not mean a temple, but implies fertility, flowers, teeth, and what have you. Another example is the ever-famous checks. They are called charkhana or chand-tara (Hindi); valai (Tamil); vala (Telugu) and go by other names, too. Each design has a meaning with traditional bearings, which is pretty distinct in the sari’s geometric chunks. For example, the Patteda Anchu, a reversible, handloom cotton sari with tiny checks from North Karnataka was an offering to a Devadasi during a daughter’s marriage. It is basic and bright. And the Korainadoo sari (Koorai Pattu Pudavai) from Tamil Nadu with medium checks and stripes is a ‘temple sari’ as it was historically offered to a local deity. Both have a reverential connotation. While upcycling such symbolic stories, the narrative could be included in the repurposing.

Sari Folding & Measurement

Next is the folding and age-old measurement techniques. Traditionally, fingers, palms, arms and shoulders are known usage tools. The ever-famous book Saris of India—compiled and edited by sari expert Rta Kapur Chishti and edited by Martand Singh, describes regional variations in folding and measurement rather beautifully. According to it, most native sari-wearers and sellers from States of India use various words in their dialects to denote these anatomy-related sizes. This bit dictates the weaving and the folding of the saris, too. After it is woven using such measurements, a sari is rolled and other times it is halved, quartered and then folded. The repeats, patterns and designs on the sari are always tucked in carefully. But when a sari is upcycled, it may be opened out and checked for tears, but the traditional hand measurements is missed. If given a second thought, a wearer may decode it more carefully and store and upcycle it a tad better.

Sari Art & Craft

But interestingly, age-old crafts in India have been and are paradoxically aware of recycling and repurposing saris keeping their geometricity and other above-discussed points in view. In West Bengal’s Kantha embroidery, the sari in its totality is folded, layered and covered with micro running stiches. Maximising the fabric is always the motive. Sometimes other old saris are sandwiched or patchworked to create the required Kantha design. In Odisha’s Pipli applique, sari scrap is used to fill in gaps in design. Motifs (butis) are outline-cut precisely and hand-appliqued on to bright poplin fabrics. Of course, new synthetic fabrics and surface ornamentation is added on for visual appeal. The end products are bags, umbrellas, wall decorations and the like. While the Waghri community from Gujarat (a lot of them live nomadically in and around Delhi), cut up old saris into pieces according to their basic construction. Border designs, motifs and decorative ends are specially used up. The textile material and zari (gold yarn detail) content is taken into consideration. The pieces are then backed with a thicker fabric and stitched into panels that are sewn, embroidered or quilted into wall hangings, cushion covers, runners and what have you. These utility items have a boxy and heavy feel thanks to the geometric applique and patchwork. If we incorporate their customary basic understanding of a sari before cutting for repurposing, we probably will have clothes with stronger stories.

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