Stitching of Sari
is a harmless
& inclusive choice

Stitching of Sari is a harmless and inclusive choice

June 16, 2021

Sari or saree, in modern or adapted Nivi style refers to a piece of long drape that is worn over a petticoat or an under-skirt with a blouse. During the colonial period of Indian history, dresses such as sari were seen as "immodest", compelling Indian female clothing to adapt to new moral sensibilities in society. In order to maintain a distinct Indian identity, while also to fit in to the colonial-era society in which modesty was paramount, Jnanadanandini Devi, sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, crafted the Nivi drape and borrowed their concept of blouse and petticoat. In an urban setting, Nivi style remains the most adopted version from a diverse lineage of saris across Indian sub continent.

(Source: internet)

Mora stitches saris. Why?

Saris are generally considered to be an unstitched garment. And, without a doubt, have been changing extensively from their original form. They have even accommodated the colonial inclusion of blouse and petticoat to the original idea of being a blouse-less garment, tied into hundreds of ways according to the lifestyle demand of a community.

To me, sari is a celebration of weaving craft. Not the rigid worship of the style itself. Each sari represents the weaving prowess emerging from a geography. Thus, Mora has taken inspiration from the wide canvas of saris to collage textiles that otherwise cannot be woven on the same loom, and thereby can come together only by mindful intervention of stitching.

Through this approach, we have been able to bridge, to some extent, a divide that had existed with respect to concepts around “what is a sari”. Saris, in this new avataar involving stitching, re-direct the potential of this medium of expression. It is an innovation that is harmless, inclusive, celebratory and conscious.

For example, with some indigenous looms like back strap looms, a weaver cannot weave more than 20-22 inches width with maximum length of about 4 metres. The dimensions achievable on this ancient loom do not qualify the requirement of a sari. Similarly, delicate yarns like Pashmina or Eri silk shift their texture dramatically when woven on different looms apart from what they are being traditionally woven on.

Since I believe in design solutions that retain the traditional textile values which have become inherently attached to a community, I took this “limitation as my key motivation” to design saris that are stitched to creatively contextualise those weaves into a sari form that were otherwise always ruled out.

I. Saris as a medium for Ethnography through Design

An intuitional attempt has successfully given birth to this new kind of sari, not only inspired towards an aesthetic solution but also became a key documentation solution for bringing together traditional weaves in their most original sensibility. The weaves of indigenous speak their story through the large canvas of the saris.

One can now talk of a “sari made with weaves of back strap loom”.

One can also now find a sari that has weaves from Assam effortlessly adjusting to the hand-spun yak wool of Ladakh.

Ancient weaves of Idu Mishmi and Wancho, from the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh have also made a gentle appearance in a sari.

Dimasa, Bodo, Ahom, Idu, Adi can come together in a single textile, each representing their own indigenous heritage.

Now, these have been made possible. And they have resonated beyond mere acceptance. Not only from the patrons of Mora but also from the makers.

By a careful visualisation of a Sari that includes a stiff, sturdy weave of back strap looms, which thus far have been carelessly interpreted only as upholstery or home decor usage, I attempt to offer a genuine and heartfelt tribute to these ancient pre historic looms. When a careful execution can contextualise them to wearable art then I see no point in neglecting back strap looms from their creative context and limiting them down to only production of cushion covers and bags.

Similarly, home reared, hand spun, tapestry loom woven, Changpa yak wool textile could only make it to your lives so far as carpet, rug or at-most a decor or bag accessory. By adapting it to a Mora sari or a shawl suited to urban context, one is able to enjoy a textile in wearable form that thus far has remained away from reach of creative execution or diverse usage.

In these 12 years, I have engaged with the artisan communities to understand with deeper clarity what constitutes as cultural appropriation of their indigenous skill. Learning from these notes, I have offered careful representation of their ancient heritage, along with re-telling of their cultural context, keeping in mind to avoid those textiles that are considered “sensitive to sentiment”. There is a clear distinction between "entitlement traditional textiles" and general traditional textiles with Indigenous motifs.

In the toddler years of Mora, I knew very little about the sensitivity of this subject but learning through their patterns of understanding and keeping my loyalty with them has brought me the gift of trust from them. The more I understand them, the more clearly I see how to represent them through their textiles. And to my heart, Saris and Shawls provide that respectable canvas that can both be wearable and frameable art.

