Indian Angrakha-Style Robed Dress

For anyone who follows the traditions of India, October often ends up being a celebratory month in which the festival of Navratri ends and Diwali begins.  Navratri, meaning ‘nine nights’, is one of the most popular and widely celebrated Hindu festivals in many parts of India and lasted September 26 to October 5 this year.  Diwali, the “Festival of Lights” associated with both the principal Goddess Lakshmi as well as the end of the Indian fiscal year, begins October 24 in 2022 and is 5 days of family, food, fireworks, colored sand art, special candles and lamps. 

I always celebrate these occasions in spirit where I am, far away from India.  Nevertheless, I’ve been having a hard time getting back into anything after having a bad time of catching Covid at the end of August.  However, choosing a traditional “buti” flower block print cotton, I found a project both easy to make and wear which is just the pick me up I needed to reignite my spirit, get back into sewing again, and launch me into the mood for this month’s Indian festivities.  As I am slow to think and accomplish much currently, I was so happy earlier this month to finish sewing an “Angrakha” in time to honor the theme colors of the last two days for Navratri.  The peacock green on my dress commemorates day 8 and the bright pink of day 9 is from my dupatta shawl, which was bought from the Devon Ave. Indian district in Chicago!  This garment is supremely comfortable, colorful, and fun, but also is the perfect ethnic item to wear for these celebrations!   

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an all-cotton hand-stamped block print direct from India through “Fibers to Fabric” shop on Etsy

PATTERN:  McCall’s #6428, year 1978, from my personal pattern stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, some ethnic Indian loop trimming from a New Delhi artisan sourcing shop “Cat Fluff” on Etsy, and some random items on hand to make the Angrakha’s tasseled tie ends

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was sewn in about 10 hours and finished on September 27, 2022

THE INSIDES:  cleanly zig-zag stitched over the edge in several layers to imitate serging (overlocking)

TOTAL COST:  I bought 4 yards of this material on a seasonal clearance sale and together with the trimming my total cost comes to just over $20.

a traditional silk brocade Angrakha

In brief, an angrakha is a double-breasted, wrapped, long sleeve outer robe that is asymmetrically tied closed at the left side of the high waistline and traditionally paired with loose Indian trousers.  The earliest mention of this word specifically can be traced back to the 16th century!  An angrakha was historically worn by men of Rajasthan (state in northern India) either as a soldier’s robe, when there was a quilted inner panel under the double-breasted chest, or as a court robe for royalty when made of the best silk brocade with rich trimmings.  By the 19th century, it had evolved to be a garment made of sensible cottons, but now today it is also worn in public by men and women alike of varying ethnographic backgrounds and locations.  It even has progressed into varying lengths – long as a special occasion dress, short as a daily wear tunic, or mid-length as a multi-purpose robe or fancy suit (when there are matching trousers and dupatta shawl). 

The angrakha is supposedly derived from traditional outfits of Rajasthan’s neighboring state of Gujarat and can be seen in some of their Garba or Dandiya performances for Navratri. Gujarat is, after all, the only state that erupts into a nine-night dance festival, one of the longest in the world! Each night of Navratri, all over the state, in villages and cities alike, people gather in open spaces to celebrate their feminine divinity. Oh, how I wish I was there to experience that for myself…just picture the blaze of color, energy, and excitement such an event must be!

The literal meaning of the word “Angrakha” is ‘something that protects your body’, and thus I searched (and obviously found) a robe pattern from which to base my make off of.  A modern robe still embodies the very definition of this Indian ethnic garment and – just like an angrakha – is a layer that is not worn alone but over a full set of clothes underneath.  I serendipitously found the perfect source in a vintage pattern from on hand!  It is a nighttime set pattern, but robes made of the right fabric can be definitely appropriate for wearing outside the confines of the home.  I remembered how the fashion of the 1970s had revisited many different historical influences and the empire waist, full skirt, minimal seams, and wrapped closure was everything I needed for a modern yet traditional interpretation of an angrakha. 

I adapted just a few things to the pattern to both make it fit me better and be more ethnically an angrakha.  The pattern I had was a medium (the sizing was in general increments and not precise numbers) so it was much bigger than my measurements.  The sleeve length was originally very long and I had to fold up the pattern tissue to the exact length needed because I was including the full selvedge edge along the cuffs.  The main body was very wide and I folded out an inch out of each bodice piece, taking out a total of 4 inches.  Even still the main body turned out too generous, and not the proper angrakha silhouette.  Just reshaping the underarm seam into a right angle, rather than a soft curve, worked wonders to bring in some shapeliness to the bodice and provide all the reach room I needed.  To continue the reshaping, I also straightened out the sleeves into stovepipe style rather than the pattern’s given bell sleeves.  The most traditional garments of any culture are often composed of very basic, simple shapes and so it seemed proper to turn the design lines for this angrakha into something very angular and geometric.

