Garment archaelogy

Yeah, weird title.

But I can’t think of any other way to describe the voyage of discovery I’m on with something I bought recently.  I was browsing in my favourite charity/thrift/op shop when I found two elegant, ‘special occasion’ short sleeved women’s kurtas*, one in turquoise with magenta and gold brocading and embroidery, and the other in crimson with gold and two shades of green embroidery, and gold ribbon borders. The turquoise one looked as if it would fit, the other looked a bit small, but I thought I could do something with it.

Multiple seams in the lining of the red kurta

8 different thread colours (the white is serging), showing multiple alterations.

And that’s where the fun began. As expected, both were made in India, as stated on a small label inside. Neither of them had a durzi’s (tailor’s) label, so I can’t credit them to the artisan creator. I could see that the side seam was wobbly and the borders didn’t line up, so it didn’t take much to realise that at some point they had been altered. Now, this is normal. Significant garments of this sort are routinely taken in or let out along the side and underarm seam to achieve a closer fit or to suit a different person, and often, the excess seam allowance is left in place in case they need to be let out again. What was interesting was to see how many times and in what order the alterations had been made, judging by how and where the thread colours crossed. I would be making the (hopefully) final changes for myself, and thus it felt right to ‘excavate’ the previous seam strata. I will not be removing any fabric, in case anyone is concerned. Instead, I will be adding fabric inserts, leaving the original fabric in place and intact. I will, however, be serging to prevent further deterioration of the seam allowances.

For the turquoise one, it was a simple job. I opened out the alteration seam and reverted to the original one, which, while it was snug, did fit and didn’t require any further work. Despite the snugness, it’s actually very comfortable.

Zardozi embroidery on yoke and placket

Zardozi close up on placket

The turquoise fabric is a net lace over a solid turquoise cotton lining, the yoke is a deep magenta and gold brocade with the design outlined in gold bugle beads and picked out with tiny gold crystals. There is a heavily gold and turquoise zardozi**-embroidered placket, further embellished with crystals, diamantés and bugle beads down the front. The back is plain, apart from the deep magenta/gold shot lamé border, two plain ribbon borders in magenta and turquoise and several lines of gold/ mirror braid. It’s very decorative and fairly formal because of all the embroidery and bead work.

The crimson one is another story. It has at least 5 different seams, all stitched in different threads, many of them in totally non-matching and even clashing colours. I have opened out from sleeve edge to low hip level through both the dress outer and the lining and have basted the outer to the lining to try and preserve the integrity of the loosely-woven lining, which is severely frayed, stretched and distorted by all the stitching. The lining seam allowance is all over the place, because earlier seams have been carelessly sewn, taking tucks and wrinkles out of the lining in the process.

It has been a lot of work, hours of time picking out very small, tight stitches in rather delicate fabrics without creating more damage. I’m planning to gently steam and press these edges to give me something straight to stitch and remove some of the stitching holes if possible, and serging the fraying edges will hopefully prevent any further loses of fabric content. However, I feel it will be totally worthwhile in the end.

I will need to make an insert for the underarm seam of the sleeve and side seam of the kurta, and I’m planning to use matching green and crimson fabrics, stitched into a triangular shape to match the borders. I think a thin band of gold ribbon applied to this would look good, but it remains to be seen if I can find something to match the antique gold of what’s already there. If I can’t, I’ll leave it off. This kind of alteration is quite acceptable (and even traditional) for a valued and expensive garment, and even if I only paid $5 (yes, you read that right) for each of them, I do value them highly, and the skilled and beautiful craftsmanship that went into them.

Green and gold embroidery on red kurta

Vintage gold and diamanté buttons

The embroidery and decorations on this kurta are exquisite. There are long teardrop shapes of embroidery in antique gold, dark and light green around the hem and on centre back, and a row of vintage gold/diamanté buttons down the centre front. A deep border of green with gold lamé ribbon decorates the hem, with a matching narrower one on the sleeve edges.

The colours alone would tempt me to wear it for Christmas, but the fact that the long teardrops look like elegant Christmas trees is an additional incentive, so I’m going to try and get it ready to wear for lunch on Christmas day.

Traditionally, these two would be worn with a pyjama-style pant, but tight fitting churidar leggings would be an acceptable alternative. They both also require significant necklaces to sit in the scooped neckline. For the turquoise one, I have something ready, if you recall an earlier post. However, the crimson and green one will need some further thought. I think I have some op-shop finds that would do the trick 😊

Some people may have issues with cultural appropriation. My position is that I am paying respect to the beauty and workmanship of these garments. They have effectively been discarded by their previous owner, they were critically under-valued by the charity/thrift/op-shop selling them, and I have recognised and appreciated them and plan to give them a new life. I believe I have earned the right to wear them.

So, onwards with the voyage of discovery and restoration!

