Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Lynton, Linda. “The Assimilation of European Designs into Twentieth Century Indian Saris.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 207–216.


Copyright © 1994 Linda Lynton


Although so-called "Indian" designs of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chintzes influenced Western European [Western] textiles almost from their introduction, Western patterns did not impinge on indigenous Indian fabrics, such as saris, until the last half of the nineteenth century.

They were superimposed upon an already complex mix of textile ornamental styles, which can be briefly categorized as: (i) Mughal, (ii) Hindu, and (iii) adivasi (aboriginal). The Mughal style consists of the elaborately patterned prints and brocades typical of western India. It shows strong Persian influences, such as the kalga (Paisley motif); intertwining floral vines (bel); and life-like depictions of entire plants, often with roots as well as leaves and flowers. The Hindu style, on the other hand, is commonly found throughout the Subcontinent and is a mix of geometric and stylized natural forms with an often refined use of space and line. Vines, flowers, animals, birds, insects, and humans are often depicted but rarely have that sense of three-dimensionality as found in the Mughal tradition. Adivasi patterns go one step further, being purely geometric, although the motifs may be given names of objects seen in nature.

Western designs entered the sari ornamental repertoire in three ways: through (i) the printed patterns created in British, and later Indian, textile mills; (ii) non-textile Western design sources, such as wallpaper sample books; and (iii) depictions of what, from the Indian point of view, were the exotic technological products of the industrialized West.

The semiotics of wearing saris with Western designs evolved differently according to the section of Indian society using them, but I aim to show that for the majority of India's middle and working class women, not its elites or remote rural communities, man-made fiber saris with Western patterns are today actively used. For with the breakdown of traditional social roles in the face of changing social and economic environments, they impart messages that the wearer belongs to the modern world rather than the traditional, and they help disguise what may be perceived as low status personal backgrounds.