Growing up, my mom would tell me a lot about Jamdani sarees. She would tell me how important they were to Bangladeshis and how intricate the process was. She filled her closet with this woven garment that to me was nothing more than fluffy, stiff, and unglamorous. I never truly understood the magic until more recently, when I began to appreciate the incredible craft of handwoven fabrics.Jamdani is the hidden gem of Bangladesh. It’s a handloom weave, meaning it’s hand-woven on a loom without the use of power. It’s a delicate, breathable fabric made typically from cotton that has identifiable geometric and floral motifs woven in as the larger fabric is also being woven. To create Jamdani fabric it requires skill, precision, and tremendous patience as one yard of fabric could take months to create. It’s touted as the most time and labor-intensive hand weaving technique in the world and was declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity nearly a decade ago.
Skilled artisan working on a beautifully designed Jamdani without the help of any sketches, plates or guides. Credit: Courtesy
The history of Jamdani can be traced back to the 9th century when Bengal (then a part of India) began weaving cotton fabrics, known as the Dhaka muslin. This fabric was so sheer and delicate that it was referred to as ‘woven air’, and is still known as the finest cloth ever woven by human hand. During the Mughal era (1526-1707), this fine muslin was adorned with motifs and colors through discontinuous weaving, turning it into the pattern-rich Jamdani we know today.
This craft originated from a small rural village called Narayanganj near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Along with supplementary industries like yarn dying and spinning, Jamdani production has remained with Narayanganj locals for generations and passed on from parent to child to carry on the mastery. It takes a minimum of 10 years for an apprentice to gain the skills necessary to be acknowledged as a weaver. Many artisans have looms right in their homes and turn their living areas into showrooms for buyers.
Two young weavers work together on an intricately designed Jamdani saree. Credit: Courtesy
Handloom weaving, in general, is a fascinating art to witness. I had the chance to visit several Jamdani artisans during my travels in February and the part that struck me as magic was that there were no drawings, blocks, or plates to help guide the motifs – it is simply from memory. The skill and precision required to weave these patterns without error or misalignment is the most remarkable part of it all. This makes the Jamdani weaver the designer as well, as they are the creative eye adorning otherwise plain yards of fabric.
The process begins with high quality yarn that is hand spun by neighboring shops, that are either white or hand dyed. The yarn – traditionally cotton - is then transferred onto the loom for the base fabric. A natural starch, like rice starch, is applied to give the yarn strength to withstand the stress of the weaving process. As the artisan weaves the base fabric, the motifs are also introduced at the same time using colored, gold, or silver threads. A weaver can have a thread count to 300, however, a high-quality garment is typically around 84-100 thread count. On a usual day, an artisan may only produce an inch of fabric, depending on the intricacy of the motif designs and thread count. Those Jamdani sarees in my mom’s closet took anywhere from a couple months to 3 years to make – talk about labor-intensive! Best of all, it's completely environmentally sustainable.
Hand dyed yarns being dried before going onto the Jamdani looms. Credit: Courtesy
Despite the long-standing history, the craft of Jamdani may face a threatened future as artisans look to more lucrative industries for work. Where Bangladesh once had a couple million weavers, it’s now dwindled to a few thousand. Lack of infrastructure and socioeconomic development play a major role as well as the apparent gap between international designers and local artisans. This missing link makes it difficult to modernize and appeal to the tastes and preferences of a global audience. Fortunately, in recent years, the Government of Bangladesh has made significant investments to improve the livelihood and living conditions of artisans, while also promoting the craft widely to encourage a new sense of revival for the next generation of weavers.
Though the Jamdani handloom won’t show up in Chaa Latte’s first collection, it will surely be a part of a future one. My visit to Narayanganj was by far the most fascinating and humbling experience of the trip. There is incredible talent buried within the walls of this village and I can’t wait to play a small part in bringing it to the other side of the world.