“Though it may suffer wear and tear, a Patola design will never perish,” is a famous Gujarati saying.
Two fluorescent bulbs cast harsh shadows on the peeling walls of the cramped workshop. Eight workers, silently focused on the tasks at hand: carefully wrapping and unwrapping thousands of dyed silk threads in Patan, a town in Gujarat.
Patola, India’s most complex textile, is being made, and Mr. Soni stands guard at the center of it all, watching closely over his craftsmen. If a mistake is made, the process must start all over. Such is the complexity of the design of Patola.
Its complexity and time-intensiveness are what make Patola so valuable. The dizzyingly mathematical process.
The strings are dyed, according to a pattern, and then the dye marks align when woven, forming on the cloth.
For each color in the design, workers tie sections of the silk threads with a cotton string until only the parts to be dyed remain exposed. The whole bundle of the thread is then soaked in dye before the cotton strings are removed, to reveal the undyed portions. Rinse and repeat until the thread is dyed to match the pattern.
The symmetrical designs on the Patola are based on the divine positions of the stars, they believe. These traditional designs are what make Patola unique.
The wrapping and dyeing process for just one color takes a week, and doing all the colors takes one or two months. The completion of one saree takes at least seven months.
“This is the normal procedure,” says Mr. Soni. He says that the most complicated sari they ever made took 2.5 years. And the price tag on a Patola sari justifies the days of painstaking work: one custom-made sari starts at Rs 1.5 lakh, about $2,250.
The Cloth of Kings
More than 900 years ago, a king named Kumarpala had a passion for Patola, one of the most luxurious textiles in the world. So intricate that the front and back are indistinguishable from each other and a colorful feast for the eyes.
Kumarpala was particular about his Patola. A patron of Jainism, he needed to be clean and dressed in fresh clothes before saying prayers at the temple. He insisted on wearing only Patola when visiting temples.
Initially, his Patola came from Jalna, a city in neighboring Maharashtra state. That bolted to a halt once Kumarpala learned how the king in Jalna used Patola as bed sheets before selling or gifting them to other aristocrats in the region.
What kind of king knowingly wears the bedsheets of another? Furious and determined, King Kumarpala brought 700 Patola craftsman and their families to Patan, Gujarat. It is said that he received at least one new Patola to wear to the temple every day.
Back in the workshop, the sight of half-completed Patolas in the making looms around. Massive wooden looms fill more peeling workshops, vibrant silk threads crisscrossing otherwise threadbare rooms. Mr. Soni flits between the different looms, stopping to adjust the misaligned thread here and there. Others stop and watch the master at work.
Despite the numerous people working in each room, Mr. Soni and his son are the only two people in the company that know the entire Patola process.
Will the art of Patola die?
Mr. Soni hopes not. Realizing the importance of tradition, he works together with his son to bring in fresh blood to the business and increase Patola’s reach in the world. Shyam also incorporates Patola fabric into more modern clothes and accessories.
Seems like, as of now, the father and son duo remains one of the gatekeepers of this knowledge.