Jamdani was originally a dress material for women and men but nowadays it is mainly in the form of saris with a great variety of designs with geometrical motifs made on simple frame-or pit-looms. The saris are woven with a silk warp and a cotton weft. The extra weft inlaid pattern is worked with a single cotton thread and after weaving the motif the thread is not cut but carried on to the next motif. A paper pattern is kept beneath during the weaving process and when the weft thread approaches the area where a flower or other figure has to be inserted a set of bamboo needles is taken and different coloured yarns are wound around each design. As every weft or woof thread passes through the warp, the weaver sews down the intersected portion of the pattern with any of the needles and the pattern is completed. When the pattern is continuous as in a border, the master weaver does not use a paper pattern. Two weavers weave the jamdani sari. Traditionally jamdanis are in white with designs in bleached white. However, lightly dyed backgrounds with designs in white, maroon, black, green, gold, and silver are now; muga silk of a golden colour is also seen. There is a key difference in the weaving technique of extra weft designing between jamdanis and tangails; the embroidery thread in jamdani is inserted after every ground pick whereas in tangails the embroidery thread is inserted after two ground picks. The weaving of tangails is no longer done in a traditional manner. The main characteristic of tangails is the extra weft butis, tiny motifs repeated all over the ground.
The main cotton weaving centers are Shantipur, Dhaniakhal, Begampur, and Farasdanga. These centers are involved in the weaving of fine-textured saris and dhotis for men. Atpur in Hooghly district is well-known for coarser saris and dhotis, used for everyday wear. At Shantipur, fine textured saris and a uniform weave of 100-112 counts in the warp and the weft are done. The upper and lower borders are decorated with extra warp designs of twisted yarn; if in addition an extra weft yarn of one or two colours are used then the solid effect created is called as mina-kaj or enamel work. When the decorations look the same on both sides of the cloth they are called do-rookha or double sided designs.
The saris of Shantipur have dyed cotton-silk, art-silk, viscose yarns, and gold and silver zaris for the borders. The background of the saris has fine and delicate checks, stripes, or a texture created by coloured threads or the combined used of fine and thicker counts of yarn. The anchala or pallava or pallu of the sari hangs from the shoulder and has butis or jamdani designs in an extra weft beautifully arranged along with stripes of many different types and widths. Some tie and dye designs are also being used for the anchalas of Shantipur saris.
Traditional Shantipur sari borders or paars have names like bhomra or bumble bee, tabij or amulet, rajmahal or royal palace, ardha chandra or half moon, chandmala or garland of moons, ansh or fish scale, hathi or elephant, ratan chokh or gem eyed, benki or spiral, tara or star, and phool or flower. The well known Nilamabari sari is of a deep navy-blue colour like the sky on a new moon night; the borders have silver zari-like the stars and the pallu is decorated with stripes of different thickness, called sajanshoi, in colours complementary to the border. There is a rich tradition in Bengal of weaving richly patterned cotton saris with heavy borders which contrasts with a finely textured body.
Dhaniakhali in Hooghly district was once famous for superfine dhotis but due to failing demand, has switched over to saris in pastel shades. Farasdanga in the same district continues to make fine dhotis, perhaps the finest in Bengal. Begampur also in Hooghly district specialises in loosely woven, light-weight and translucent saris. In contrast to the Dhaniakhali saris, the saris of Begumpur have deep and bright colours.
In the districts of West Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Maldah, and Cooch Behar in north Bengal, there is a rich tradition of weaving handloom cotton textiles among the tribal and semi-tribal people. Rajbanshis weave saris with very attractive designs of checks and stripes on simple pit-looms. The sarongs of the Polia women are made by joining together two very compact strips woven on simple primitive looms made of short pieces of bamboo stick and a narrow strip of wood about 3 cm wide and 60 cm long. The tribals of West Dinajpur make beautifully patterned, multicoloured, narrow jute carpets on similar looms. These dhokras are joined together and used as sleeping mats or blankets.
Silk weaving in Bengal has existed from the ancient times as mentioned in the Arthashastra, a treatise on economics by Kautilya; kausheya vastra or wild silk or tussar weaving is still carried out by the weavers of Bankura, Purulia, and Birbhum districts. The cultivation of mulberry silk and its weaving is carried out in the plains of West Bengal. The district of Maldah on the north bank of the Ganga is today the most important centre for silk rearing in West Bengal. The other districts where silk yarn is made are Murshidabad, Birbhum, Bankura, and Purulia districts.
Baluchar silks were originally used by nawabs and Muslim aristocrats of the Murshidabad district as tapestry material; however Hindu noblemen used the raw silk Baluchar as saris in which the ground scheme of decoration is a very wide pallu with a panel of mango or paisley motifs at the centre surrounded by smaller rectangles depicting different scenes. The sari borders were narrow with floral and foliage motifs and the ground of the sari was covered with small paisley and other floral designs in restrained but bright colour schemes. Another familiar motif for the body of the sari was diagonal butis; today similar saris are being woven at Murshidabad and Varanasi which have smaller anchalas according to contemporary tastes. The traditional jala technique is used for this.
The interesting feature of Baluchar saris was the combination of stylised animal and bird motifs incorporated in floral and paisley decorations. The other motifs used are hunters on horses, elephants, and scenes from nawab’s court; there were also depictions of the sahibs and the memsahibs of the British era. The advent of railways and steamboats were also depicted as motifs on the Baluchar saris. The silk yarn used for Baluchar saris was not twisted and so had a soft and heavy texture. The ground colours were limited but permanent in nature and are fresh after so many years. Before modern chemical dyes became common, indigenous vegetable dyes were used to dye both silk and cotton yarn.
Murshidabad is also known for its cowdial saris made of fine mulberry silk with flat, deep- red or maroon borders made with three shuttles. The borders are topped with fine serrated design in gold zari and a few fine lines in gold on the ground of the sari close to the borders. The fine gold lines are supposed to represent the fine trail left on its path by a live cowrie mollusc, thus giving the name, cowdial. Murshidabad silks are popular for hand-printed designs and other materials which are also printed with wooden blocks. The main textile hand-printing centres in West Bengal are in Calcutta and Srirampur in the Hooghly district.
Vishnupur in Bankura district also has a tradition of silk sari weaving. The old Vishnupur saris have a lot of similarity with the kataki designs of Odisha. In the districts of Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia, Murshidabad, and Maldah the weavers make plain silk fabrics in rich and varied textures. Tussar and mulberry silk are used by the weavers.
Traditional jamdani saris with geometrical designs and cotton tangails are very popular and continue to be woven by weavers originally from Bangladesh. Being light they are excellent for everyday wear in a tropical country like India and come in pastel colours. There are weavers producing medium quality saris in Birbhum district. Another sari is the Shantipuri, mostly produced on pit-looms.
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