Chiffons & Georgettes – What Sari is Truly ‘Pure’?

What is a chiffon, or a georgette, truly? How do we know what is pure chiffon and pure georgette? We have been fascinated by sheer, elegant and diaphanous weaves for centuries. Be it our homegrown chanderis and handwoven muls, or the introduction to weaves of European origin. Do you know when and how the chiffon saree first stepped into India? Keep on reading, it has a royal connection.

Today, there’s a plentiful of prices, prints, colours and vendors for chiffon and it’s cousin georgette. We also have plenty layman terms for these drapes – synthetic, ‘malai‘ (a hindi word for cream), ‘semi,’ ‘pure,’ ‘art’ (which may be an abbreviation for artificial, not art), and it goes on! There exists, of course, the good ol’ slew of clueless yet confident sellers determining their goods to be pure, or of a creative new name altogether, out of thin air and little sense. It’s about time I took my readers down a journey that’s rather nostalgic for me – design school days studying textile science, warps, wefts, construction and terminology. I’ll keep it simple, and hope that you return from this article informed and aware about little-known fabric facts.


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Where did it all begin?

Early chiffon was made solely from silk. Silk chiffon has been available since the 1700s throughout Europe, and was a luxury high-maintenance fabric utilised by nobility. In 1938, a nylon version of chiffon was invented, followed in 1958 with the creation of polyester chiffon, which became immensely popular due to its resilience and low cost.

Most chiffon in existence today is made from this purely synthetic material – polyester. As a chiffon textile, polyester mirrored silk in many ways, but it, of course, was not as soft or “silky” as organic silk chiffon, which still remains the best chiffon there is.

When did we start wearing chiffon sarees in India?

It was common practice to attach handwoven gold Varanasi borders to chiffon sarees, satisfying our typically Indian love for ornamentation

A little bit of sari research points to Maharani Indira Devi – mother to Maharani Gayatri Devi – of Cooch Behar as someone who popularised the chiffon saree in India. Her patronage ushered in a fashion revolution that was here to stay, timelessly. The elegant queen was widowed at a young age and followed the traditional convention of abandoning her richly woven Baroda drapes, and replacing them with unadorned mourning garb in white. Unsurprisingly, for we all know the incredibly stylish ways of this mother-daughter duo, she took her mourning and made it high fashion. The Maharani had white chiffon sarees woven in France to her personal specifications, thus introducing the quintessential silk chiffon sari to the royal fashion repertoire.

This soft, light, breezy drape was ideally suited to the Indian climate – and it took on like no other trend had in a long time!

What is chiffon? More importantly, what is ‘pure’ chiffon?

Is this an evolutionary or societally conditioned habit, our obsession with honoring and defending a notion (and, sometimes, a delusion) of ‘purity’?

Chiffon is a textile that is constructed in a plain weave, just like your everyday woven cottons. What makes it look and feel so different, then? It’s all in the yarns. Those of you who have seen an embroidery thread know how it’s six threads twisted into one, that you can untwist to use separately. Or, a jute rope – notice how you can unravel it into several thin ropes? In the same way, the yarns that are woven into fabric in a chiffon are highly twisted into – technical terms – an S-TWIST and a Z-TWIST. The most obvious difference between a chiffon and georgette, chiffon always has an inherently ‘crinkled’ surface.

Rather than being distinctive for the basis of the material used to create it, ‘chiffon’ denotes the unique method that is used in weaving technique. Chiffon is made by alternating S-and Z-twist yarns, names derived from the shapes that yarn takes on when it is used to make this fabric. This results in the slightly puckered surface texture of chiffon that features some elasticity. No matter what base material is used to make chiffon fabric, once this textile yarn has been produced, the weaving of chiffon follows a uniform pattern. The yarn used to make this type of textile is arranged in opposing S-shaped and Z-shaped curves, and it is then woven together with a loom or an industrial weaving machine.

‘Chiffon’ denotes a construction technique, a weave. A chiffon can be silk, cotton, polyester, nylon, rayon or whatever other fibre we may use in the future to construct a fabric with this unique yarn structure. When we simply say ‘chiffon,’ we could mean a chiffon of both, either a natural or artifical fibre origin.

Luxurious, organic and the most exclusive chiffon is silk chiffon. Naturally, for better marketing, we started calling it ‘pure’ chiffon at some point in time – it is the best drape a chiffon can have. In order to differentiate the high quality and price point, it works to have a special term like ‘pure’ for it – or simply specify it to be a silk chiffon. Biodegradable is always, always better and deserves to be deemed pure in comparison to plastic-based materials. However, it must be noted that non-silk chiffons do not cease to be chiffons, they are rather called polyester chiffons or as whatever other synthetic/semi-synthetic fibre that was used to construct them.


