Among the things to miss about India for a lifetime of not being there is her texiles. Here is the very rare patola.
Patola is a double (both warp and weft are dyed) silk ikat: a method of weaving in which silk threads are resist-dyed such that, when woven, the motif ‘appears’ on both sides of the fabric. It has a history of at least 900 years and contributes richly to the rich tradition of Indian textiles.
Patola is still made by very few families of the same caste (Salvi) in Patan, Gujerat.
One lives in a pink-grey compound outside the city walls facing large fields hedged by tall bushes and trees. An idyllic place.
A second lives inside the city walls with its bastion of red, salmon, grey-purple and pale golds. Each family holds a portfolio of 30-40 different patterns, closely held and passed on only to sons.
A silk thread – both warp and weft – is repeatedly tied along its length. Each tiny portion of that thread is dyed. When the skeins are woven, a pattern is formed which is identical on both sides of the material.
The silk is from China and is entirely processed by family members (boiled, ‘cut’, degummed of cocoon slime, spun into 8-ply, tie and dyed and woven). Men weave. The old photos showed women involved in some of the steps in the preparation of the silk thread.
A sari takes two men working at the loom one half year to weave. Only four to six saris are made a year. The weave is a plain weave, a name which belies the complexity and precision of the dyeing process.
The market now is entirely Indian and there are orders always pending. Prior to WWII and until the independence of India, this material was almost exclusively exported to the chiefs of Java, Sarawak and other places in modern Indonesia. There, while the patterns were extensively copied, the painstaking technique was not.
Vintage photographs showing Indonesian aristocracy wearing Indian potola
Sari prices range from $25,000 to more than $100,000 a piece. The most complex patterns are figural and consist of depictions of animals in a field of abstract and floral motifs representing the power and splendour of the pre-Independence rulers of India who were the clients of patola.
Chemical dyes were introduced one hundred years ago but, at the urging of purists, only natural dyes are now used: indigo, madder, cochineal imported from Mexico via the US, dried bark of pomegranate for yellow. Black is made by mixing all the dyes.
Patola saris are believed to have several inherent spiritual properties; and are popular as wedding dress.
The Calico Museum in Ahmedabad contains at least one example of double ikat shifted pattern where the pattern appears diagonally. Dazzling.
Silk plain weave, basket design. 1800’s or 1900’s, for export to Indonesia. Philadelphia Museum of Art