The History of the Loom

India’s Silk Heritage

The Silk Route

Recent archaeological excavations have discovered that the Harappa and Chanhu-Daro civilizations were involved in sericulture (silk farming), developing wild silk threads from native silkworm species. It is estimated that this silk production existed in South Asia during the Indus Valley Civilisation between 2450 and 2000 BC. Evidence that silk manufacturing existed in China around 2570 BC. and earlier. Two samples were excavated at the two Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Chanhu-Daro which were processed using similar techniques of degumming and reeling as the Chinese. Under a electron micrograph, the fibre revealed that some of the fibres were spun after the silk moth was allowed to escape from the cocoon. This was akin to the Ahimsa silk promoted by Mahatma Gandhi.

Brocade: The Rich Essence

Kinkhwab, traditionally, is an elegant, heavy silk fabric with a floral or figured pattern known most of its butis and jals woven with silk as the warp and the tilla as the weft produced in China and Japan. Tilla, also termed as kasab, was a combination of silver and copper (tamba) coated with gold and silver veneer. Kinkhwabs have also been known as ‘Kimkhabs’, ‘Kamkhwabs’, ‘Kincobs’, ‘Zar-baft’ (Gold Woven), zartari, zarkashi, mushaiar.

“Kam” means scarcity while “Khwab” means a dream. It is often said that even with such a name ‘Its beauty, splendor and elegance can be hardly dreamt of’. These are heavy fabrics with several layers of warp threads and elaborate patterns of extra weft, which may be of silk, gold and/or silver threads or combinations. The layers of warp threads are usually between three to seven.

There are two types of Zari, namely Badla and Kala batto. Badla Zari was made of flattened gold or silver wire. Parallelly, the ancient method of making zari from pure metal without any core thread was used accounting for its peculiar stiffness. Sometimes cracks would develop in the metal during the process of weaving which resulted in the loss of its natural luster and smoothness. Therefore, weaving with Badla Zari was difficult and required great skill. Often a touch of Badla was given to floral motives to enhance the beauty. This type of zari has mostly gone out of favor amongst the contemporary weavers and they mostly depend on polyester or pure silk as a substitute.

Whenever the figure work is in silver threads with a background of gold threads, it is called ‘Tashi Kinkhwab’. This is variety of ‘Kinkhwab’ has a ground worked with an extra warp of gold [badla (flat wire) zari] and the pattern created with an extra weft of silver badla zari or vice versa. A satin weave is very often used, resulting in a smooth ground for the fabric.

Silk brocade of Banaras, Ahmedabad and Surat were well known in the seventeenth century. While Banaras continues to be a center of production of Silk Brocades, Ahmedabad and Surat have practically nothing to show today. On the other hand, Silk Brocade weaving has gained ground in the South of India.

Pot-thans have a lower thread count (lightly textured) than Kinkhwabs but are closely woven in silk. All or certain portions of the pattern are in gold or silver zaris. These fabrics are mostly used for making expensive garments and saris. Very often the satin ground weave is particularly used for garments fabrics. These fabrics are characterized by their jals which are normally made out of silk and tilla. The common trade name for this brocade is known as Katan.

The Mashru cloth was distinguished by its butis woven in circular shapes that gave an impression of ashrafis (gold coins). The ashrafis were usually woven in gold zari. This is a mixed fabric with a woven stripe or zigzag pattern. The warp and weft used were of two different materials (silk and cotton, cotton and linen, silk and wool or wool and cotton) in different colors. It was used mostly for lower garments such as trousers, the lining of the heavy brocade garments or as furnishing.

Gul Badan (the literal meaning of which is ‘flower like body’) was a known variety of mushru (cotton and silk) popular in the late 19th century. Sangi, Ganta, Ilaycha were types of mashru too. These were popular since ancient times and were known to be woven at all leading silk centers.

A type of Indian brocade is the Himru, a specialty of Hyderabad and Aurangabad, which is woven from silk and zari on silk to produce variegated designs, woven on the principle of extra weft. Himru can be very pretty with a pseudo-rich effect in general. It continued to be in popular demand on the account of its low price as compared to the pure silk brocades. Another point in its favor is that it can be woven very fine so as to give it a soft feel, thus making it more suitable as a fabric for personal wear than the true brocade. The cloth is distinguished by its intricate char-khana (four squares) jal. These are woven like kinkhwabs, but without the use of kala battu (zari) instead badla zari is used.

Jamawar: The Royal Cloth

Traders introduced Chinese silk to India which originated mainly from Samarkand and Bukhara. The luxurious feel of the fabric quickly gained immense popularity with the royalty and aristocracy. The prevalent nobility bought the cloth by the yard for its multiple applications ranging from gowns to wraps and shawls. Jamawar weaving centres began to develop in holy cities and the trade centres. Jamawar or “grown piece” is a special type of shawl made in Kashmir. “Jama” means robe and “war/var” means is chest and metaphorically body. Some of the well-known Jamawar weaving centres were in Assam, Gujarat, Malwa and South India.

The rich and fine raw materials used in Jamawar make a status symbol for the nobility and merchants. Affordability became an after thought as weavers were commissioned to make the fabric for them. The Mughals, most notably Emperor Akbar, were one of their greatest patrons. This encouragement resulted in bringing in multiple weavers from East Turkestan to Kashmir. The diversity in design was due to the migratory nature of the weavers as ideas from world over influenced their designs.

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