The word ”Kimkhwab” translates to ”a little dream” in Persian and true to its name, it is in fact, the fabric of dreams. Once patronized by the Royal Mughals for its sheer luxury, it also went on to become a favourite among the British and was used by high-profile families of the time.
Kimkhwab is a gilt form of brocade that is so heavily adorned with "zari" or gold embroidery that little or none of the silk surface below is visible.
It was introduced to Benaras in India from Tibet in China, to create cheaper replicas of the Chinese jacquard with predominantly Buddhist-inspired patterns. These were gradually adapted to designs specific to the Indian subcontinent, which were highly inspired from Islamic art, owing to the Mughal influence at the time. Designs mostly favour elements of nature such as roots and trees, vines, flowers, pinecones, rosettes, stylised poppies, peacocks and small birds.
Production of Kimkhwab is an extensive process and requires high dexterity. Kimkhwab is broadly categorized based on the amount of gold and silver thread used to create the brocade. Some are fashioned from just the two precious metals in its entirety, where the pattern on top is created from silver thread and the background is made with gold thread. This is known as ”Tashi Kimkhwab”. Some use coloured silk threads to enhance the metallic elements, while some are done with just coloured silk thread, using gold and silver sparingly.
The regal look of the Kimkhwab is a combination of the zari embroidery styles that covers the multi-layered warp brocade. The number of layers of the warp differs from style to style, going up to even seven layers in one fabric. This helps classify the Kimkhwab according to quality. If there are three layers of thread used, it is called ”Tipara”. Similarly, four layered Kimkhwab is called ”Chaupara” and a seven layered one is called “Satpara”. The weft inserted to make the design is either made of gold, silver, coloured silk thread or a combination of them all.
Under the Mughal period and the British Raj, Kimkhwab was one of the most important goods of export and was produced in only four places in India – Benaras, Aurangabad, Surat and Ahmedabad. Today, it is only Benaras that produces it while South India is gradually becoming an up-and-coming location for production. It makes an ideal choice for bridal or occasional wear. Owing to its opulence, it was also deemed as a fabric fit for the Gods, often used to adorn panels in temples.
Today, with the growing use of fast-fashion labels, the original Kimkhwab is restricted to expensive, more ornate designer fashion. There are several low-cost alternatives available in the market that replace the pure gold and silver zari with polyester substitutes and are made on the power loom. Owning a Kimkhwab garment is a matter of pride for Indian women. Although delicate to maintain, it makes for an excellent trousseau and Indian designers like Sabyasachi, Ritu Kumar and Neeta Lulla swear by it.