The History of Brocade

Brocade is a weaving technique with a rich history and having strong traditions in India. It is done using a shuttle tool whereby the tool is manoeuvred across the warp of a pit loom to weave extra wefts onto a textile, thereby creating embossed patterns that look like, but are not actually, embroidery. Since the resulting pattern looks smoother and more opulent than embroidery, it is often done with gold and silk threads to give a luscious feel to the fabric, which is then traditionally used for making bridal apparel.

Bridal silk saree embellished with stunning Benarasi brocade

Brocade has been used around the world for centuries – the Mayans in Guatemala, the Byzantines in Greece and modern-day Turkey, and the Chinese were among the earlier adopters of the technique. As sericulture spread across Europe, brocaded fabric became one of the most luxurious and fashionable fabrics coveted for use in apparel and tapestries. The motifs brocaded on fabrics – damasks, paisleys, geometric patterns – all had their origins in India, China, and Persia.

Benarasi Brocade

Brocade in India has its longest and strongest traditions in Benaras and Kanchipuram. Benaras has been a global centre for trade, textile production, and weaving since the 17th century, at a time when silks, brocaded textiles, and other luxurious fabrics were in high demand in the Mughal courts, and at a time when trade and exchange with Central Asia were flourishing. As a result, many of the motifs used in Benarasi brocade can be traced back to Persian and Nagari texts, geometric Islamic patterns from Persia, and floral designs and animals typical of Persian and Ottoman art. Benarasi brocade weaves were popular export items in the 19th century and have continued to be till today. In 1851, Benarasi brocades woven on silks were displayed at the Great Exhibition in London; they are on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Benaras or “Varanasi” is also known as the holy city of “Kashi” on the banks of the River Ganges

Most brocade weavers of Benaras are from a Muslim community known as the Ansaris. Many of the weaver families, also known as “naqshabandha” or “designers,” are descendants of the first naqshabandha who moved to India from Persia in the mid-14th century during the reign of Mohammed Tughlak. The naqshabandha first draw the brocade patterns – also called “naqsha” – on paper. Then they prototype the naqshas using threads, creating a kind of graph or weaving instructions to make the brocade. Finally, the instructions are transferred onto the loom. Pit looms or “jala” looms were traditionally used for weaving Benarasi brocades. However, with modern improvements to the loom, few pit looms remain today. Jacquard cards are attached to looms to standardize and speed up weaving. And many weavers also use electricity-run powerlooms to churn out large quantities of brocaded fabric.

Rolls of fabric also known as “thaans” stacked outside a brocading workshop

Each weaver or naqshabandh requires the help of an apprentice to weave brocades. The apprentice’s job is to lift the jala or warp threads of the loom while the naqshabandh weaves the brocade pattern with the extra weft threads. Often the brocade weft is woven with “zari” or metallic thread; this can be real gold or silver (also known as “Asli Zari”) or “tested zari,” which has low silver content or which is entirely synthetic. The weavers and their respective apprentices refer to their workshops as “bunkers.” Today, in Benaras, multiple bunkers are managed by Master Weavers; they have consequently created concentrated weaving clusters or centres knows as “karkhanas.” The majority of brocade karkhanas are located in the Alaipura and Madanpura districts of Benaras. They both have unique and distinct weaving styles. While Madanpura craftsmen stick to traditional designs and conventional techniques, the weavers of Alaipura are fond of experimenting with new methods, materials, and motifs.

Metallic synthetic zari that is brocaded onto woven material

Besides Benaras, the Benarasi brocade is legally produced in only five other districts in Uttar Pradesh – Mirzapur, Chandauli, Bhadohi, Jaunpur, and Azamgarh – and nowhere else in the world. This is because several weavers’ associations of Uttar Pradesh, with the support of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), lobbied for and secured Geographical Indication (GI) rights for Benarasi brocade weavers and their specialized weaving techniques and designs. As a result, Benarasi weavers now have intellectual property rights over brocade weaving and the right to a livelihood and dignity, instead of sweatshop working conditions.

Sihasn’s Benarasi brocade fabric is from Benaras itself. The patterns are woven on durable, hydrophobic polyester fibre ideal for a slipcover as it can be washed and dried easily, and it requires minimal ironing. It doesn’t stretch or wrinkle and, hence, is an ideal maintenance-free fabric for humid climates.