Kerala, known as God’s own country, is the embodiment of all things wholesome and good. It has given the world many invaluable things like Ayurveda, gorgeous backwaters and some undoubtedly world class weaves. The handlooms produced in Kerala are rooted in their place of creation, each weave having its own distinct signature. One such weave is the kasavu handloom weave from Kasaragod in northern Kerala, known for the traditional Kasaragod saree.
The origin of this weave can be traced back to the 18th century AD. Many years ago, it was woven by the Shalia (also known as Saliya or Chaliya) community of weavers who used to create these for the then king of Karnataka. This clan is known to have migrated from East Karavali coast located in the present Karnataka state. It was a family occupation, passed down from father to son, for around 500 families. Although modernization and mechanization has greatly impacted the way things are done now, there are still many weavers who are making an effort to continue the tradition.
Most of the fabrics are woven with natural materials like cotton that are eco-friendly and laced with golden zari. Cotton is also the preferred base as the climatic conditions of Kerala is highly humid. Art silk versions can also be seen but they are, however, fewer in number.
Even today, the traditional weavers and craftsmen of Kasaragod follow the time-honored steps of making the saree by hand. To maximize absorbability, cotton yarn is immersed in soap oil for around an hour, then boiled with water and soda ash for a day before it is, finally, washed and dried. This treated yarn is then coloured with vat dyes, caustic soda and hydro sulphite.
Post dyeing, the yarn is spread out on a horizontal pole for around two whole days to ensure that it is completely dry. Once dry, the yarn is wound by the charakha to the bobbins and pirns. The bobbins are arranged on the creels as per the pre-decided pattern and colour combinations and then wound on the warping frames.
Each yarn is carefully counted and each set is revolved around the axis of the warping frame as per the pattern. This warp is made for around thirty-three sarees where each one will measure around 5.5 meters. Each saree is separated and the pallu part of the saree that measures around 60-70 cms is attached, tied and dyed according to the combinations matching it.
After dying and oxidation is done, the yarns are separated on the looms through combs with long nails. This process requires a minimum of five people for the setting. For every half meter of the yarn on the loom, starch is applied on it with a palm fiber brush that gives a clean finish to the saree. Traditionally, tapioca starch was used in this process. However, owing to the receding quality of tapioca starch available these days, starch made from rice flour or maida is used. This application of starch not only gives it a better finish but also ensures that shrinkage of the material after washing is minimized. The woven saree is then checked for quality and sent for packaging.
The unique colour combination is the key specialty of the Kasaragod saree. Vat dye is the prominently used for dyeing the yarn due to its supreme colour fastness, especially in case of cellulose fibers. The dyes used and the traditional techniques followed is what gives the Kasaragod sarees its famous luster and colour fastness.
Most of the varieties of Kasaragod sarees are inexpensive and very comfortable for daily wear. They are also the preferred outfit for every traditional occasion and have become the face of south Indian culture the world over. Preferred for their durability and uniquely pleasing designs, they are the best known cotton sarees with a fine thread count of 60s, 80s, and 100s. Recent versions of blended silk have only added to its appeal and earned the sarees their own Geographical Indicator (GI) tag.
The Kasaragod weaver’s society has also taken the initiative to train people from backward classes and local tribes in the art of Kasaragod weaving. One can find old craftsmen who have returned to their original place of work to pass on the tradition. For these weavers, weaving is not just about earning a livelihood but their way of upholding their traditions in a modern fast-changing world.