As the years become more than a decade, I have experienced that Mora’s stitched saris are a solution that has been celebrated by so many of you! And as one of our dear buyer, has often mentioned, “it is not that we were not exposed to the textiles that you work with. We knew about some of them before Mora. But the way Mora is able to represent them with a new context while still celebrating them individually is what draws us to Mora.”

Another buyer mentioned that when she wears such a sari that brings together weaves of North East India and other Himalayan regions along with traditional weaves of mainland India, she feels goosebumps of cultural inclusion. A harmonious assimilation.

Another buyer sent me a voice message taking names of all the different tribes she has learnt about by observing the stories mora expressed through the weaves. 

Art is capable of forming a bridge of familiarity between those who may have had nothing in common. The names that we would have never heard. The sights we would have not been draw to. The words that would have never come out of our mouth, had there be no creative and appropriate context through art.

II. Saris visualised to accommodate textile waste: Conscience Decision

In 2009, when I was acquainting myself with textiles across the country, I realised how much textile waste is created as “damaged or injured” saris. While the endeavour of the handloom industry is to support the weavers and the traditional weaves, one has to make rather very small human errors in the weaves for them to be discarded as damaged. This bothered me very much.

So, the beginning of Mora was based on the decision of creating a design solution that can accommodate any shape and size of textiles, that would otherwise make it to waste hills. This decision gave me the confidence that the purpose of textile waste management is an essential aspect of Mora design. I needed to not only look at waste with different eyes in our own workshop, but create a prototype that can enable others to look at it differently too, beyond rugs and mats and other small accessories. This gave birth to Saris that are stitched! Over, few months, dupattas stoles and shawls started to emerge too and Mora was born.

A constant has been kept alive where the workshop is handled by my dear mother, who has given tangibility to this vision. She meticulously manages and segregates each smallest piece of fabric scrap that appears in the process of stitching and those become our gold mine!

We have also enabled purchases from weavers across the country of many injured and damaged saris at an equivalent price to its “good” counterpart. These purchases make my heart glow where the weaver is released from the worry of sale of products they find hard to sell. This step may not yield “great impact”, but it is my way of expressing that a small change in the way we look at textiles can accommodate inclusiveness for all that we must begin to start looking at. This is my way to express how marginalisation, discrimination, inclusion, exclusion, resource management, wastefulness works at a larger scale.


Challenges of stitching saris: How do we make?

With no example to emulate, we had to pioneer from scratch a thinking style which later translated into a craft style. Arriving at the current version of stitched saris has been a long learning curve. We took each feedback that came our way as our tools of improving the drape, weight, textures, and aesthetics.

How to keep the sari as a sari?

How to keep the indigenous weaves in their original essence?

How to merge various density of weaves and forms with each other?

How to make stitch hold itself so that stitch outlasts even the fabric: steadfast stitching?

What kind of stitch suits what kind of design?

Where do we need to highlight the stitch? Where do we need to hide the stitch?

How does one even stitch seamlessly those textiles that have nothing in common, eg, combining backstrap loom weaves with delicate and light Eri silk?

How to bring together mainland Indian traditional craft of Kalamkari, Kanchipuram or Ikat with ancient weaving and yarn making skills of hills and mountain communities?

How to train tailors?

How to make my mother, the stitching supervisor of all mora to see through my heart and mind in these designs?

How do we derive a common vocabulary without any formal training and common language?

How do we convince the audience this is possible, this is wearable, this is viable?

How do we express the intricacy of these saris through an online medium of interaction, considering Mora began its journey in 2009 as an online platform and continues to be so?

How do we convince the new audience of a concept that these saris are a means to document the indigenous heritage and techniques that perhaps wont withstand changes of modern life?

What should be the variations of patchwork sizes?

How to create and break symmetry?

How to learn to collaborate between tailor- the doer, technical head- the bridge and creative- the visualiser? How to make intuition and technique marry into longevity?

While weaving remains an important aspect of Mora, it is in these questions where Mora found her essence. It is this very essence that has come to me in the form of curiosity from our many buyers who wished to understand the process and journey of how we arrived at the construction of these Saris. The design of these Saris essentially speaks through in the Construction, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. The aesthetics, as I always say were always a hidden bonus that revealed itself as the design unfolded. The foundation was knowing what I like and what I do not like. And knowing that what I like today, I may not like tomorrow.

How to bring in timelessness in design? How to out grow pressure from fashion staples and norms? How not to be mistaken with fashion?

