NEW DELHI – In a workshop in the Kullu district of North India, dozens of artisans lean on manual looms, skillfully weaving a garment called a sari in vibrant shades of pink and orange.
The sari is a loose, unstitched garment worn by women in India and countries in South Asia like Bangladesh. It is a new addition to the hilly region’s hand-weaving industry, which for decades has focused on making shawls and stoles with traditional patterns from woolen threads.
The hope is that adding the hand-woven saree to store shelves will attract new customers and increase the incomes of hundreds of women in the area, who have very few job opportunities in the predominantly rural district.
Looms have long been a part of many village houses nestled on rolling slopes, where women use sheep yarn to make traditional woolen scarves called “pattu” for the family.
In recent decades, they made their living weaving shawls to sell to tens of thousands of tourists who came to the Himalayan district. But it was getting harder and harder to attract a younger, more fashion-conscious generation that now prefers coats over the traditional shawl.
“I just didn’t want this art to die, this hand-woven art. So we thought we would give them new ideas, ”said Richa Verma, Kullu’s deputy commissioner. “We very much hope that the tourist who comes to this area will take the sari as a souvenir and increase income opportunities for the local population.”
They will be among the country’s first woolen sarees, which are typically made of cotton and silk. Craftsmen are optimistic because sarees are an integral part of the wardrobe of most of the country’s women.
In the workshops, the wider looms have replaced the old ones, which are narrower because the fabric of saris is woven in a wider width compared to shawls and stoles.
“This job is very good for women. We educate our children and we manage to live well, ”said Vimla Devi, a resident.
Sales of hand-woven garments, often made from local yarns, have increased in recent years as people begin to appreciate their qualities, said Paljor Bodh, director of Bodh Shawl Weavers, one of the makers of shawls well known from the region which lent its support to the sari project. His workshop employs around sixty artisans. Shops in major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai have helped market their product and drive sales to a niche and upscale clientele willing to spend the money.
“Hand-woven fabrics have more warmth because they are uneven and trap air,” Bodh said. “Fabric made on electric looms. . . has no space, so it cannot trap body heat.
The challenge, however, has been to boost the appeal of traditional, handmade clothing to a more fashion-conscious audience and present it in a new avatar, experts say. The traditional motifs have been enhanced with representative motifs of the region such as trout, local flowers and cedars.
“To keep pace and increase demand, we consulted with fashion institutes and followed global trends in fashion forecasting,” said Ramesh Thakur, CEO of the Bhutti Weavers Cooperative Society. The designers were also involved in the project and the training programs organized for the craftsmen.
They quickly adapted to a new format.
“We don’t have to teach them much. They are experts in making patterns on fabric. So we just have to train them in the length and width of the sari plus the weight of the sari, ”Verma said. “It should not be very heavy, otherwise it will be very uncomfortable to wear.”
As an old tradition takes a new turn, a lot will depend on the attractiveness of young people to learn this meticulous art. The craft has been passed down from generation to generation, but there is a question mark over how many people want to continue working with their own hands, said Bodh, 76, who learned the art from his father.
“Now computers and phones have caught their attention. Thus, local populations are sometimes reluctant to come, thinking that their efforts might not yield much. Most of those who work here are 40 or 50 years old, ”said Bodh. “That is why the future of this art will depend on the support given by the government.”
However, some artisans weave dreams into a project. Javitri Thakur, who began weaving traditional patterns in hand-spun shawls to support his family, hopes that making saris will open up new avenues for him. Over the past four years, she has mastered the craft. “Maybe I can start my own business one day,” she said, pointing to a new piece of clothing she’s made.