National Handloom Day: Tamil Nadu’s forgotten textile treasures and fabric legacies

We catch up with textile researcher and enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan to rediscover forgotten textile and fabric legacies from the Tamil country

Romal Laisram Published :  06th August 2021 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  06th August 2021 06:00 AM
Sreemathy Mohan

Sreemathy Mohan

She walks into Amethyst, our venue for the interaction, wearing a resplendent kaikattu (handloom and handknotted) Sungudi sari, in a deep kattiripoo (brinjal blossoms) hue. This oft-ignored bandhini-like tradition that’s native to Southern Tamil Nadu’s Saurashtrian weavers is just one among the many rare handloom traditions that textile enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan is attempting to draw attention to.

“Tamil Nadu has such a rich textile history and there’s a handloom tradition that’s native to almost every district and region within the state,” begins Sreemathy as we sit down for a conversation on rare textiles from Tamil Nadu on the eve of National Handloom Day.

From Madurai Sungudi to the nearly forgotten silk weaving clusters of Bhuvanagiri in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, Sreemathy researches long-ignored or forgotten indigenous textile legacies and brings them back into the limelight. “There’s so much that we’ve forgotten over the years and my attempt is to talk to find these weavers and ensure a system that will bring back these lost techniques, weaves and styles in a profitable manner, so that everyone can benefit,” adds the textile lover.

From a corporate job and career in commerce to a decision to leave it all behind to pursue her love for textile, Sreemathy tells us that she was always interested in fabric. “I grew up in Coimbatore and was always surrounded by beautiful examples of handloom. Everyone around me wore gorgeous cotton and silk saris and therefore I was brought up being fully aware of the worth of this legacy in fabric that we often take for granted,” she explains.

One of Sreemathy’s recent projects involved documenting the story of the ‘Real Madras Handkerchief’. “It isn’t really a handkerchief at all, but a large square piece of cotton cloth woven with an intricate checkered pattern. It was so native to the weavers of the Coromandel Coast that there wasn’t even a proper name for it. The checks are called kattam, but the fabric produced took on the name of whatever it was sold as — lungis, bandanas, shirting material or whatever else. It was so widely distributed that, while its presence in South East Asia (our closest trading partners) as the lungi or sarong was understood, it was even found as a must-have piece of clothing and an ethnic marker for few West African tribes who used it as a ‘birth to coffin’ textile. Referred to as ‘George’ by the Igbo and Ijo tribes, and as Injiri by the Kalabari tribes of Nigeria, the pelete bite fabric from Chirala and other parts of the Coromandel Coast (including Chennai) used to be very popular there,” she elaborates.

But are there any of these legacy fabrics and textiles being made in Tamil Nadu now that one can add to their wardrobes? “Absolutely! I’d recommend a khadi cotton handloom sari from Gandhigram, Dindigul; a one-side temple border korvai handloom silk from Tirubuvanam, Tanjavur; and a ‘Burberry’ check lungi sari made-to-order from Kurinjipadi, Cuddalore. There’s so much more textile and fabric diversity to discover in Tamil Nadu and we’ve just begun to scratch the surface,” Sreemathy concludes, promising to keep us informed about all the research she continues to do, on her blog: indiansareejournal.

Sreemathy Mohan | Pic Credit: Debadatta Mallick | Location: Amethyst, Whites Road, Royapettah, Chennai


Laced with culture
Pelete Bite Fabric: The pelete means ‘cut-thread’ and bite means ‘cloth’ in the Ijo language. Pelete bite is uniquely associated with the Kalabari people living in the Delta region of Nigeria and produced solely by Kalabari women in the town of Buguma, Nigeria. Kalabari Ijo women modify the original striped or checked patterns on imported Indian Madras Cotton cloth by cutting and removing selected threads to produce a new, intricate, lace-like pattern. The cloth would sometimes be imported with the technique completed at source.

L-R: Khadi cotton handloom sari from Gandhigram, Dindigul; Pelete bite fabric; and a ‘Burberry’ check lungi sari made-to-order from Kurinjipadi, Cuddalore 


National Handloom Day is celebrated on August 7.