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When you like them Stiff

Posted on Trivia – The Spice of Life on 25/02/2022

Starched Bengali Handloom Cotton Sarees
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For many a good thing in life, you need to invest your time and pour your sweat. It is only then that apart from the personal touch, there is satisfaction of having achieved the best. The task at hand could in fact be very mundane. What I refer to is the hard work that needs to be put in to maintain handloom cotton sarees.

There is not an iota of doubt that a handloom cotton saree makes one look extremely elegant and dignified and the best part is that the elegance is understated. That is the beauty of cotton. A look at the cotton handloom sarees that Sridevi draped in English Vinglish will drive home my point. Having said that, the high maintenance cost is what draws women away from them. Let me also say here that handloom cotton sarees could sometimes cost more than a silk one. Usually, the higher the thread count (woven with superior quality yarn), the softer and more superior the cotton fabric would be which also means a hefty price tag.

Since there is hardly any winter in the south from where I hail, women prefer to wear cotton sarees. At home, the cottons worn are limp and unstarched, especially because they need to absorb all the perspiration. It is a common sight to see a woman wiping off her sweat with her cotton pallu. A cotton saree that has starch is rough on the skin. But when a woman steps out of her home in her cotton saree, it better be starched and neatly ironed, in order to look graceful.

But there is a price that needs to be paid for grace. Down south, since there is hardly any winter, women prefer to wear cotton sarees on outings, the year round, with silks usually reserved only for special occasions. This obviously means that the sarees have to be stiffly starched and steam pressed. In my home town, a cotton saree without starch is compared to the tongue of a dog (Kukka Nāluka) that hangs out flaccidly. Thus, starching cotton sarees is a part and parcel of the washing regimen for women who continue to wear cotton sarees.

Having grown up in this environment, it was but natural to develop a fancy for cottons. Even as a college student in Delhi, I would spend a large part of my Saturday mornings starching my cotton dresses and drying them up on the terrace. The terrace would resemble a dhobi ghat. Till my dresses were dry, stiff and crisp, I would not descend. This penchant for wearing starched cottons that are stiff and crisp has persisted.

Starching at home the traditional way, requires considerable time, some skill and a sunny (and spacious) drying area. Outsourcing the job to the dhobi who irons your clothes would not be easy on the pocket. In Mumbai, the dhobi charges at least eighty Rupees to starch and iron one saree. If one were to use his services on a regular basis, the cost of maintenance would soon surpass the cost of the saree. The parallel that I can draw is that of the printer and cartridges where the cartridges (in the long run) often prove costlier than the printer.

There are several instant starching solutions available in the market today. I will not dismiss them completely because not everyone can starch the traditional way. But the difference between the instant starching powder and the homemade traditional starching solution can be compared to that between instant and filter coffee. The connoisseur will always prefer the latter – even if it means spending more time in the kitchen trying to get the right blend of coffee beans and chicory.

The typical home starch solution is arrowroot powder/corn starch/soaked tapioca, boiled in water. You must ensure that there is no clumping of the starch. This needs to be filtered and cooled. The most challenging aspect of starching cottons is when the cotton saree is dark in colour. Starch always leaves white patches, which makes the saree look terrible. The secret substance that needs to be added to the starch solution is neel or indigo, which masks the starch patches. I came across a wonderful video on YouTube which addresses all practical problems, which I am sharing below.

Thus, if you want your cotton sarees stiff and crisp, you will have to put in the commensurate effort. It is not economical to outsource this activity. I still feel that in order to popularize handloom cotton sarees amongst women at large, it is imperative that research be undertaken on how the effort put into starching can be minimized or simplified through some innovative technology, without compromising the degree of stiffness. But for now, if you want to look dignified, then the stiffness (not of the upper lip!!) will have to be achieved by undertaking the back breaking work.

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