Textile revivalists Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan are deeply entrenched in the craft of pure zari work, with the aim to keep this centuries-old technique alive. They talk to Vogue about the intricacies that make it a true manifestation of luxury
India has a proud hand-weaving legacy, and till about a century ago, textiles woven in pure metallic yarns made of real gold and silver were intrinsic to this culture. A waning craft today, the possession of handlooms featuring pure zari work is the mark of a connoisseur. Its preservation is what Kolkata-based designers Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan are committed to with their label Swati & Sunaina.
Their designs are centred around introducing pure zari—made with 98.5 per cent silver and plated with 24-carat gold—to classic Benarasi saris. They work with some of the last remaining artisans who still weave by hand on jacquard looms, with the zari being created in the only remaining workshop in the world (in Benares) known to use pure gold and silver. The duo gives Vogue the ultimate masterclass in zari, delving deep into everything from its history to its weaving process.
Tell us about the history and origin of zari work. What makes it such a luxury?
The oldest reference for fabric made with gold is found in the Rig Veda from more than 3,000 years ago. Come to think about it, the use of metallic gold thread and yarns has been a distinguishing feature of historical textiles around the world. From European brocades and Iranian velvets to Chinese silks and Indian saris, its continuing relevance in contemporary times reflects an enduring human fascination with notions of purity, nobility and precious materials.
The idea of using precious metals is expressed in India through metallic yarn. Known as zari in many parts of the subcontinent, it was originally used in sacred symbolism and to hand-weave fabrics for aristocracy and the mercantile elite. It is one of the rarest and most fascinating weaving traditions from India, where molten silver is processed to become spools of silver threads, electroplated with gold, and then woven into a textile of silk or cotton. Such metallic yarns have also informed the artistry of handmade textiles in other parts of the world such as Europe, China and Japan.
Our label is based on the ideology of reviving and supporting the craft and craftsmen with purity of intent, materials and design. All the handloom saris are made on the pit looms of Benares with a technique that has been passed down for generations. The use of pure certified gold zari to weave saris with artistic mastery is the hallmark of our label that consciously chooses quality over quantity. All our saris come with a spindle of the zari yarn that was used in weaving it along with the name of the craftsman and a certificate of authenticity.
Tell us about the process behind zari work?
The process of zari making involves large chunks of silver being moulded into very fine yarn through various stages. It is hand-intensive, time-consuming, and requires constant supervision and control, along with skills that can only be developed over several decades.
Zari-making is an improvisational, artisanal process. We have worked with changing the shade of zari depending on the colour of the fabric. Adding almost 20 shades each of gold and silver are [made] possible by manipulating the plating process.
What fabrics does zari lend itself best to?
Zari weaving is best done on a silken yarn or very fine and high grade cotton yarn. Fabrics that can be made are pure silk by silk, satin by silk, satin by satin and muslin or cotton by silk.