How to absorb criticism towards anything new? How to keep faith that even if it does not work out in the end, it was at least tried?

How to continue to keep the focus on improving the required techniques of stitching rather than justify statements that offer disbelief in this concept?

This decade long experience has powered my heart with the confidence that this is indeed an idea that no one really needs to fuss about it being “stitched”. It is indeed continually proving itself as a viable innovation that involves another important tier of handcraft- stitching. Mora has been exploring both indigenous ways of needle stitching as well as has continued exploration through home sewing devices. While my heart is set on retention of love for weaving, my mind compels me to support “tailoring” as a dying craft. And this marriage of heart and mind keeps the cycle of stitched and woven saris going stronger each year.


Hand stitching in Mora

Most ancient looms work with the limitation of width achievable on the narrow looms. To use this limitation to their advantage, indigenous communities devised hand-stitching techniques that are both functional and durable and at the same time aesthetically powerful. To join narrow panels of their textiles into wide textiles, they use primarily 3-4 key stitches or joineries made using needle and porcupine spikes. These same stitches are used in various threads counts to create a diversity. In the olden days, when metal needles were either not available or were a highly priced possession, these communities crafted needles out of bamboo.

This reminds me of an interesting encounter with Lisu tribe from Arunachal Pradesh and their relationship with needle.

I was doing research on Lisu Hemp and came across some old hand stitched garments. Seeing hand sewn clothes led to deeper curiosity of their past.

How did they hand sew their garments back in the day when sewing tools were rare and hard to get?

Lisus used to walk many days, sometimes 15 to 21 days to reach the nearest town to buy salt and other basic necessities that cannot be locally produced. One of the priced articles to buy on such trips was a metal needle. This was their sturdier, more efficient alternative to the fine bamboo sticks used for sewing. Needles were rare for a tribal living many miles in the jungles, usually weeks of walk away. By the time the needle would reach a family, it held much value. The person who carried these needles took meticulous care in bringing them to Sidhikha (New name, Gandhigram) by either folding in layers of clothes or tying around neck.

For a woman it was as valuable as gold and a woman always secured the needle with her priced possessions like jewellery and other heirlooms. One needle would be shared among many families, but belonged to the one who secured it.

Now when these same women see sewing machines in people's homes that is easy to get and faster to sew, they can’t help but wonder about their own life! Was it romantic or was it a struggle is a constant dilemma that's observed in their curiousity of these tools. Most often, you hear from the women, "those were difficult days, now its good, things are easier to get and work is faster to do. Its more convenient"

I often question the older lot about what they prefer- skills of tradition or convenience that comes with modern tools? The answer is almost always universal- They give constant account of difficult days with too much work since the process is tedious and time consuming. Their narrative on modern life solutions is that fast mechanised synthetic weaves are easier to make. "We don't have to make our own yarn and the yarn doesn't not keep breaking. Synthetic is good elastic". The older generations clearly prefer aesthetics of the past and do not much care for bright colours and metallic finish yarns. Though the younger ones prefer bright colours and synthetic yarn as it is easier to maintain, older people do tend to reminiscence about how skilled the weavers used to be and it is not good that the traditional skills are now going away. They are also always asking ways to keep the tradition alive but find a solution that could reduce the labour intensive levels of it. Sometimes hand stitch, sometimes sewing machine is good, they say!

Mora has encouraged and retained the continuation of hand stitching skills and has creatively highlighted them through design intervention. You will observe many textiles with Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh’s indigenous hand stitching in Mora 2021. My mother has also been encouraging me to attempt same stitches in Punjab and take some of her techniques to Nagaland. While this exchange is yet to happen, she hand stitched one complete shawl herself as her offering to this collection. Because her eyes are weak, she took about two months to finish it slowly though the result is beautiful. It is Mora’s first completely hand stitched shawl made with Ahimsa Eri silk and Thebvo.


Steadfast Stitching with home sewing machines

I spoke to my family that about making a complete shift from sewing machine to hand stitched a few years back. Upon much back and forth of ideas, we immediately confronted the idea with conscience decision making.

Do we have to be completely “hand stitched”?

Do we support home sewing machine craft?

