Third in a series of articles about how our Indian fabrics are made.
While every part of India has its own unique traditions of handloom fabrics, the jamdani weaving of Bengal is remarkable not only for its great beauty but also for the skilled craftsmanship with which it is made. It has even been declared by UNESCO to be an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”! (How often do you get to wear one of those?) To see it being made is like watching textile magic being performed.
Bengal, a cultural region divided between the Indian state of West Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh, has had an important and distinctive textile tradition since ancient times. Unlike many Indian textiles which use color for effect, the textiles of Bengal emphasize texture. Unbleached or undyed cotton can be enriched with monochromatic designs, whether woven, embroidered or printed, to create a rich play of transparency and opacity. Jamdani handloom fabrics are a perfect example of that.
What is jamdani? And how is it made? (If you haven’t seen our article on handloom weaving, you might want to read that first to acquaint yourself with weaving terminology.)
Technically, jamdani is a discontinuous supplementary-weft fabric. That’s not as complicated as it sounds! Look at a motif up close and you can see that it is discontinuous (the threads creating each motif don’t go all the way across the fabric), and supplementary (those threads do not hold the fabric together), and part of the weft (they’re added in the weft direction [i.e., across the fabric], rather than the warp [lengthwise]). In other words, the motifs are not integral to the fabric; they are added for decoration.
Notice how the cotton yarns used for the motifs are slightly thicker than the regular warp and weft threads so they’ll stand out slightly from the ground fabric and be more visible — remember that idea of texture and opacity?
While the fabric is being created on the loom, each motif is added between the wefts of the cloth by the hand of the weaver. The result somewhat resembles embroidery, which jamdani is sometimes erroneously (though understandably) referred to as being, even though it is entirely handwoven. It’s often made of hand-spun khadi cotton, which is very soft and results in an exceptionally fine and breathable cloth.
So how is this discontinuous supplementary-weft business accomplished? When a motif is to be added, the weaver grabs a long slender needle (much like a double-pointed knitting needle) and wraps a length of the thicker contrast yarn around it.
The needle is inserted into the shed (the open space between the two sets of warp threads on the loom) under a certain number of raised warp threads, and pulled through so it lies smoothly against the warp. Then the regular weft thread is shot back and forth across the entire width of the fabric, locking the decorative “supplementary weft” in place. One row of the design has been added.
Now the weaver wraps the needle with the contrast yarn again, inserts it under the raised warp in the opposite direction and pulls it through. Another two picks or shots of the weft hold this row in place, and the jamdani design starts to appear! Let’s take a look. First the weaver adds the motif from left to right, and then from right to left.
She picks up the yarn with the needle and inserts it through the warp in one fluid motion, quicker than the blink of an eye! While the fabric is on the loom, the side facing upwards is what we eventually consider the "back" of the cloth. Looking at this side of the fabric (below), the contrasting yarn can be seen moving upwards at the end of each row, showing clearly that the motif is made with one strand of thread.
Row by row, the design appears while the fabric takes form. The weaver reads a pattern chart, if it’s complicated, or simply counts the rows and warp threads to create the design. The yarns for each motif lay across the surface of the gradually-forming fabric until needed. When it’s time to start another design section, the weaver cuts off the yarn ends with impressive speed, then starts the new motifs. Over the course of the day, a little pile of thread ends accumulates beside the loom.
It takes great care for the weaver to place each motif between exactly the right warp threads, and great skill to lay the design into the fabric with exactly the right touch and tension. And of course, the more complicated the design, the longer it takes to make — an intricate all-over design might progress at the rate of just a yard a day.
Modern jamdani fabrics are not restricted to the traditional monochromatic palette, but still the play of texture and transparency remains part of the fabric’s tactile and aesthetic appeal, whether the designs are age-old, totally modern, or somewhere in between. And in the high-tech world of the 21st century, don't we need handmade things and personal connections more than ever?
When we visited some of the villages where our fabrics are made, it was a special thrill to see the jamdani weaving process, which we had only read about in books. Since that time their world has changed. These handloom weavers, along with other artisans and workers of all kinds, have suffered from India’s total lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic. Then a devastating typhoon hit eastern India and Bangladesh in May 2020. More than a hundred thousand people lost their homes and livelihoods in West Bengal, and this on top of the fear and hunger wrought by the pandemic. But now it is time to rebuild. We're proud to support the remarkable craftspeople who create these exquisite textiles. We’re all in this together.
Read the previous article: A Look at Handloom Weaving
Read the first article: A Visit to a Weavers' Village
Watch a film: How Are Handloom Fabrics Made?