The unstitched garment


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WE live in a part of the world that has a nine to ten month long summer and a short two or three month winter overlapping with two to three weeks of spring and autumn. Our cultural predilections and climatic compulsions have tilted naturally towards the unstitched garment with its unlimited ingenuity to adapt, adjust and recreate the draped garment in accordance with the occasion, the need of the hour, or the functional flexibility of profession or activity.

The unstitched exists in the subcontinent in many forms and is draped in innumerable ways by men and women, as a single piece garment or a two or three piece garment, with an unstitched length used as head cover by men and sometimes combined with a shoulder cloth or angvastram which can be used in various ways to ward off the heat.

Though the unstitched is created on a loom with a measure of length and breadth, what distinguishes it from a flat piece of fabric is that it is conceived as a three dimensional garment with a difference in density in its various parts. The sari allows us to go back at least a thousand years in design terms with variations in pattern, weave and structure between its inner and outer end-pieces and its two borders which provide drape, strength and weight while the body enhances the form of the sari or dhoti when it is worn.

The deep involvement and complete sense of identity of the Indian woman with the sari has made her resist the pressure to change her style of dress, inadvertently providing continuity in the weaving tradition in every part of the country. The sari represents a culture in which the woven and textured-with-pattern garment, not pierced or intruded upon by the stitching needle, was considered not only more appropriate in terms of aesthetics and climate, but also an act of greater purity and simplicity. Draping suited the climate as it allows for constant air flow, a gentle yet shifting body cover from the harsh sun and a sense of propriety in harmony with character and culture.

At some point in the nineteenth century when Indian men were increasingly employed by the British in their civil and administrative services, the male dhoti, pagdi, shoulder cloth were sacrificed to the pant, shirt and coat, at least as formal working apparel. However, these men often changed back to their traditional wear once they returned home from work. Strangely, this interesting balance has been largely overturned after independence as we begin to look and want to look more like the departing rulers, now that they have gone. In fact, it could be said there are more expatriate Indians in urban India today in terms of dress than there ever were during British rule. There was also a stage in this dress transformation process when many urban Indians combined elements of traditional wear with western wear, as we can see in photographs of Dr. C.V Raman or Dr. Vishveshvarayya.


The sari stayed with the women of this country much longer, even till the 1990s, as everyday wear. Somehow, functional mobility and global influences have overturned this balance only in the last twenty years. Although it is a fast disappearing garment for everyday wear, the sari will survive as special occasion wear. More and more Indian women today prefer stitched garments and western wear, made of easy-to-maintain wash-and-wear fabrics. Yet, they once rode horses in saris in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and even before our eyes, swam in rivers and ponds in their saris tucked between the legs, much like an unstitched pair of shorts or draped longer in pantaloon – like fashion, in places as far apart as Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh and Kothapalli in Andhra Pradesh.

If the principles of these wearing styles are put into practice, many more could possibly be evolved for contemporary needs. Interestingly, the sari is asserting a growing presence in the boardrooms of multinational corporate organizations, in the law chambers and courts and among the new power professionals who are conscious of their identity and wish to draw strength from it.

The unstitched garment forms our outermost skin and thereby signals not only who we are and where we come from, but also as an expression of where we are going. Since the Second World War, most of Asia, all the way from Japan upto Thailand and Singapore, has turned almost entirely to western wear. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar retain something of the unstitched garment largely because their exposure has been restricted due to their strict political regimes or because of poverty. In the subcontinent however, bombarded with over-exposure, our elites seem to show a preference for western apparel as they become wealthier. In fact, this part of the world has enhanced its wealth by creating cheaper western wear apparel for the export market since the 1970s and the ‘export reject’ has filtered into our lives from the streets of Janpath to markets such as Sarojini Nagar in Delhi and likewise in other cities of India.


Therefore, this is not a moral question or dilemma about western clothes vis a vis Indian wear, but an appropriate moment for us to reflect on who we are and where we wish to go because we still have a small window of the luxury of choice, something which we may not have in the near future. In the contemporary context, despite the growing compulsion to industrialize and globalize, there is also an increasing awareness of ecologically viable and sound growth. With her rich resources of skilled hand-spinning and weaving, India is advantageously placed to show the way in balancing the slower but highly skilled production sectors with the mechanized and high-technology end. Though there has been a gradual exodus from these professions in the 20th century, what they are going through today is unprecedented. Weavers are losing a high-skill livelihood without alternative options, facing starvation-like conditions and joining the ranks of the unskilled.

The patterned, coloured fabric and product range is India’s greatest asset and no matter how much dumping of cheap imports into the country we have to compete with post-WTO, if invested prudently, with design and market support from both private and government agencies, sustenance for at least a percentage of the artisans who are still active and capable of developing further, can be found and made effective. However, India must retain at least a broad base of spinning and weaving so that a pyramid of skills can be formed and the more capable weavers are able to transit to the finest levels of skill.


The sari is not only known by different names (lugda, dhoti, pata, seere, sadlo, kapad) in various parts of the country, it is also conceived differently in form and structure, in usage and custom. It is a stretch of fabric, long or short, wide or narrow, according to the way in which it is worn. There is, in fact no ‘one type of sari’. From the coarse heavy cottons worn by working rural women and farm hands to the finest muslins which were traditionally soaked in starch and crinkled before the advent of hot iron brought in by the French in Bengal, the fine count sari was ingeniously made opaque for the wearer which was necessary as it was worn without a petticoat. There was also a wide range of mixed material saris which combined both cottons and silks of various weight and density for the form and function of the draped garment. The range of light to heavy silks, not only of mulberry but also tussar of at least twenty to forty varieties and muga, enlarged the range of textured and patterned saris even more.

The sari, dhoti, pagdi/safa provided the base of what comprised the textile tradition largely because of the variations of texture they were able to provide in a single utility fabric. It is for this reason that they supported and promoted exceptional skills of weaving. The unstitched garment, which may not be used in its traditional context and form, could certainly provide the basis for future developments, both of the unstitched garment and fabrics for other contemporary use.

The challenge today, as communities are being pushed to the brink, making them ‘under productive’ and referred to as carriers of ‘a legacy of the past’, is to build on our textile tradition as a worthy legacy of harmonious development. The pressure to industrialize and globalize is real and palpable but it will also increase the pressure for us in India to compete with Taiwan and China which are controlled economies, with the advantage of implementing decisions taken one day from the next day. As a functional democracy, however flawed it may be, this competition can be to India’s advantage with its strength of numbers, its various levels of economy and skill especially of the hand, which can give it an added leverage. For instance, if we were to retain, support and promote hand-spinning on the desi charkha, we could in the next ten years be the only country in the world creating fabrics of exceptional textures.

The sustenance of such skills, both in the spinning and weaving sectors in economic, social and cultural terms, is a challenge both philosophical and literal, for all societies in transition. Ultimately we are all in a process of transition, in the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ world. We need to find ways to recognize the worth of the human ‘hand’ even as the human ‘mind’ seeks to relieve it from the drudgery of constant application. We must find appropriate economic solutions to revitalize the great human resources of ‘hand’ skills and enhance their intrinsic strengths to take on the challenges and contribute substantially to human development.


* Rta Kapur Chishti is the author of Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond (2010) and coauthor of Tradition and Beyond: Hand-crafted Indian Textiles, among other publications.