I grew up in a house where my mothers and aunts indulged in both hand stitching and machine stitching the textiles at home, while also doing many variations of embroideries and stitches to keep mending the clothes that needed repair. To retain the flavour of my childhood, and to honour the choices my mother made growing up in her joint family, I decided to retain the crafts that sustained her life in the setting of 1960’s to 1990’s of rural Punjab. I am born in this period and I have witnessed the simultaneous existence of both crafts. Since Mora is proudly home-made, it made sense to bring my home into it.

Beyond this, there is a deeper reason from the conscience. During one of our conversations with Gurmel Singh, Mora’s only tailor, he mentioned how it is becoming increasingly difficult for master tailors to survive. With cheaper option of clothing readily available, he sees tailoring  as a dying craft. As there are less and less people looking for tailors, there is also growing lack of motivation in the youth to learn tailoring. He comes from a generation of tailors in the family and he thinks it is great loss to the sentiment of craft if stitching is abandoned.

I feel home sewing machine stitching is the best bridge between completely hand crafted by hand stitching and a completely commercially produced industrial stitching products. When I observe Gurmel stitching, I always find it tilting more towards hand craft than machine craft. Tailor is the extension of a sewing machine. Each stitch reflects his attention, reflexes and training. Since, Mora has chosen more dearly a two dimensional canvas, we need to immerse even more deeply in our stitching skills to bring celebration to a simple form.

How steadfast is the stitch?

Will it hold the gravity and tension?

How straight is the line of stitch? How many waves?

How many overlaps and slips in the stitch?

Is the colour of thread in sync with the stitch? In a patchwork, how many times the colour of thread is changed?

How pointed are the corners?

How aligned are the stripes?

What would be the most secure way to bind two textiles together?

How well do the textiles of different density and weight bind together? Are there bulging stitches? Or are they all well settled? How well are they interacting with gravity?

When I learn a whole new graph of interaction with this craft, then I find myself creating a good balance of life. Being enthusiastic and sincere while not pursuing perfection and “purist” exclusion in my design culture.

Often I talk to Gurmel why the hand woven textiles don't remain straight, why are the selvages wavy, why sometimes the beginning and the end may not match in width. He doesn't like handwoven because it is never super straight. To his geometry its a nightmare! But he has started to enjoy these challenges over time and says that, "these fabrics must have been made with a lot of effort in faraway places. People must have worked hard to make them. You work very hard to bring them here, so I should put my best effort too."

stitching sari

Mora’s Lifetime Loyalty: Empowerment

Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations.” Maya Angelou

It is from this space of Trust where we have “left little to chance” and done our best in “potency and nature”, where we have sown seeds sincerely and have not tried to rush them through, that I offer Mora’s Lifetime Loyalty to all our buyers.

This entitles Mora buyer who wishes to enjoy a long journey with their mora to approach us for any manufacturing, workmanship or material defects that may have occurred. Even though we have done our best steadfast stitching, if down the years, any of the stitches rip off, beads fall off, zippers give away, tassels wear off, Mora assures you of a lifetime of loyalty. Mora has enthusiastically repaired, reworked any making errors related to stitching, beadwork, tassels and zippers that appeared over these years and will continue to do so.

My heart says, as along as Mora sustains, your Mora will be looked after. And your care for your mora will be protected.

*Our lifetime loyalty makes sure all materials and workmanship stand up to normal wear and tear. But can not include cosmetic or accidental defects or defects appearing out of excessive wear and tear. However, I would encourage you to connect with me for suggestions on re-purposing or other possible solutions.

The Empowerment of Mora’s Lifetime Loyalty is a step towards Empowerment of shared responsibility.

Mora buyers may feel free to send to me their mora textiles after they have lost relevance.  As long as Mora sustains, you are assured of healthy disposal or re-purposing of your Mora. Accepting that these textiles no matter how sturdy, how well stitched, how meticulously made may be, they are  impermanent. Rather than adding them to textile waste, I would like to share the responsibility of re-purposing them to another life or season. As a maker, I feel it is my responsibility to hand hold you in the right disposal/ forwarding of the textile. As a buyer, when you make that effort to send me back a mora you will not use further, a conscious chain of reciprocity takes birth. We are then tied in a lifetime of healthy relationship with how we make and how we use Mora.

What footprints we collectively leave with Mora on this beautiful earth?

The concept of stitching has since the beginning of civilisations helped humans to add longevity to dying textiles, and mend those that can be repaired. As my deepest offering to earth, I will continue to stitch, bind, mend, repair textiles and give them new relevance and fresh lease of life!

I will keep this intention glowing by continuing to make Saris that are stitched.

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