When you watch historical movies from Karnataka or Maharashtra, you cannot help but notice the women in bright coloured cotton sarees with signature red borders. What you’re looking at is one of Karnataka’s biggest contributions to the rich handloom tapestry of India — the Ilkal weave.

Ilkal saree weaving began around the 8th century in a small town, Ilkal in the Bagalkote district of Northern Karnataka. It remained popular for centuries because the raw materials were easily available and the saree was a blissful match for the brutal weather of this region. Made exclusively with cotton, silk or a combination of both, the natural fibres allowed for easy breathability.

The design was minimalistic with no elaborate embellishments. The body was kept plain or checkered. The attraction of the saree were the vibrant contrast colours of the saree with the border and pallu. Weavers drew their inspiration for the design from nature, geometric patterns and temple architecture. The saree was naturally crisp, easy to maintain and required no starch.

The growth of this industry gave birth to other craft forms like the Kasuti, an intricate form of embroidery that is often seen on ilkal sarees. The womenfolk of the region took leftover threads, sometimes threads from the saree itself to create patterns that would look identical on both sides of the fabric. Even today, it is considered to be one of the most difficult and most strenuous forms of embroidery.

But this 1000 year old tradition is facing extinction. Where there were 2000+ weaving families in the region just decades ago, there are less than 45 weavers today. Why? Because the industry failed the test of time.

  • Unlike the Chanderi or Banarasi weavers who now weave salwar materials and dupattas, ilkal weavers only make sarees. This drastically narrows down its audience given most women today consider saree to be an occasion wear. Even though every woman in Karnataka and Maharashtra owns an Ilkal saree, the demand is just not enough to sustain the weaving community till the next generation
  • The designs of the ilkal sarees are dated and haven’t changed for eons. Weavers are unwilling to experiment with designs or consider innovative approaches
  • The power loom has made handwoven ilkal sarees an expensive buy. The output of the power loom today closely resembles the handwoven finish. Only an expert eye can catch the difference.

However, the industry is once again starting to see a glimmer of hope. The graceful finish of the saree has caught the eye of many designers and buyers. Dori, a brand that closely works with the Ilkal weavers, is experimenting with ilkal fabrics and creating a more urban-friendly line of apparel.

Nikitha Satish, Founder of Dori says, “We buy sarees directly from the weavers and transform them to dresses, tops, skirts and other clothing. The vibrant colours and the low-maintenance features of the fabric combined with alternative designs — it’s everything an urban shopper looks for. We also make a conscious effort to keep our waste as low as possible. We find various uses for fabrics that are left over from our designs. Our collaborators manufacture cushion covers, quilts and other home decor products from these leftovers. We’ve recently partnered with Kaiyare to develop a new line of fashion accessories that combines the skills of different craft clusters. I believe this kind of collaboration can be a very effective way to save the dying tradition.”

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