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How-to

What to do with a Sari

Feb 20, 2013
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I recently purchased five vintage (read: used) saris from an Etsy seller in India. All five are 100% silk, light weight and airy, and in surprisingly good condition (although two have just a few small stains, tears and other marks of wear, which were disclosed by the seller). They’re gorgeous lengths of fabric, 5 yards long and just over 1 yard wide, and I purchased each for under $20. I can’t wait to use these saris!

Now, wearing the sari is no part of my culture, but the beauty of these garments is inspiring. They are made in so many different colors with so many lovely woven patterns and embellishments that it’s difficult to choose just one, which is how I ended up with five. The fact that they are essentially flat pieces of fabric in ample lengths has enticed me into attempting to make something from the ones I purchased.

What will I make? I sew historical costumes for myself, and during my periods of interest–the English Regency and French Directoire and Empire–Europeans were using imported textiles from India to make clothing with an exotic allure. Making a gown out of a sari or a Kashmiri shawl was common. Call it cultural appropriation, if you will, but the results can be stunningly beautiful. So I will make at least one Regency/Empire gown from one of my saris: probably the bright pink with the purple brocade border and pallu (the decorative end). Five yards of fabric is more than enough for this style of gown, I’ve found.

But that leaves me with three remaining (I gave one to a friend, since the color suited her better). I don’t want these gorgeous fabrics to languish too long in my stash. They would make lovely pillows or throws, but I’m not interested in sewing home décor for myself. Perhaps this year’s holiday gifts will all be made using sari fabrics!

If you want to learn more about saris, this earlier Threads article by Deepika Prakash gives a nice overview of the sari’s history and how it is worn.

What would you make from a sari? How do you feel about taking another culture’s traditional textiles or dress and transforming it into something completely different? Consider, for example, how many people don’t think twice about using Scottish tartan for items of clothing or home décor. Tartan has become a mainstream textile and is worn or used in some form by people with no Scottish heritage.

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  1. User avater SLMiller March 13th

    BLoves2Sew: I hope you enjoy your saris!
    I haven't washed mine yet, but as they are all silk, I intend to hand wash them in cold water with baby shampoo. It should get rid of the dusty/smokey smell, and baby shampoo is what I use to wash all my silks since silk is a protein fiber--like hair!
    I have no idea whether there will be any color fading or dye running, but as these saris were probably worn more than once and washed, I think it's likely that there will be no dye running. I suggest testing a small section of one of your saris first with cold water and baby shampoo, swirl it around, let the suds run through the fibers, and then rinse, press it between the folds of a towel, and allow it to air dry. I usually only see color running from fresh-off-the-bolt silks in dark colors.
    Best of luck--and please post an update about your results. I will, too!

  2. User avater BLoves2Sew March 8th

    After reading your article I decided to check out "an Etsy seller in India". Oh my goodness, she has some beautiful saris! I finally settled on 2 and they arrived today. They are absolutely gorgeous!! I can't wait to make something with them. My question is - how do you rid the fabric of the smell and do you dry clean or hand wash the fabric? Thank you for your article.

  3. DianaRose March 7th

    I made a ballroom dance gown out of a sari. The sequins and cutwork on it meant I didn't have to add crystals and the weighted hem on the skirt makes it move beautifully! To make the skirt full enough I added chiffon godets.

  4. user-2426205 February 28th

    I live in an area where there is easy access to used saris and have wondered what to make with a few I've collected over the years. I have made simple scarves, but perhaps the most interesting item I've made is a headpiece and veil to go with a Renaissance dress I made (and not quite completed yet). I have also collected kimonos and yukatas when I have visited and lived for a short time in Japan. I was a frequent visitor to the Kyoto flea markets, but alas, I don't think I'll be back there again. I've taken apart a few of the kimonos I have, but I don't know what to use them for, so they are waiting for me to be inspired.

  5. nd54 February 27th

    I am Indian and I assure you there are no problems with re-purposing a sari. Many people in India will make Shalwar Kameez (as suggested by Ceritas) which is a tunic and pants. Scarves are great with left over fabric. I think that interlining with silk organza is a great idea, specially silk saris. Duvet covers or quilts also work well for pure silk printed saris. Imagine sleeping under a duvet covered with soft pure silk!!

