I love silk: chiffon, crepe, organza, china, georgette – you name it, I love it. Silk is an odd fabric, almost too delicate for normal handling, sensitive to rain, snow and heat, food elements, dry cleaning, other fabrics, nails, jewelry, and even its own embroidery. And yet, there’s no other fabric that’s quite as elegant or luxurious for a skirt, blouse, dress, scarf or shawl.
It’s natural that I’d love a sari. However, it was only last New Year’s that I would learn how to wrap or tie it on my own. I had just returned from an overdue visit to India, where I had selected several saris. Like language and cooking, it took lessons, from my mother. There are many ways to drape a sari depending on the region. I won't attempt to list all of them - I leave that to French cultural anthropologist Chantal Boulanger.
I myself am familiar with only two styles, which I have nicknamed “namba” (Tamil for “ours”), the predominant style in the South as well across the subcontinent, and the other mainly worn in the north, “Gujarati” since the first time I had seen it draped that way was amongst my counterparts of Gujarati origin.
There’s only a minor difference between the two: in the South, the “pallu” or the end is draped across the body then over the left shoulder, creating a streamlined fall at the back. And in the North, it is draped over the right shoulder, fanned out across the body, with a pretty, hanging J-shape at the back. The latter style is better suited for saris with extreme embroidery or beadwork. I have worn those the other way, but my left shoulder generally suffers for it. In both styles, the pleats for the skirt part are tucked into the petticoat at the waist.
I don’t find tying a sari very easy or intuitive at all. The first time I attempted it independently, it took multiple tries. I was sweating by the time I’d got into reasonable shape. I still had problems safety pinning the pallu to the blouse.
Furthermore, not all saris are created equally. For georgette silk, the pleats are easier to manage, the pallu is more watery (this is where I’ve had the most success). Saris with a lot of beadwork and embroidery on chiffon can be tricky because of the need to manage a light fabric while the ends keep getting weighed down. Chiffon with less beadwork can be equally as tricky to handle. Heavy silks are well...heavy.
The great part is when the silk gets caught in its own beads and you’re struggling to disentangle it all. Although, it's even better when figuring out exactly what to do with the slack, since sari tying involves much estimation: of height, pallu length, number of pleats for the “falls” as my mom calls them – probably not the technical term for the pleated skirt part which fans out like flower petals from waist to ankle. What part should one adjust? If there’s not too much slack, usually you can hide it— which is what I do!
The success to tying a sari is all about controlling the pleats with your thumb and index or middle finger. It’s actually tortuous pain. In the Southern style, the pallu is the easier part, particularly as there is a great deal of versatility in how you can drape it – it can be partially pleated, fully pleated and pinned, or left loose for a more informal, sexier look.
But perhaps, versatility is the watchword overall – a sari is an extremely versatile garment. And you never really know what and how works for you and the fabric until you yourself try it out. So, do what I did to supplement my lessons: watch these YouTube videos.
You may ask: why even bother? How often do I wear a sari – 5 or 6 times a year at best? It’s October and my 2009 tally will likely conclude at 4. Am I holding onto culture unnecessarily? No. Culture comes and culture goes, but I wear a sari for one predominant reason: because it makes me feel beautiful.