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Making Period Costume From Saris. By Kay Inverarity ©2008
In the late 18th and nineteenth centuries Indian fabrics were commonly exported to the west. Some traditional Indian designs have a history that can be traced back to the Mughal Dynasty 1526-1716. The Mughals were Turkish Muslims the most famous of which is Shah Jahan (1627-58) who built the Taj Mahal. The Islamic influence of these designs can be seen in their stylized foliage and flowers. This means that Indian fabrics can be useful for achieving the right historic look when making period costume. For those serious about making quality period dress, many of the fancy brocaded fabrics available throughout history, are either so hideously expensive that they are not an option, or are no longer available because they are not economically viable. This poses a problem for the serious costumier working on a limited budget.
The most well known Indian garment is the sari, this consists of a length of fabric measuring from between four to six meters in length, with a fancy patterned end called the Palu for draping over the shoulder, and borders both top and bottom: some saris have an extra length of material attached for the blouse. Using Saris to make period dress can be an economic way of achieving a spectacular garment. The first period that springs to mind where saris give a historically accurate effect is the 1850s, when multi flounced skirts with woven borders were fashionable. If attempting one of these, two matching saris will give enough material for a three flounced skirt, you will need to mount the flounces on a matching underskirt. If only one sari is available you will need to combine it with a complimentary material. The 1850s is the most obvious period, but I have successfully used Sariís for gowns from the early 1800s, 1830s, 1860s and I am currently planning to use one combined with other materials for a late 1870s gown. Sari borders woven in traditional patterns can also be used as an embellishment on Medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan garments.
The first key to a convincing garment is to choose the right Sari. Saris come in many different styles, colours and materials. Personally I prefer to use ones made from either cotton or silk, however some viscose saris look sufficiently like silk to be useful. For a convincing look avoid the common polyester variety that is cheap and looks it. These have a surface sheen that looks too synthetic to be passed off as silk, also avoid saris decorated with bright gold or silver plated plastic trim. Indians love bright colours and many saris are too vivid to be effective, remember that until Perkins discovered how to make Mauve from coal tar in 1856 there were no chemical dyes. Prior to 1856, vegetable dyes were used, these gave colours that were not pure, they always had overtones, so chemical dyed hot pinks, oranges, and brilliant greens are not necessarily appropriate.
When purchasing a sari you should be aware that the top and bottom borders may not be the same size, one being woven more loosely than the other. Hand loomed Saris of some twenty years ago will have identical borders but modern machine made Saris often have the top border slightly elongated. This is something that needs to be taken into account when planning your design.
Sariís by their very nature impose difficulties in design and cut that require meticulous planning. The borders provide an opportunity for a unique garment (they can be used as a front panel, or to outline the edges of sleeves, drapes etc.) but you need to plan exactly how you will use them and ensure that you have enough material to achieve your design before cutting anything. Always have your pattern drafted up with allowances and try it on the sari, taking care that the pieces are on the correct grain before cutting. I often find that an open lay is the best way to fully utilize the available material. If you are new to this, cut left and right sided patterns and label them accordingly to avoid mistakes. Always start by ensuring that you have enough material to achieve your bodice, having done this you can then see how much material you have left over for the skirt and adapt it accordingly. You may find that your initial design may have to be modified to achieve your goal. Remember that in some cases undesirable motifs and borders can be hidden under drapes berthaís etc.
Some of these lays can be very complex, it is possible to get so involved in what you are doing that problems can be missed, so when you think you have it right, take a short break, have a cup of tea etc. and just stand back and take a fresh look at what you are doing. Only when you are absolutely sure that all is correct should you begin cutting.
Compared with the mental exertion necessary in the cutting and planning stage the actual assembly is relatively easy, however do be careful when pressing, if you are using man made materials, use a low heat, and test the iron on a scrap of fabric first. Some Saris are made of rayon that disintegrates if touched with a hot iron.
Most cotton and some silk and synthetic saris can be hand washed using a gentle detergent or wool mix, if you are uncertain, test an off-cut before laundering. If you plan to launder your garment be aware that the colour may run, salt can be added to the water to help set the dye and Colour Catcher sheets (available in supermarkets) can be used in the wash to catch stray dye before it damages other colours.
Using Saris for historic costume may appear daunting at first, but donít be discouraged have a go! The rewards are worth the effort, and you can be sure that when your garment is completed, yours will be a unique and spectacular creation.