  6. user-1002600 February 27th

    I asked my husband to bring me a sari when he went to India on business recently. I'd envisiones something lightweight and colorful which I'd planned on making into a simple full skirt and peasant-type top. What he brought home was a deep cranberry irridecent silk with the design woven from with (real) gold threads. Much more formal than my original vision, I think it wants to be a very chic dress and jacket. Too bad my life doesn't involve formal wear, it would be a stunning evening gown!

  7. User avater GigiDear February 27th

    In 1992, I had a piece of silver silk sari, edged in bright pink. It was too beautiful to cut into many pieces. I used it to make an Aghani Nomad Dress from Folkwear patterns.
    The entire skirt is silver with metallic embroidery along the hemline. One sleeve has the pink edge of the sari and the other is silver.
    I found a paisley silk fabric and a few other plainer pieces for the other parts of what is essentially a patchwork dress, per the directions of the pattern.
    Even though I made it 20 years ago I still treasure this dress because of that sari fabric.

  8. olifant February 27th

    Saree fabric is the most beautiful fabric. My niece-in-law is Indian and I asked her were she got her beautiful sarees. She told me I could order them on line. I bought a saree on line that is cotton. It is a hunter green with gold through out. Part of the fabric has a gold border. I hae not make my outfit yet but my plan was to make pants from the green fabric with the gold dots and a loose fitting big shirt using the fabric with the border. I did not think there would be a problem cutting and using the saree just like any other fabric. I hope not.

  9. Mamato8 February 27th

    Years ago, a friend chose a sari fabric to use in her bride's maid's dress. The fabric was off the bolt, purple and gold. I would call it a border print, but the design is woven. The dress has a peasant dress bodice and an aline skirt.

    My friend was trying to get me to make it in a six 6, since she "fit" that size. But just because you can squeeze your body into that size, doesn't mean it fits! I made it in a size 14. Then it skimmed over her body, instead of sausage style. It's not the number that matters, it's how it looks on you! That dress would have shredded if I made it the size she wanted.

    I used French seams to make the dress and she looked great in it!

    My daughter wanted me to make a dress for her out of sari fabric too. It went from royal blue to jade with a border design. We didn't want to cut up the fabric, so we made a wrap dress with a gold belt and straps. That dress did not turn out so well, but we still have the fabric whole and ready to use for something else!

  10. User avater user-1110045 February 26th

    I have made a French inspired regency ball gown out of a sari as well as turban from the left over fabrics. I have no problem using other cultures fabrics. They are often brighter in colour scheme than that is available from my local fabric store. I have also been to India and seen weavers in local NGO
    s weave the saris and dye them.

  11. Grellen February 26th

    As the wife of an Indian I have a huge collection of saris because they are the standard gift to any woman in India (no size problem unless you are very tall). How you use a sari depends very much on the fabric, weave and design. Many years ago I made an empire line maternity outfit from a tie and die sari (think regency style proposed in the original post). The body of the sari with a border at the bottom was excellent for the skirt portion and the pallu for the sleeves and bodice. I did encounter some difficulties cutting it out because the material was so light. I believe I starched it to make it manageable. Many saris come with an extra portion for a matching blouse. Since I prefer cotton for a blouse as tight fitting as that worn under a sari I have an extra piece of cloth when the sari is silk. I have found that if the pattern is small enough such lengths make excellent bow ties. The material I used was small green flowers on cream silk. On reflection I could also have make an wonderful tie and perhaps even waistcoat using the Kwik Sew 3183. You would only be limited by the length of material and the size of the type of pattern on the fabric.

    Currently I have two saris that are no longer wearable and I am contemplating how I will use them WHEN I HAVE TIME! On one the gold-embroidered pallu has been torn (can happen when you loan things out) but the navy and green check south Indian silk that forms the substance of the fabric is fine. So is the gold embroided border. There should be enough for a retro dress if you have 6 metres of 112 cm fabric! I could also make a great bow tie with anything left over from the plain check section. The other sari, cream silk with a large print motif in maroon and pink will be more of a challenge. So far a cushion out of the pallu is all I can think of.

  12. user-2297052 February 26th

    I've used sari fabric to make waistcoats and bed skirts. For the waistcoat I interlined with a silk organza before cutting out.

