Know Your Saree


There’s more to the versatile saree than meets the eye.

“What type of saree is this?” is a simple question that saree wearers are often asked, but the answer isn’t always so straightforward.

In general, saree is a length of fabric that ranges between five to nine yards (4.5 to eight metres). This length is wound, pleated and tucked in various types of drapes, depending on regional preference.

The most common style is the Nivi drape, which has pleats running down the length of the leg, tucked in at the midriff, and a sash that crosses the front of the body from the right hip to the left shoulder. With the Nivi drape, the mundhani (Tamil, or pallu in Hindi), which is often the more elaborate “head” of the saree, is either loosely draped over the shoulder or pleated up neatly.

The fabric can be anything from cotton to silk, or a mixture of both. These natural fibres are then woven into the length of a saree, either on a hand-operated pit loom (thus handloom sarees), or on a power loom, which is a mechanical loom operated by a weaver.

Synthetic fabrics are also popular, especially georgettes, crepes and chiffons, but it’s worth remembering that these sarees are always machine-made and mass-produced.

It is quite usual for the base fabric, whether natural or synthetic, to be embellished in some way; gold or silver thread work is the most recognisable form, although there are also many regional types of embroidery and weaving techniques that set sarees apart from one another.

Kanjivaram Silk Saree

Vintage Kanjivaram silk saree with peacock motifs.

The Kanchipuram region in south India produces what is arguably the most famous wedding saree in India. The Kanjivaram (“Kanji” refers to the region while “varam” is the Tamil word for boon; so “Kanjivaram” means “the gift from Kanchipuram”) saree is woven from mulberry silk and then embellished with gold thread that is known as jarugeh (Tamil, or zari in Hindi).

Traditionally, the gold thread that is used in these sarees is actual beaten gold filaments, although imitation jarugeh made from copper wire is all too common these days. An authentic bridal Kanjivaram saree can take a week or more to be woven, and the finished product can weigh in excess of 3kg, depending on the amount of pure gold jarugeh used.

While red and gold are considered auspicious colours, Kanjivaram sarees are available in a riot of shades and contrasts. The sarees are usually decorated with traditional thread work motifs such as elephants, peacocks and lotus flowers, among others.


Odisha Ikkat Saree

Odisha Bomkai cotton saree.

The East Indian state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) is home to a number of different types of Ikkat sarees. “Ikkat” is a term that comes from the Malay word “ikat”, which means “to tie”, and refers to a process where bundles of yarn are first tied with a dye-resistant wrapping, shaped in the intended end pattern. Then the entire bundle is dyed. This process can be repeated many times so that a single yarn can have multiple colours. The yarn is then carefully lined up on the loom and woven into the pre-planned pattern. This technique can be applied to both silk and cotton yarn.

A characteristic of Ikkat textiles is the feathering of the pattern, as it is near impossible to align tie-dyed yarn perfectly on the loom. Different regions within Odisha have their own types of Ikkat sarees, and these can be distinguished by the unique motifs, dyes or weaving techniques. Some of the more popular Odisha Ikkats include the Sambalpuri saree and the Bomkai saree.


Kerala Kasavu Saree

Gold thread work on a Kerala Kasavu saree.

In a wardrobe full of kaleidoscopic colours, the Kasavu saree stands out because of its sheer simplicity. The hallmark weave from the state of Kerala is proudly donned by Malayalee women during festivities and celebrations. Traditionally woven from unbleached white cotton and decorated with a gold border, the Kerala Kasavu is instantly recognisable in its most basic form. However, there are also more elaborate Kasavu sarees available, with additional gold thread work motifs on the body of the saree.

The white cotton base is also an ideal canvas for Kerala-style paintings, and this has become a popular trend in Kasavu sarees. Different regions within Kerala also produce slight variations of the basic Kasavu, with some adding a thin strip of colour along the gold border to mark its regional origin.


Bengal Tant Saree

Tant cotton saree with fish motifs.

“Tant” is the Bengali word for loom, and so Tant sarees are hand-loomed cotton sarees produced in west Bengal. The sarees are lightweight and easy to drape – the perfect everyday saree, which is what makes them such a popular workwear option. They come in a wide range of colours and designs, and the best way to describe them is “airy”.

There are different types of Tant sarees named for the different parts of west Bengal: Begumpuris have beautiful tribal-like striped patterns, while Dhonekhalis also can be stripy or checked with simple flora or fauna motifs on them; Phulia (or Fulia) sarees are woven from extremely fine cotton and have an almost downy quality to them.

Tant sarees only scratch the surface of handlooms that the state is known for, as west Bengal is also home to Tussar silks, Murshibad silks, Baluchari sarees, Khesh sarees as well as Kantha embroidery.

That’s what it comes down to – saree types are very area-specific as weaving techniques and embellishments are reflective of the local micro-culture. Some regions in India are famed for the weaver’s clusters, where entire villages are involved in nothing else but the manufacture of hand-loomed sarees. And while it would be impossible to make a definitive list of the “best” types of sarees, there’s no denying that all saree enthusiasts have their own favourites to drape and flaunt.

Related Articles

Oct 2017

The Saree Merchant

Ashok Kumar Poduval has been running Umayal Textiles on Lebuh Penang for over 30 years.

Jun 2014

Every artist has a story to tell

Lim Wei-Ling, founder and director of Wei-Ling Gallery, gives some practical advice on art collecting.

Jan 2012

Penang's maritime potential

Why hasn’t Penang been able to transform itself into a maritime hub?

Apr 2017

Suicides are a social ill

Our society is ill-equipped to understand and react to mental health disorders – sometimes at a great cost.