Indian Weaving: History & Patterns

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you love bright colors? India has a rich heritage of making textiles. In this lesson, explore Indian weaving history and learn about some basic patterns.

A Rich Weaving History

Have you ever seen women wearing colorful silk saris? These woven fabrics are examples of textiles from India.

India is a vast, diverse country with a rich history of weaving. Weaving is the process of making textiles by interlacing fiber threads. Examples of Indian cotton textiles have been found from 5000 years, ago and ancient texts known as the Vedas mention ''hiranya',' or cloth made of gold (more on that in a moment).

Weaving centers in India are known to have made saris for royalty in the 12th and 13th centuries. Saris are women's garments made from a single long piece of fabric. By the time trading customs were established along the fabled Silk Road, India was well known for its woven textiles.

Image of a cotton weaver in India, ca. 1782
Indian cotton weaver

Regions, villages, and communities throughout India have unique weaving traditions with distinct customs and patterns. Depending on location, textiles may be woven from cotton, wool, or silk. Today, weaving remains important to India's economy with roughly 4.3 million people involved. The country even has a Ministry of Textiles.

Weaving Basics

Most weaving in India is done on handlooms. A handloom is a loom powered manually rather than by industrial means.

Basically, all looms are frames that hold the warp threads, those that run vertically for the length of the intended fabric, in tension. The warp threads are then interlaced with weft threads at a right angle, thus forming a weave. In Indian weaving vocabulary, you sometimes see the warp threads called the tana and the weft threads called the bana.

Indian man weaving silk fabric on a handloom
silk weaver

Cotton and Wool Fabrics

Cotton has always been important to Indian weaving, and there are 23 varieties of this natural fiber found throughout the country. One of India's oldest fabrics is a traditional cotton weave called khadi. This product of rural areas is tied to the country's history and politics.

Khadi is woven so that the interlaced threads allow for a cooling effect, important in regions that are sometimes subject to stifling heat. Khadi was used for clothing, bed linens, and many other purposes. No one pattern or design dominates, but the Tricolor (India's national flag) is always supposed to be made of khadi.

Mangalagri cottons come from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. These fabrics have a very tight weave of bright colors and are stiff and durable. Patterns include checks of varying sizes and bold stripes, sometimes in contrasting colors.

People from Indian's northern regions, areas with mountains and high elevations, raise sheep and goats and weave fabrics from wool. Kashmir and Punjab are famous for goods like brightly colored shawls and blankets that feature patterns of large geometric shapes and straight lines.

Silk Fabrics, Traditions and Patterns

India is perhaps most celebrated for a wide variety of fine silk woven fabrics. Banaras, a famed weaving center, is known for gold-silver brocades, fabrics with raised designs. Craftsmen and women weave thin metal wires into the textile along with silk threads. These fabrics are sometimes embellished with zari, embroidery done in pure gold. Patterns often feature repeated images of leaves, paisleys (shapes that look like raindrops), and flowers.

Rows of Banaras silks. Notice the repeated patterns of of floral and foliage designs, including a few examples done in gold thread
Banaras cloth

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