Thanks to its airy quality and its rich decorations, jamdani is definitely one of the most prized textile ever produced by human hands. This precious variety of muslin, that is a lightweight cotton, wool or silk fabric of plain weave, was originally made of cotton and produced in Dhaka, Bangladesh. From there, it spread to India, when the decreasing production in Bangladesh led many weavers to migrate to West Bengal. In Bangladesh, it is still known with its original name, “dhakai”. The more recent name “jamdani” has Persian origins and comes from the word “jam” meaning flower and “dani” meaning vase. In fact, jamdani reached its golden age under the Mughal patronage, between the 16th and 19th century, during the era of the Islamic domination of the Indian subcontinent. Jamdani is indeed believed to be a fusion of the ancient cloth-making techniques of Bengal with the muslins produced by Bengali Muslims since the 14th century.
In the same way as a vase holds flowers, jamdani contains the flowers which decorate it. Decorations are indeed one of jamdani’s typical feature, and they are often based on floral motifs. Used for the production of scarves, handkerchiefs or shimmering sarees, jamdanis are always decorated with a wide range of designs: panna hajar (thousand emeralds), kalka (paisley), butidar (small flowers), fulwar (flowers arranged in straight rows), tersa (flowers in diagonal patterns), jalar (motifs covering the entire cloth), duria (polka spots) and many others.
However, what makes jamdani so precious is not only the beauty of its decorations, but also the highly specialized production techniques. Whereas, after the weaving process, most fabrics are completed with the addition of prints or embroidery, jamdani is, so to say, already perfect. This is because jamdani undergoes a double hand-weaving process, which requires extreme patience and the most dedicated work, ranging from two to twelve months or more and employing two full-time weavers on the same fabric. Along with the standard weaving process, which consists in weaving warp and weft and which gives as a result fine and gauzy textiles, the making of jamdani involves the supplementary weaving of weft yarns used to create decorations. They are added manually by interlacing the weft threads with fine bamboo sticks and following a pattern scheme placed underneath the warp (then, it is not sketched or outlined on the fabric, as with embroidery) or simply registered in the weavers’ memory. The supplementary weft yarns can be made of cotton, silk, gold, silver or other precious metals, and can be in the same color as the base fabric or in complementary colors, creating an endless variety of light-and-dark effects.
The jamdani technique is quite similar to brocade, that is a fabric decorated with motifs created by supplementary weft and, unlike jamdani, warp yarns as well, which are added to the weft and warp yarns with which the base fabric is produced. While on the front side the motifs stand out as they were actually embroidered on the fabric, on the reverse side the supplementary weft yarns often hang in loose groups and so are clipped away (as with fil coupé). This does not happen with jamdani, but the main difference between jamdani and brocade lies in the base fabric, which in the case of jamdani is a precious, diaphanous textile, whose vibrant patterns appear to float on a shimmering surface.