An integral part to the angrakha is the tasseled tie closure for the asymmetric wrapping.  As I said above, I meant to channel modern India’s take on a historically ethnic style so I deviated from the traditional double tied closure.  Things were kept simple for my angrakha with one sole tie.  I went really inventive by coming up with something suitable and used a turquoise green colored shoelace that I happened to find in my notions stash.  Then I sewed down two matching colored cotton tassels (leftover from this tunic project, posted here) over the ends.  A shoelace string is much sturdier than any ribbon or cording I had been considering anyway!  I stitched thread chain loops over the shoelace tie at both ends of the waistline where it needed to be connected.  Yet, my thread loops do not catch the ties, which run under the loops so the waistline can adjust to whatever feels comfortable for the day.  With the tassels at each end, the tie however cannot come out of the thread loops, providing assurance that it will not get lost but is staying put.  

See the two thread loops holding the tie in place?

I was not doing an overall elasticized waist like the pattern called for, but I was making the bodice smoothly tailored with only the skirt portion gathered.  Thus, I had to add a few darts in the bodice – under the bust for the front panels and under the shoulders for the back panels.  The waistline shape was trimmed to be more like a historical men’s angrakha, where the front waistline lands at a higher true empire height while the back waistline dips lower to hit just above the true waistline.  I did not line this robe, or used any facings, but I just used the selvedge border for all hems and simply turned in the neckline edge under the loopy Indian trimming.  The bodice panels with the long cut-on sleeves took just over a yard, which left me with the 3 yards of fabric for the skirt portion.  Four whole yards of fabric was just enough to work for this project! 

As I expounded upon in this post of mine about the making of a Rajput Sherwani coat, dyeing and block printing traditions have always been rich throughout the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Sindh.  Their textiles had been exported to places as far away as Egypt and Africa centuries before the British control there popularized the exporting of their chintz, block prints, paisley shawls, and silks to England, America, and the Dutch colonies. The fabric I chose is a classic, buttery, whispery soft Indian cotton.  The predominant dye color to my chosen print is also in the background.  In modern times, I tend to see this color called turquoise.  This color can be seen as a blue or a green depending on the person, so I find this label for such a shade as too generalized and confusing.  To India, the natural (often botanical dyes) dyes that are often used turn this shade greener toned than anything else, and this way blues are easier to clearly identify.  This block print matches with the Pantone shade of “Blue Grass”, but I see it in person, in indoor light, as the traditional “peacock green”.  It is complimented with shades of true Indigo (Pantone “Sapphire”) for the print, as well as “Dusty Lavender” in the border – all my favorite colors!  

Milk Thistle

The overall print, called the ‘field’ area, is filled up of ‘buti’, tiny stylized almond shaped floral motifs carved in wood for stamping purposes.  ‘Buti’ is an Indian Marathi word that means ‘something hidden or kept hidden’ and the best part of these stylized florals is reading secrets within the creatively rendered botanical representation.  Here, the fabric looks to me to show a milk thistle plant, known in Hindi as “doodh patra”.  It has long been popular in India as a flowering herb that provides therapeutic properties as well as a multi-purpose oil (extracted from the seeds).  The portrayal of this plant is for me a subtle nod to the angrakha’s late medieval origins – the thistle was a favorite decorative and symbolical element of manuscript illuminations, tapestries, and brocades of the olden times. 

However, on a practical level, such a print shows the Gujarat influence to my interpretation of an angrakha, as that is the Indian tradition that I most closely associate with through our Indian friends.  I know I am biased, but I will insist that Gujarat has the superiority when it comes to cotton production, embroidery, and tie dyeing.  Yet, I know Rajasthan (particularly the capitol city of Jaipur) is tied to the history of the floral motif block print.  I love the way that my angrakha combines both state’s textile histories into one fantastic garment that has a richly interesting history all on its own. 

I am thrilled to have a new type of Indian clothing to wear as part of my ongoing efforts to participate in the culture of India through their wonderful festivities.  This angrakha is my new favorite wardrobe item so I have not been shy from wearing it out to eat, to do errands, and more!  I think it is so important for respectful cultural representation to be something seen outside of limited ethnic circles so that the public can that have a chance to see, respect, and learn.  India has such an enthralling history with a depth which can be intimidating to a newcomer, but I hope coming across someone like me can become a moment of enlightenment for others.  I love sharing all things related to my sewing, especially history and culture!  For this angrakha, its bold but attractive combo of colors in a relatable wrap-on style seemed to really bring out the questions and comments from people I came in contact with. 

