Jamdani is a Persian term for the extremely fine hand woven figured muslins made in Bengal. Thicker cotton threads laid individually into the weft produce the illusion of a suspended pattern on the surface of an almost transparent cloth. Intricate color motives seem to float on the cloth. Jamdani is generally thought to have derived from jam-daar, a Persian weaving term for floral art in cotton thread. But there are other possible sources, including jama, the Bengali word for dress.
The system of production, from dyeing thread to setting up the loom, is determined by the length of jamdani’s most marketable end-product, a sari. Looms are set up with warps eleven meters long, each warp yielding two saris, 5.5 meters in length. The patterns in these two saris will not be repeated again by the weaver.
Producing jamdani is very labor intensive with specialties divided amongst workers by religion, village and especially gender. Pit looms are still used and the original throw shuttle has been replaced by a more mechanical technique using a fly shuttle, which is faster and more efficient, but still depends upon the hand for guidance. The best quality jamdani is produced from locally grown fine cotton and is always woven during the monsoon season when the humid air prevents the fine threads from becoming brittle and breaking. Traditionally the plain weave background was white, off-white or grey, though today, colors are chosen from a vibrant array.
In fall of 2001, Christina Kim, founder of the clothing and accessories line dosa, attended a handloom fair in Ahmedabad, India where she was inspired by the transparency and unusual mix of colors and bold patterns of jamdani fabrics. Working within the eleven-meter format and tied to the idiosyncrasies of the individual weaver, Kim began to use jamdani in her designs for dosa.
Since 2003 she has used 11,000 meters of jamdani. The cloth is shipped to Los Angeles (the headquarters of dosa), where it is cut and sewn into garments. Remnants from this clothing production have been collected from the cutting room to make shopping bags, and since 2007 are inventoried, catalogued, and sorted by size and color to make new running yardage. The scraps for the new fabrics are reassembled in Gujarat, India. The larger remnants of plain, pattern-less jamdani are joined to make a four-meter base cloth onto which smaller, patterned scraps are positioned and basted into place. A new design is hand drawn in pencil on the fabric and then cut with scissors. The edges are turned under and hand stitched so that the base cloth is revealed. Hand appliqué adds yet another layer of texture to the patchwork cloth. Representing ideas of sustainability, longevity, and preciousness, Christine Kim’s jamdanis give new life to pieces of cloth.
[Based on “The Life of Jamdani” by Christina Kim, May 12, 2008]
Matilda McQuaid is Head of Textiles and Deputy Curatorial Director at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.