views updated May 23 2018


BROCADE Brocade is fabric with a woven pattern that is purely decorative and independent of the structure of the cloth. The brocade weaving technique is also defined as loom embroidery. Brocade patterned fabrics can be made using any fiber, such as cotton ( jamdani) or wool (for shawls), but the term generally refers to the richly patterned fabrics woven in silk, together with decorative gold or silver threads.


Sanskrit terms like hiranya drapi (golden drape), hiranya chandataka (golden skirt), or hiranya pesas (gold embroidered) are first mentioned in sacred ancient Indian sources as ancient as the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. Those are the earliest references to Indian gold brocade garments, either woven or embroidered with gold. Other terms are mentioned in ancient Indian literature referring to silk fabrics: kausheya, kitsutram, pattasutra, or patron. Gold and silver brocades, referred to as kinkhab or kamkhwab in later periods, may be related to the ancient fabrics like debag or stavaraka, described as rich material of Persian origin, woven with gold and silver, to be used by gods and kings. Traditional Indian dress, such as the sari, dupatta (veil), sash, dhoti (men's lower garment), and turban, had exquisite brocade borders and end pieces (pallu). These were usually woven with silk and gold and silver threads (zari) while the remaining ground (which usually remained in folds when worn) was woven with fine cotton or silk. The style was perfect for India's climate. Heavier material with brocade work throughout was used mostly for home furnishings and stitched garments like coats, jackets, and trousers.

Brocade weaving centers developed in the capitals of ancient kingdoms, holy cities, and the trade centers. The raw material used in weaving silk brocades were costly, and the weavers had to depend on royal patrons to either provide the raw material or finance its purchase. Some of the best silk weaving centers were in Gujarat (Ahmedabad, Surat, and Patan), central India (Chanderi and Burhanpur), Maharashtra (Paithan, Aurangabad, and Yeola), South India (Kanchi, Tanjore, Arcot, and Trichinapally), North India (Agra, Jalalpur, Mau, Mubarakpur, Azamgarh, and Varanasi), Bengal (Murshidabad), and Assam. Banaras (Varanasi), which today is India's leading brocade weaving center, has been known for its fine cotton weaving since ancient times. Silk brocade weaving in Varanasi probably began in the mid- or late seventeenth century. Fabrics made here were used only for royal dress, palace furnishings, as gifts to political envoys, or as robes of honor for meritorious courtiers. Most ancient Indian dynasties supported weavers who created fabrics of the highest quality. The royal workshops established by the Mughals at Agra, Lahore, Delhi, and Ahmedabad had the greatest influence on the craft. Fabrics made here were used only for royal dress, palace furnishings, as gifts to political envoys, or as robes of honor for meritorious courtiers. In addition to Indian weavers, these workshops employed the best weavers from Persia, Central Asia, and Turkey. Persian brocades, renowned for their quality and beauty, clearly influenced Mughal brocades. The international fusion of design and technique resulted in some of the finest examples of Indian brocades, and its effect can be seen in later Indian brocades, including those of the present day.

Materials and Techniques

Indian varieties of silk, known as tassar, eri, and muga, are grown in the jungles of Assam, Upper Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Compared to Chinese silk, Indian silk is rougher, less lustrous, and has shorter fibers; it was referred to as wild silk. Muga, the costliest and the best, is usually used in its original color, cream or golden. The most commonly used Indian silk is tassar. Fine mulberry silk is made as well, but the quality is inferior to that of Chinese silk. For this reason, a large percent of silk used in India is imported from China (in Varanasi, 80 percent of the silk is imported).

The gold and silver (zari ) threads used for brocade weaving are of two different types. The flattened gold or silver wire (badla) is more difficult to weave. The more common type (kalabattu) is made by winding the metal wire around a core thread of silk, cotton, or even rayon. The metal wire is made of silver or gold-plated silver. The metal thread used is called artificial zari, which is silver-coated copper wire. Lacquer is used to give the golden hue.

Silk has a remarkable affinity for dyes. India was long famed for using a variety of natural dyes, including indigo, turmeric, saffron, pomegranate skin, catechu, lacquer, iron rust, and a number of flowers. In modern times, only chemical dyes are used.

The traditional simple pit loom is still used for handloom brocades. Jacquard was introduced in India in the late nineteenth century. The power loom is also used for mass production. The three main techniques used for creating the pattern are tapestry, lampas, and brocade. If more than one technique is applied to form a pattern, it is called a compound weave (e.g., the decorative panels of Mughal sashes).

Tapestry and lampas are more ancient than the brocade technique. Paithan, Aurangabad, and Chanderi were known for making saris, sashes, or dupattas with intricately woven borders in tapestry weave. Colored threads were used with gold or silver zari, creating a jewel-like look. In this weave, the warp is stretched on the loom and weft threads of different colors are woven into it—not across the entire width of the warp, but each one only in the specific areas where it is needed to form the pattern. The different sets of weft threads are interlocked together, giving a geometrical outline to the pattern.

In lampas, two or more warps are used, one to make the background and another to make the pattern. The weft is used as a binding yarn. Assam is known for making figured lampas (e.g., Vrindavani Vastra, depicting scenes from Hindu mythology). Remarkable home-furnishing fabrics and curtains woven with large floral patterns are beautiful examples of Mughal lampas. Agra, Mau, Azamgarh, and Varanasi were known for making lampas using mixed yarns (cotton and silk warp and weft), usually with a striped pattern. Well-known varieties included sangi, galta, and illaycha or alacha.

