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.