Among the things to miss about India for a lifetime of not being there is her textiles.
Here the rare, rich patola.
Detail of a silk plain weave patolu, basket design. 1800’s or 1900’s, for export to Indonesia. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Patola is a double silk ikat: both warp and weft threads are dyed and woven.
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 one of the three families who practice this art and craft in the state of Gujarat believe themselves to be in the 35th generation of its practice.
Patan is also the town where was built the spectacular Queen’s Stepwell (Ran-ki-Vav) in the 11th century ACE.
Shaped like an inverted temple, the site testifies to the sacred nature of water and the importance of the communal experience of what is sacred. 2010
Patola is still made by three families in Patan, Gujerat. Two carry the caste name, Salvi.
One lives in a pink-grey compound outside the city walls facing large fields hedged by tall bushes and trees. Intense quiet.
A second lives inside the city walls with its bastion of red, salmon, grey-blue and pale golds.
Through the bastion door
On a street in the town
Each family holds a portfolio of 30-40 different patterns; closely held and passed on only to sons.
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.
Patolu detail, Philadelphia Art Museum
A silk thread – both warp and weft – is repeatedly tied along its length with cotton. The area of the cotton thread remains undyed.
The dyeing process consists of tyeing, untying, retying and dyeing repeatedly in conformance with the pattern requirements.
The process of weaving is a very accurate positioning of warp and weft threads to obtain the pattern desired.
Two members of one of three families at the loom which always lies at a slant. The left side is aways lower than the right. 2010
Men weave. Old and new photos show women involved in some of the steps in the preparation of the silk thread.
Two members of the same family at the loom, 2010
A sari takes two men working at the loom one half year to weave. Only four to six saris are made a year by one family.
The loom is hand-operated and generally made of rosewood and bamboo sticks.
The weave is a plain weave.
The market now is entirely Indian and there are orders always pending.
This fabric was long exported, until the independence of India, to the chiefs of Java, Sarawak and other places in modern Indonesia. There, while the patterns were extensively copied, the painstaking technique was not.
Trousers with cotton waistband, c. 1900 exported to Java; one of several corresponding to the days of the week thought to have been worn by the sultan of Yogyakarta into the 20th century.
Collection and image of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sari prices today 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.
Detail of a sari. Philadelphia Art Museum
representing the power and splendor of the rulers of India prior to British rule. They were for generations the chief clients for 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.
A process so time-consuming and skilled almost inevitably transmits spiritual values to the object created.
Patola saris are believed to have several inherent spiritual properties; and are popular as wedding dress among the Hindu, Moslem and Jain populations, only the preferred motifs and patterning varying among them. One pattern is associated with Brahmins.
Silk plain weave, basket design. 1800’s or 1900’s, for export to Indonesia. Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Calico Museum in Ahmedabad contains at least one example of double ikat shifted pattern where the pattern appears diagonally.
An art and artisanal form almost beyond comprehension in its complexity.
And in the beauty of the fabric which is the expression of the tenacity and genius of its practitioners.