Brocade, the most popular pattern-making technique, is used in most of the centers. The most intricate and beautiful pattern is called kadwa (embroidered). This pattern requires as many shuttles of differently colored silk as will appear in a pattern, and each pattern has its own set of shuttles. The use of different colors of silk and zari gives the pattern an enameled look called minakari. Brocades made in Gujarat usually had a ground of gold or silver threads on which patterns were created using colored silks. Some of the finest examples are the end panels and borders of Ashavali saris and the Mughal patkas (sashes). In Varanasi, the background is usually of silk or organza, with zari and colored threads forming the pattern.

An easier and cheaper way of weaving the pattern, commonly used in modern times, is called fekwa (to throw). Here the pattern weft is not broken, as in the kadwa, but runs fully across the warp, appearing on the surface as required by the pattern. The loose weft threads running between the patterns on the reverse are cut away to make the patterns clearer on the front. The work is known as katraua, or cutwork.


The study of ancient Indian decorative motifs reveals an amazing persistence of certain motifs for thousands of years. These motifs appear in architecture, pottery, jewelry, metalware, and textiles. Most brocade weaving centers use traditional patterns, though each center has unique characteristics. The saris made at southern centers are known for their long and rich gold brocaded pallu (end piece), showing a predominance of animal or bird motifs, including the bull, deer, horse, tiger, elephant, peacock, parrot, swan, twin-headed eagle, and a mythical animal called yali (having a lion's head and a bird's body) or a combination of peacock and swan. Similar architectural decorations are found on the walls of southern Hindu temples.

Gujarati brocades, also famed for their animal and bird representation, also incorporated human figures with elephants, tigers, peacock, and parrots. Intricate floral borders and trellis patterns were also used. Carrie, the mango-shaped pattern (better known as paisley), became a widely used motif from the eighteenth century onward. It became the standard corner motif (Konia) in saris and dupattas (veils) in most of India's centers. A number of Persian floral patterns were copied in Gujarati brocades and can be seen on the exquisite end panels of Mughal sashes and Ashavali saris.

Mughal brocades were known for their elegance and symmetry; their patterns, which were mostly floral, included iris, poppy, tulip, and narcissi. A number of geometrical patterns, including zigzag, diagonal, or straight lines, squares, chevrons, circles, trellis, and lozenges, were also used. Early brocade is known for its bold and realistic compositions. Later patterns are more complex, the space between the main patterns filled by additional motifs. Specialty Banaras brocades included Shikargah (a hunting scene, a combination of vegetal, floral, animal, birds, and human figures), latifa buti (an inverted or swaying floral pattern), and zal (a trellis, incorporating floral and geometrical patterns). Western patterns also influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Varanasi brocades. Designs like meandering creepers, abstract motifs, ribbons, and open borders were incorporated into traditional patterns.

Special brocades were made for different religious uses, like the backdrops or rosary covers with figures of Lord Krishna surrounded by cows, made in Ahmedabad for the devotees of the Vallabh cult. Gyasar, used in Buddhist monasteries, include dragon motifs and floral patterns and are made in Banaras.

Types of Fabric

Fabrics are classified as either loom-finished or as yardage. Yardage is used as dress material and for home furnishings. Loom-finished fabrics are saris, dupattas, sashes, caps, or borders. Varanasi was also known for weaving garments such as lehnga (a woman's skirt) and choga (the long and loose man's coat).

Besides kinkhab the other best-known brocade fabrics are kinkhab, the splendor and elegance of which, combined with its cost, gave it that name, which means "little" (kim) "dream" (khab). Alfi is another exclusive and expensive brocade, used mostly in ceremonial outfits. Gold or silver patterns are outlined with single or double colored silk threads; the pattern is called minakari (enameling). Tashi is a fabric in which flat golden or silver metal wire (badla) is used as pattern weft along with colored threads, creating ashiny, luxurious appearance. The himru variety of brocade pattern is woven with only silks on silk, without the use of gold or silver threads. Baluchari saris and dress materials woven at Murshidabad are the finest examples of this technique.

Mashru is mixed fabric, in which cotton and silk are used as warp and weft, usually creating a striped or floral pattern. Mashrus were used mostly for trousers, jackets, or the lining of garments.

Varanasi remains the premier center of brocade weaving. Both hand and power looms are used. The number of weaver families was, according to the 1995–1996 census, approximately 125,000. Of these, 60 percent were Muslim, residing mostly in and around urban areas, and 40 percent were Hindu, working mostly in villages near Varanasi. The metal threads used are mostly artificial, made either in Varanasi or Surat. Other well-known weaving centers are Kanchipuram, Tanjore, Bangalore, and Mysore in the South; Aurangabad, Yeola, Chanderi, and Maheshwar in mid-peninsular India; and Murshidabad and Guwahati in eastern India.

Yashodhara Agrawal

See alsoTextiles


Agrawal, Yashodhara. Silk Brocades. New Delhi: Roli and Jansen, 2003.

Birdwood, George C. M. The Art of India. 1880. Reprint, Jersey, U.K.: British Book Company, 1986.

Dhamija, Jasleen, ed. The Woven Silks of India. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1995.

Mookerjee, Ajit, ed. Banaras Brocades. New Delhi: Crafts Museum, 1966.

Yusuf Ali, Allahabad. A Monograph on Silk Fabrics Produced in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh. 1900. Reprint, Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1974.


views updated May 14 2018

bro·cade / brōˈkād/ • n. a rich fabric, often silk, woven with a raised pattern, often with gold or silver thread: [as adj.] a heavy brocade curtain.


views updated Jun 11 2018

brocade textile fabric with raised figures. XVII. Earlier broca(r)do (XVI) — Sp., Pg. brocado, with blending of F. brocart — It. broccato, lit. ‘embossed stuff’, f. broco twisted thread; see -ADE.