Finer Than Fine: Aari Embroidery

An extraordinary range of textiles and embroideries have arisen from India, each linked to the social and cultural matrix of its time and location. Among the most celebrated of these is an embroidery technique called ‘Ari’, where tiny, looped stitches are used to create intricate motifs.

The origins of Ari can be traced to the 12th century. First developed by leather workers in the western Indian state of Gujarat, it was used to create embellished footwear. In later years, with the patronage of the reigning Mughals emperors, the craftsmen transitioned to embroidering the finest silks and cottons. Trade with countries like China and England brought in interesting design influences. Royal garments from the 17th century sport rich oriental landscapes as well as European botanical motifs like daffodils and irises, all embroidered using the Ari technique.

Ari gets it name from the ‘Aar’, which is a small, hooked needle or awl used by the craftsmen. First, the pattern is carefully traced on transparent paper by a specialised artisan. Perforations are made along the outlines and the paper is placed on the fabric. A special chalk is rubbed over the paper, imprinting the pattern on the fabric below. The fabric is mounted on a rectangular, wooden frame and the embroidery process begins.

The Ari needle is plied from the top, but fed by silk thread from below the fabric. The craftsmen sit on the floor, one hand plying the sharp needle and the other holding the thread in the place. They move the needle swiftly in repetitive loops, to create an unbelievably fine line of chain stitches. It is common practice to include embellishments like small beads and sequins in Ari embroidery for richer effects. Gold, silver and copper threads called ‘zari’ are also used to create gorgeous patterns that hark back to the days of Mughal royalty.

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The technique demands an enormous amount of skill, training, precision and patience. The craftsmen must concentrate on following the fine outlines of the design, while creating the subtle gradations of colour required to fill in the motif. They must ply the Ari needle at a consistent pace, ensuring that each stitch is the same size and placed correctly, so that all the eye sees is the seamless beauty of the final design.

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