Kanchipuram silk sarees are striking, especially ones with contrast borders. A couple of decades from now, the art of weaving contrast borders may be lost forever.
I recently read about silk sarees and Nalli. Here's a long silk thread taking us to Lyon, Surat and Chennai.🧵
Our story starts in 1911 when Nalli Chinnaswamy Chetti was a weaver under a master weaver in Kanchipuram. He was assigned the task of weaving a saree intended to be gifted to King George V, during his visit to India.
He came up with a rich weave called ‘Durbar Pet’ or ‘Coronation Border’. The unique feature of the saree is that when placed in a circular fashion, it resembles the Nation's parliament building. It can still be ordered by special request at Nalli.
Because this weave became famous, he started receiving lots of orders for sarees. He decided to set up his own shop. He set it up on 2 Chetty Street, which was on the main road in Kanchipuram. People would buy his sarees on their way to the temple and back.
He started expanding his sales to Madras. He would take the train to Mambalam station, take orders and deliver sarees to families in the area. In 1928, he set up a shop in a house next to Mambalam station. He didn't know that area would evolve to become T-Nagar and a bazaar.
Now, a little bit about the sarees themselves. Kanchipuram sarees are made from pure mulberry silk, locally sourced in Tamil Nadu. It is woven in 3 parts - the main body, pallu and the border.
The zari (made of gold and silver) used to be exclusively sourced from Lyon, France until 1921. At the time, a businessman in Surat got the help from Lyon to set up production in Surat. Following that, zari production has shifted to Surat and the Lyon supplier had to shut down.
Now, to a personal story. As a little girl, I had a pattu pavadai. A pattu pavadai is a long, luxurious silk skirt. I don't know why adults don't wear them. Everyone should wear pattu pavadais.
The best thing about the pattu pavadai was the color combination. It was a "mayil kazhuthu" or the color of a peacock's neck with a bright pink border.
As an adult, I wanted a saree just like my pattu pavadai. I went looking for a "mayil kazhuthu" colored saree with a pink border. I looked all over Chennai's silk saree shops and couldn't find one anywhere. There were many "mayil kazhuthu" sarees but with self borders.
Upon digging further, it turns out that in order to make a double color saree, you weave two colors in opposite directions. To make a contrast border, you need double the number of weavers. So, you need 4 weavers minimum to produce a contrast border saree.
This has made making contrast border sarees not financially feasible. It also takes special skills to weave the zig zag patter to connect the two different colors from the body and the border. The zig zag weave is so strong that even if the saree tears, the border won't detach.
Hence, you will hardly find contrast borders anymore. And in a couple of decades from now, the art of zig zag weaving will be gone.
As for me, I was able to find a copper sulphate blue saree with a bright pink border in a tiny saree shop in Chennai. I treasure it.
If you liked the story of Nalli and silk sarees in this thread, I am putting together a series called "Every Saree Has A Story" on Instagram: instagram.com/pepper.rasam/.
If you'd like to feature your own saree story there, let me know! Silk sarees - truly a treasure of mankind.
And here is the reference for this story.
I found a HBS interview with Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetti: hbs.edu/businesshistor….
Worth a read if you have the time.
Another Nalli anecdote. In the 50s, MS walked into Nalli with a single thread of a particular colour and
wanted a saree in that colour. Nalli mixed many dyes to invent a special saree in 'MS blue' which MS made popular by wearing on multiple occasions.
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