Most people never understand what is the clothing of the people of India beyond a stereotypical tunic, trousers, or sari…but there is so much more variety than that!  It would be a great honor if my blog could be the source for opening any reader’s mind to just some of the interesting nuances to what the residents of India actually do wear and how it is beautifully tied to their culture, their heritage, their self-expression, and their talents.  I adamantly believe the world would indeed be a dull place if it wasn’t for the flourish of color and wondrous handiwork that the fashions of India bring to the globe. 

Here’s a wish for a peaceful, renewing, and happy Navratri festival!

Botanical Garden Block Printed Dress

It’s comforting to know that some of the best things in our world have not changed and only stayed the same as they have been for centuries.  As India just celebrated their Independence Day August 15th, I’m specifically thinking of how so many of the heritage fiber arts in that country are practiced the way they were so long ago.  Why mess with a good thing when it is perfect as-is, right? 

What comes from the earth is kept a part of the earth the way the fabric of India is produced.  Indian cotton is grown and harvested naturally, first of all.  Then, plants, spices, and vegetables are used for dye, the earth is utilized for resist stamping or setting, and artisans turn everything together into an organic whole.  All this adds up to a very eco-conscious manner of creating some of the most beautiful and wonderfully comfortable fabric this world has to offer.  It is an honor and a special experience to make and wear something that involved so much love and attention just for these few yards!  There’s no better way I can think of to celebrate India’s long fought freedom than to enjoy a respectful all-in dive into appreciating the beauty to one of the many fascinating facets of their culture.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton content for the print, fully lined in a tan beige tone Bemberg rayon satin

PATTERN:  McCall’s #7894, year 2019

NOTIONS NEEDED:  I just needed lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on June 9, 2022 in about 20 hours

THE INSIDES:  loosely zig-zag stitched along the raw edges to reduce fraying

TOTAL COST:  The Indian cotton fabric from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy cost me $15 (I got this on a half-price sale) for 3 yards, while the rayon lining was another $15 for 3 yards from Fashion Fabrics Club.

There are many sites that dive into the nuances of block printing so I will not overly dive into the process here but this link through Saffron Marigold and this page through Vogue of India can be a good start to inform yourself.   I merely want to stress that it is of utmost importance to make sure you are buying from a source which employs fairly paid workers and does the craft the traditional way…no mere printed fake outsourced versions, please.  There are many knock-offs to be found, especially in ready-to-wear (which is in it for the visual aesthetic and nothing more), but this does the opposite of esteeming a craft that deserves only awe-inspiring admiration.  Historically, the textile history of India is not about being carelessly machine made but being the work of caring human hands.  Support the heritage craft of India by doing some conscious purchasing if you want some block prints for yourself!

This being said, there are some pro and cons to keep in mind.  Be aware that most block prints are in a width no wider than 45” so take that into account when planning out a project.  This is why I was squeezing this dress in on 3 yards when 4 yards probably would have been better.  Rich toned block prints can bleed out their dye in the first one or two washings so be careful to wash them with similar colors.  The cotton of India, though, is buttery soft, whisper thin, and among the easiest to sew material you could ever imagine.  It is a dream to wear, sew, and work with!  Besides, this material is the best way possible to effortlessly stay cool in the heat of summer. 

The positive qualities of Indian cotton also means that it is often less than opaque.  Busy prints hide any see-through issues more than not.  For this dress, however, I did not feel like a sheer look nor did I want to feel obliged to wear an underslip, so I fully lined the cotton.  Bemberg rayon is magnificently breathable, moisture wicking, and a very good imitation of silk, so it is the perfect pick for keeping this dress lightweight, comfortable, and an effortless summer staple.  Knowing how to work with fabric and how to use it to its best advantage is a large portion of the planning and figuring that goes into any sewing project.

With all of this positivity I am expressing towards this dress, it was really difficult for me to successfully sew.  I may sound crazy, but I loved doing the yards and yards of ruffles which go in between the seams.  Doing the ruffles in this buttery soft fabric was easy after all but the process really centered me, calmed me down, and helped me enjoy the extra effort.  I just think I relaxed a bit too much and didn’t think to look ahead at the pattern for issues.  Then, I had to be creative and fix the dress’ fitting issues after it was fully finished.  Also, there was a total oops moment where I sewed in the most perfect invisible zipper – even matching it through the intersecting points where the ruffles meet – only to realize after the fact that it is on the right side and not the left.  Considering the effort it would take to switch sides, I am leaving the zipper well enough alone. 

The wrong-sided zipper just added to the many little ways this dress was such a frustrating bother to sew, even though I love everything about it…the details, the fit, the style, and how perfectly it matched with my fabric.  I’m actually happily accepting of all the dress’ ‘faults’ which happened because I’m working on being gentler on myself with my self-imposed expectations of perfection.  I actually love my dress all the more for reminding me what it feels like to embrace the fact I am only trying my best and cannot always be up to par.  The beauty of a handmade block print are the little irregularities in the coloring or stamping.  Why shouldn’t my sewing be all the more beautiful for showing the way I persevered and made the most of my ‘mistakes’?!

