The sari, also sometimes spelt saree, is one of the most iconic pieces of clothing. One with a rich and textured history and a sentimental garment to me and many other women of South Asian heritage. My mother and grandmother both wore saris and, as with many Indian families, these were sometimes handed down. Passed on to future generations, Often to mark occasions of importance such as weddings or other milestones.
I grew up in the UK but I visited my grandmother in India often and it was she who taught me to sew. The first children’s dress I made was made from one of my mother’s old saris. That first piece of clothing sparked an idea that grew into my business, Pri Pri. A children’s clothing brand with all items handmade from beautiful but discarded saris saved from landfil. What I love most about my brand is the way in which the past is protecting the future. The future of our planet, through upcycling, as well as sparking a love of unique exquisite clothing in future generations. So I wanted to share the story of the sari. An item that is more than a piece of clothing. One that speaks of heritage, tradition, progression and connection.
This is the history of the sari.
The sari is thought to have originated in Northwest India, as far back as 2800-1800BC. Cultivated in the Indian subcontinent, cotton was the original material used for the sari and a weaving method was formulated to create the cloth. Later, dyes including indigo, lac, turmeric and red madder were used to colour the material.
Typically 4.5 to 9 metres in length, the cloth comes in one long piece and is designed to wrap across the body including around the waist and usually draped over the shoulder.
There are over 100 ways to drape a sari, making it a highly adaptable piece of clothing that lends itself to creativity. The most common style in the history of the sari, however, is the Nivi Style.
The word saree or sari itself is believed to have evolved from the word ‘Sattika’ meaning women’s attire and referring to a three-piece garment that included a lower skirt, a veil and a chest band. Mention of the Sattika can be found in Jain and Buddhist scripts traced back to the 6th Century BC.
Over time the sari developed from a reasonably simple cotton cloth into a far more intricate garment. With the arrival of other cultures and imports, gold threads and expensive stones became available to the wealthy who began to incorporate it into their saris. Later, synthetic and chemical dyes created more colour possibilities. Printing techniques were also discovered which led to patterns in the fabric including flowers, figures and motifs, making the saris more individual and interesting.
Although the sari was also traditionally worn in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the sari became a symbol of Indian culture. Drape styles are associated with particular regions of India, just as food and dialects are.
In the modern age, saris are made from cotton, silk, synthetic fibres and many other materials, including polyester. Though there is inevitably some ongoing debate over how far from traditional methods the garment gets before it is no longer a sari.
One thing that has undoubtedly led to the sari’s longevity is its versatility and the fact that it was worn by rich and poor women alike. Aside from the incorporation of more expensive threads and jewels, the sari transcended circumstance in the way that it become the garment of choice for women in many parts of South Asia, regardless of class or status. Furthermore, the sari is truly a one-size-fits all, which means each sari can be passed on to anyone. It also means that, unless damaged beyond repair, the sari can be worn over a lifetime regardless of changes in body shape.
Sari weaving still remains a big business in India particularly with an estimated 11 million people employed in the sector in 2016. Although saris made today often take on elements of western styles it remains a tradition to pass saris through the generations. In this way, the sari is representative of womanhood and the threads that weave us together through time. Passed down like stories from one generation to another.