Threads of gold

, Fashion

Designer duo Swati and Sunaina delves into the intricacies of zari, its making and its appearance in traditional Indian weaves

For centuries, zari – a fine thread made of gold-plated silver used in the making of traditional Indian garments – has been an indispensable part of Indian handloom, especially when it comes to the trousseau. Historically, it was used in the making of royal robes and was associated with traditional weaves, some of which are now rare and, therefore, extremely precious. As designers, it has been our aim to revive and preserve zari craftsmanship, especially as it has been applied through the ages to the traditional Indian saree. We work closely with weavers and craftsmen from Benaras who specialise in zari, and recently curated an exhibition that showcased the process of making zari, displaying a collection of traditional and lesser-known sarees that use this precious thread.

weaving with zari

Weaving a zari thread into a saree is a long, intricate and painstaking process. It begins after the designer has conceived the design and filled in the colours. The journey from the drawing board to the loom, and the final translation into a fabric, is a delicate and masterful affair. Expert craftsmen first replicate the chosen design on a graph and then on punch cards. These cards are an important part of the process as they guide the jacquard machine, which controls the warp picks to create the desired design. The yarn undergoes dyeing, warping and stretching on the loom and then finally, the master weaver spins his magic.

Historical footprints

The earliest reference to fabric made with gold can be found in the Rig Veda. Ancient hymns dating back 3,000 years evoke notions of golden warp and weft as the eternal metaphor of life. The word “zari” is widely believed to have been derived from the Persian word “zar”, meaning gold. The word is used to denote a yarn made of precious metals that is used heavily in traditional textiles of the Indian subcontinent. Every handloom tradition across India has a unique manner of using zari. In north India, this artistic tradition is synonymous with Benaras.

In other countries such as China and Japan, gold artistry exists in different kinds of garments, like in the traditional Japanese kimono. Zari has rich visual and aesthetic appeal and lends a structural quality to a garment too, giving draped garments a particularly graceful fluidity. Being made of precious metals, textiles woven with real zari are also more valuable.

Matters of authenticity

Gold zari, the chief component of an authentic zari saree, comprises a wire strung from 98.5 per cent pure silver,
which is then plated in 24 carat gold. This thread is soft, pliable and has a subtle sheen. In comparison, artificial zari – created using gold powder and silicone – is stiff, has a plastic-like feel and can be garish.

The process of making real zari is indigenous and is today known to be carried out primarily in Benaras, in the last such surviving workshop in the region. As a material, zari is highly versatile and, depending on its usage and weaving techniques, can transform the look of any fabric. When used in lighter fabrics, zari gains suppleness and becomes translucent, creating a shimmery effect.

Usage and versatility

In the weaving of traditional brocade with intricate designs in gold and silver threads (known as kinkhaab), the predominant use of zari along with silk also helps to create a heavier fabric. Brocade is a speciality of Benaras – it is a characteristic weave in which patterns are created by thrusting the zari threads between the warps at calculated intervals so as to create the design line by line.

Another traditional weaving technique that utilises zari is rangkaat, which is now practised only by a handful of weavers in Benaras. The term refers to the process of cutting (kaat) and colouring (rang), where coloured yarns are joined on the loom to create wave-like patterns. Here, zari becomes an essential tool in binding the threads. One of our sarees, called Shabnam, meaning morning dew, uses zari along with very fine silk yarns to mimic the reflective qualities of water. It suggests the transformation of a solid material like gold into something translucent and light.

In another saree, called Safavid, zari occupies the entire surface of the textile, appearing like a sheet of beaten metal. The technique used to weave it allows the thread to create a shimmery, opaque surface.

Traditional patterns of Benaras are closely inspired by nature, and among them is litchchi buta (derived from the fruit of the same name), which is crafted using zari. Woven for special occasions among royalty and brides, this weave creates a translucent, shimmering fabric and requires immense expertise to master.

The authors are fashion designers and the views expressed in the article are their own

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