I rounded up to a size bigger because I wanted a looser fit, and this worked out great.  Having a looser fit keeps the overall garment easy and comfy to wear.  Tight clothes are uncomfortable in the summer for me.  Nevertheless, having a loose fit is especially important here since I wanted the option of wearing silk Indian trousers underneath for a more ethnic look, as you see it in my pictures.  With a looser fit, the bodice front wrap stays closed without gaping open.  Most importantly, though, I discovered the hips in this pattern run really small, even with going up a size!  By letting out the seam allowance to 3/8” on each side seam I had just enough to recover the fit and keep this wearable.

Another point to mention is how this pattern seems to have been drafted for very tall girls.  The torso is very long and not average proportions.  Comparing the line drawings to my finished dress, everything seemed to droop lower on my body.  The bodice-to-skirt seam needs to be slightly above the waist and the left point where the two ruffles meet at the side seams needs to land at the high hip.  The finished dress wasn’t doing this on me.  I needed to pick up the upper bodice to raise up all the rest of the dress without ruining the design lines. 

Disguising while correcting this faulty fit after the fact was all done before I had set the sleeves in, so I luckily had I bit more freedom to alter the bodice.  First, I made a 2 inch horizontal tuck across the back bodice right across the shoulder line, making my dress appear as if it had a shoulder panel much like a man’s dress shirt has.  This picked up the dress, for sure, but the front became wonky.  To evenly pick up the front half of the dress, I took 2 inches of the front bodice under the shoulder line and tucked that under the shoulder seam.  Then I top stitched down along the shoulder seam.  The excess fabric was not taken in evenly in the front as on the back I realize, but the dress doesn’t give any funky fit for this fact, and I am thrilled to have found a way to fix the fitting issues with no marring of the original design or unpicking of stitches.  The sleeves merely have a bit more gathers to them for my alterations to the bodice, but I love puffed sleeves already from sewing designs of the 1930s era.  All is well that ends well, here. 

A handful of further personal variations to the design deserve a mention, as well.  The asymmetric look of the skirt’s ruffles struck me as a tad odd in the way they abruptly end at the bodice.  I realized that the front ruffle joins the bodice seam at just shy of the same point where the underwrap to the bodice ends.  So I ran with this detail and added extra ruffles to just that half of the neckline, thereby continuing the asymmetric line and adding some unity between the bodice and skirt.  I had the neckline ruffles go across the back of the neckline and end at the shoulder on the opposite side so they can be visibly a part of the bodice from behind, as well.  I also lowered the slit opening so it didn’t open up so high up on my thigh.  Finally, I also disregarded the elastic guide for the sleeve hems and cut whatever length felt comfortable around my arms.  Sewing for yourself is all about customizing to your personal taste and desires, so don’t forget to throw those instructions out the window every so often and make what you want, how you want!

Even though I make what I want how I want it, for Indian and other ethnic material I always do my research and let a respectful interpretation of that culture influence my sewing in such cases.  I want to give cultural fabrics their proper place so I can learn from and honor those cultures yet still also invest my own personal story into what I sew.  In the case of this project, I first bounced some design ideas off of our Gujarati Indian friends to see if I was on the right track.  Then, I got in touch with the seller of my fabric and found from her the details to the print that I chose for this dress.  Apparently, these types of multi floral designs on a single print are called “bagh” – which means “garden”.  Lotus, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, Chameli (Jasmine) are common depictions.  Gardens are often shown as the setting for many joyful and sacred artistic depictions in Indian art of both Hindu and Muslim manuscripts.  Thus, I found a beautiful blooming wall of flowers at a local Garden shop to pose in front of to emphasize the glorious theme printed on my dress’ fabric.  I was bringing my own garden to a flower garden…oh, the lovely irony!

The overall creative stylization of Indian block prints are such a heritage craft that my dress’ fabric can be recognizably similar to an 18th century skirt or a textile dating from the Renaissance.  The floral imagery to Indian block prints has not changed all that much and my historian heart rejoices at such a continuity.  My original plan for this fabric was to make The Dreamstress’ “Amalia” jacket (ca. 1780) from Scroop patterns, after all.  However, Indian block prints have a history of being very desirable and sought after in olden times when imports had long lead times and exporting was a dangerous job.  Thus, many countries sought to “knock-off” the visual look of such fabrics with their own colonial practices.  I do not want to be the source of continuing a painful narrative history and wanted this garden fabric to be turned into something practical, wearable, and a source of joy.  I believe I succeeded. 

Happy 75th anniversary of being an independent country, India!