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Chinnalapati is a small municipal town near Dindigul in Tamil Nadu famous for its gorgeous saris. The credit for the unique designs goes to the highly-evolved artisans who have learnt that adapting to ever-changing times is the best way to sustain any business. Chinnalapati's economy mainly depends on the handloom weaving industry and is known for it. Weaving has been a way of life in Chinnalapati for centuries. Silk saris (famously known as "Chinnala Pattu") and Sungudi saris are made in the traditional way; the workers have always produced cotton with zari borders, which are accepted for daily wear. The Sungudi sari industry includes looming, weaving, dyeing and printing units. The Sungudi industry provides a livelihood for more than 10,000 workers.

The weavers of Chinnalapati have evolved and mastered the art of weaving single ikat saris. They produce fine, light-weight saris with Kora silk warp and mercerized cotton weft having a tie and dye pattern in both the body and pallu using the weft ikat technique.

Ikat weaving was not traditionally practiced in this region but is a recent development in Chinnalapati. The village was always known for its saris, but the Chinnala Pattus, as they were known, were single colour silk saris with simple gold lines. They were over-shadowed by other similar saris of Tamil Nadu like the Kanchi Pattu. The weavers felt they were fighting a losing battle and were on the verge of giving up when the weaver’s co-optex came up with a unique idea a few years ago. They enabled some of their weavers to learn the tie and dye technique from the ikat weavers of the Puttapaka weaving cluster in Andhra.

Tie and dye is a tricky technique requiring the weaver to excel in the process to create sale-worthy pieces and for the new students, it wasn’t easy. They had to first renounce a lot of their traditional training before they could learn a brand new one. The uniqueness of Chinnalapati saris is that mercerized cotton yarn is tied and dyed and used as the weft with crispy knots of silk yarn in the warp.

The technique is the same oddisha ikat – the yarn is first stretched on a grid and tied as per the decided motifs. It is then dyed in a vat and untied. The area of the yarn covered by the thread is therefore not dyed. The process is repeated for each colour until the desired effect is achieved. The entire process is done by hand. The lustrous and finely tied and dyed silk cotton saris woven like ikats, appeal to a lot of working women. It takes about two days to weave one sari, and these saris are inspired by the design and the technique of Pochampally ikats.

Today Chinnalapati has some 4,000 people whose livelihood depends on weaving. The saris woven here are some of the most popular saris marketed by the co-optex. Since saris are less common in many places, Chinnalapati weavers expanded to make the increasingly popular sungudi chudidars. Textile export and import is an important complementary business. Sungudi saris from Chinnalapati are exported to Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Increasing demand has ensured better wages and a steady income. As a result one can see many young people weaving in Chinnalapati, a welcome sight!

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