    I also use lengths of Malaysian batik which comes preprinted for sarong skirts to make sundresses. The cotton fabric is very comfortable and it is a dream to sew. I have recently purchased some more and will make it into summer pants or a wrapped stitched skirt - haven't decided yet.

  13. Grellen February 26th

    As the wife of an Indian I have a huge collection of saris because they are the standard gift to any woman in India (no size problem unless you are very tall). How you use a sari depends very much on the fabric, weave and design. Many years ago I made an empire line maternity outfit from a tie and die sari (think regency style proposed in the original post). The body of the sari with a border at the bottom was excellent for the skirt portion and the pallu for the sleeves and bodice. I did encounter some difficulties cutting it out because the material was so light. I believe I starched it to make it manageable. Many saris come with an extra portion for a matching blouse. Since I prefer cotton for a blouse as tight fitting as that worn under a sari I have an extra piece of cloth when the sari is silk. I have found that if the pattern is small enough such lengths make excellent bow ties. The material I used was small green flowers on cream silk. On reflection I could also have make an wonderful tie and perhaps even waistcoat using the Kwik Sew 3183. You would only be limited by the length of material and the size of the type of pattern on the fabric.

    Currently I have two saris that are no longer wearable and I am contemplating how I will use them WHEN I HAVE TIME!

  14. User avater PatriciaEllen February 26th

    I have always loved saris. They are not part of my culture, either, but I don't think there is a more beautiful, delicate form of dress. What I have done with saris is make ankle length circle skirts, with two half circle panels.( with children, you can make three panels ) The decorative edge is used for embellishment, usually for decorating the bra ( I make belly dance costumes )The skirts are very twirly! I have also made harem pants, the silk is just perfect for these, and the border can go either down the side of the leg, or at the bottom of the pants. Lovely!
    As far as Scottish Tartans: I am a Scottish dancer, too and I had the very nice experience dancing with a Japanese Scottish dance troupe once! And, of course, the men all wore their kilts, and the women their plaid. I do have my own family tartan, and I am very proud of it. What a nice article! Thank You.
    Patricia

  15. user-2155715 February 26th

    I have a lovely summer weight sari that I will be using to make a wrap dress. The border will be used for the front and bottom edges of the body, and the palu will make the bells on the sleeves.

  16. sewleslie February 26th

    Long ago I had a deep purple silk sari with a gold border. I made a knee-length slightly gathered skirt with trim at the bottom, a tank top, a kimono style jacket with trim at the sleeve ends and bottom, and a belt. This post reminded me that I think it is still in a drawer somewhere! I'll have to see if it still fits or if I can make it fit! (there are also a few scraps in my stash)

  17. Ceritas February 26th

    One can make a ton of items from saris. I usually make a shalwar kameez or a lenhga from a sari. It's such fabulous piece of fabric with so many possibilites, as the pallu can be used for all kinds of trim and embellishment.

  18. User avater BLoves2Sew February 26th

    I like the idea of maing a tunic out of the sari fabric. I have used obi (the sash thatgoes around a kimono)to make pillows. I lived in Japan for @ 3 1/2 years and went to the shrine markets (think flea market)whenever I could. I must haveclose to 50 obi - I use them for table runners and wall hangings. I bought some of them to make pillows or clothing out of, but they are so gorgeous that I cannot bring myself to cut them. Maybe one of these days..

  19. Kminturn February 26th

    I have several sari lengths which I purchased new on the net; many dreams but no firm plans yet. I don't know if I am glad to know of another source or worried!

  20. User avater doglove February 26th

    I haven't used sari fabric, but another traditional fabric that more people probably have sewn with are kimonos. Kimono fabric has been used in quilting, making garments and bags, wall hangings, etc. It's given the fabric another life and now used kimonos have value. I used to buy them at flea markets for a few dollars and felt bad that I couldn't save them all from being tossed out. It's reincarnation!

  21. RedKippah February 26th

    I have used them to make prayer shawls, Tallit. The ones with borders are perfect.

  22. marthaq February 22nd

    I've made many tunics, tops, pillow covers and summer weight quilts with vintage silk saris. I love them but they do require serious pre washing and airing out.

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