*Kurtas are popular ethnic attire in India. They are loose-fitting upper-body tunics with no collar that are worn by ladies on a daily basis, as well as for formal occasions. They can be worn plain or with embroidered decoration (a popular decoration is chikan). These kurtas can be loose or tight in the torso, and end just above or below the wearer’s knees. They can be worn over pyjama pants, loose salwars or churidar pants.

**Zardozi is a form of embroidery prevalent in India, that originated in Persia. The literal translation of the term hails from two Persian words: ‘zar’ means gold and ‘dozi’ meaning embroidery, thereby translating into gold embroidery. Today, zardozi refers to the process of using metal-bound threads to sew embellishments on a wide array of fabrics.

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39 thoughts on “Garment archaelogy

  1. Wow!!! What beautiful fabric and with such history. I am so glad they found their way to you.

  2. Going Batty in Wales says:

    These were made with such amazing skill – all that embroidery! I am so glad you are able to rescue them and give them a new lease of life.

  3. gwenniesgardenworld says:

    Oh wow !!! You’ll look like an Indian princes ! The colors are so stunning !

    • katechiconi says:

      It’s interesting… although the red kurta is less richly embroidered, I like it better because the decoration is over more of the garment.

      • gwenniesgardenworld says:

        Perhaps you can embroider extra’s ? But they look fab as they are, especially where you live, they would look out of place in a grey wet country.

      • katechiconi says:

        My embroidery skills are nowhere near good enough! But you’re right about the colour; in a cool northern climate they would have to be saved for a very special evening event!

  4. Garment Archaeology is a familiar concept to me!!! My (long ago) Thesis was on a pair of early 1800’s breeches that had had a long and much patched life! It will be such fun to remake your beautiful treasures, and wear it for Christmas!

    • katechiconi says:

      I had to study History of Costume as part of my degree, and my thesis was on the Development of Riding Dress. Not exactly closely allied to this, but it gave me a background…

  5. What a respectful rescue of these well-loved and beautiful garments. Glad they found you!

    • katechiconi says:

      You’ve understood my approach completely. There’s too much skilled work in these kurtas to simply look at them as something to cut up and repurpose. If they can be worn, they should be worn.

  6. Oh those colours 🤩🤩🤩🤩😍
    How can you go wrong with so much of love and attention being put into it. $5 or $500……. There’s certainly no $value to be put on these garments. It’s priceless in its use and made so by the user. Looking forward to seeing you in these beautiful beautiful pieces.

    • katechiconi says:

      I wonder what would be the best way to clean them… with so much decorative stuff on them I’m afraid a dry cleaner wouldn’t want to touch them, so it’s probably hand washing… but wha if they run? I may have to cut a tiny bit from the seam allowance on both to do a cold wash test.

  7. They are beautiful and I loved seeing all the details!

  8. tialys says:

    So fortunate these have ended up with you. I’m volunteering in a charity shop a few hours a week at the moment and am pretty sure these would have ended up in the rag bag – unless I’d been there to stop it of course.

    • katechiconi says:

      It horrifies me how often treasures are chucked out and treated without respect. $5 for one of these, but $15 for a sleeveless top with a well-known brand name. I shudder every time I think of a pair of scissors hacking away at the embroidery…

      • tialys says:

        Admittedly we get a lot of stuff in that is only fit for the rag man but the manageress is overly ruthless on occasion, depending on her mood and, as she’s there full time and I’m only there a couple of afternoons I have to choose my battles wisely.

  9. nanacathy2 says:

    How exciting to discover these alterations. Better on you than in landfill.

  10. Excellent op-shop finds and even better saves of such interesting garments 🙏

    • katechiconi says:

      I found gold ribbon to match this morning, in the Woollies gift wrap section of all places! So if I want to use it, I have it, otherwise it’ll wrap a present some time…

  11. magpiesue says:

    Oh, hurray for you and your ambition! Not to mention the respect you have for workmanship that is ignored or completely undervalued by others.

  12. cedar51 says:

    I was just listening to a person talk about “rejigging op/thrift” shop finds and that it’s okay to do that because frankly if they are in such a shop in the first place, they were not wanted. And you are doing the “product” a favour by buying and remaking into a product that suits what you need…

    • katechiconi says:

      I agree. These were treasured garments at some point, made and re-made to suit different bodies, but now they have been discarded. I feel fine about remaking them once again, but this time for me. The fact that they are of traditional form and decoration is my good luck, and I will treat them with respect.

  13. These are gorgeous, and they’ve clearly found the right person to appreciate and love them. I have a few embellished garments myself from the Indian subcontinent, many of which have needed attention and a change in size here and there, and I wear them proudly. I also have some items from different parts of the Middle East, about which I feel the same. Some I found in London, some here in South Africa. If anyone I know who originated in those parts of the world are offended by my “cultural appropriation”, they certainly aren’t showing it.

  14. What beautiful finds, how lucky you are.

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