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What is a georgette? And a ‘pure’ georgette?

A very close cousin of chiffon, because this too is constructed using a variation in S-Twist and Z-Twist yarns that differs from the variation used in chiffon. Just like chiffon, georgette originated in France and was made in silk in it’s original form. The most obvious difference between chiffon and georgette is, georgette will have a smooth (not crinkled) and slightly rougher (grainier) surface.

Madame Georgette de la Plante is the namesake, and introducer, of this textile as well as a contemporary of Coco Chanel in the early 20th century. Georgette, again, is a construction technique or weave – a georgette remains a georgette by credit of it’s construction irrespective of the material used to create it. For situations that require specification like point of sale, we ought to name it like it is; whether a silk georgette, a viscose georgette or a polyester georgette to ensure a fair price and transparency towards the consumer. What we call ‘pure georgette’ is silk georgette – it retains dye like no other, and is the most luxurious all-year fabric. Being a completely natural fibre, it is surprisingly breathable for the skin compared to viscose or poly georgettes.

What’s important here?

In conclusion, there exist two types for the construction-denoting fabric names called chiffon and georgette – either a natural fibre based, or an artifical fibre based fabric.

There is, technically and factually, no fabric by the name ‘synthetic’ or ‘semi.’ I am going to give you an opportunity to derive the fun of being an articulate textile snob by knowing that synthetic (or semi-synthetic) is a generic adjective used to denote the presence of synthetic or semi-synthetic fibres in your chiffon or georgette. These fabrics are not different entities by themselves. There are fabrics called (insert name of synthetic/natural fibre) georgette and (insert name of synthetic/natural fibre) chiffon. Even cotton georgettes and cotton chiffons have been made, at some point in time! But they were never as popularised and are seldom seen in the market as much as their silk and polyester versions.

Most commonly, all chiffons and georgettes are either silk chiffon/georgette or polyester chiffon/georgette. There could also be viscose chiffon/georgette, or any such semi-synthetic fibre. They are largely called either ‘pure’ or ‘synthetic’ chiffons/georgettes based on this. While my earlier mentioned terms were scientific in nature; the latter does come with connotations of judgement, like notions of purity always do. The voice in my head can never say ‘synthetic’ without some degree of looking down, which is sadly classist but a conditioning that prevails among most of us, doesn’t it? A pure chiffon saree may cost the consumer INR 3500-4000 or more, whereas a polyester counterpart is much cheaper – and prioritising cost over environmental rammifications is still prevalent among uninformed masses in a country where the concentration of wealth in the hands of few along with a the deep divide between rich and poor is immense.

Are Synthetic Chiffon and Georgette Sarees ‘Bad’ ?

To look at another side, we know that the invention of synthetic alternatives started with good intention – enterprising creators who wanted to make the style accessible to large segments of society that could not afford luxury. However, we all now know that this isn’t a fitting excuse to ever cover the choking damage synthetic fibres are doing to our planet (economics vs life itself?), and the switch to natural fibres is all important! The solution does not lie in throwing away, cursing or shaming all of our synthetics – the throw away is the problem itself. Rather, it lies in using what you already have, making it last instead of dumping it in a landfill, reducing further consumption and switching to natural alternatives each time. For those who can afford to – I’d always advise your money is better spent on a silk chiffon or georgette! The finest drape, the most elegant feel and a biodegradable fibre.

One look at the clothing preferred by lower-income groups, on a daily basis, is glaring insight into how poly georgette sarees – easily available and widely consumed at prices as low as even INR 500 or less – is go-to wear for the masses, at a large scale. I hear arguments in favour of it’s preference being low maintenance, quick-dry, resilience to repeated washing and easy drape as compared to cotton, which requires a fair amount of starching and pressing over time. While I proposed how the affluent can completely switch to silk in a bid for quality as well as environmental soundness (why not do it if you are an aware soul who can afford to do it), there remains the question of finding a design solution for the vast population that finds practicality, affordability and ease in polyester.

To give you some thought food to chew on, here’s the Environment Compliance Reports of one of the most prominent brand selling this type of saree – Garden Vareli – as published on their website. It appears to be concerned and cautious with the ecological footprint of production of these textiles, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this can truly offset the consumer guilt-conscience of increased synthetic saree consumption, or not.

Do you have thoughts to share? Do leave comments below, and I’d appreciate it very much if you share this article – should you resonate with it!

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