The word “sari” means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit. But for the Indian women—and a few men—who have been wrapping themselves in silk, cotton, or linen for millennia, these swaths of fabric are more than just simple garments. They’re symbols of national pride, ambassadors for traditional and cutting-edge design and craftsmanship, and a prime example of the rich differences in India’s 29 states.

The first mention of saris (alternately spelled sarees) is in the Rig Veda, a Hindu book of hymns dating to 3,000 B.C.; draped garments show up on Indian sculptures from the first through sixth centuries, too. What Chishti calls the “magical unstitched garment” is ideally suited to India’s blazingly hot climate and the modest-dress customs of both Hindu and Muslim communities. Saris also remain traditional for women in other South Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

India remains one of the last great handicraft cultures. It’s a powerhouse for dyeing, printing, and silk weaving, all represented in at least one of the estimated 30 regional varieties of saris. In the Ganges riverfront city of Varanasi, weavers bend over old-school wooden looms to make Banarasi silk ones, usually in bright red, trimmed with metallic zari thread, and prized by brides.

In tropical Kerala, predominantly white sett mundu saris reflect styles popular before 19th-century industrialization brought the colorful aniline dyes—and Crayola-box brights—spotted around the subcontinent today In West Bengal, Balchuri saris flaunt trim based on designs found on the walls of the region’s burned clay terracotta temples. Every sari has a story about the society and people around it.

There are more than one hundred ways to drape a sari depending on the region, fabric, length, and width of the garment, and what the wearer might be doing that day. Among the techniques for wearing a sari: are the ubiquitous Nivi drape (pleated, wrapped around the waist, with the pallu (the embellished end of the garment) flung over the left shoulder); and the rural Dharampur drape, which cleverly transforms a long rectangle of material into knee-length bloomers. Most sari presentations require a choli (cropped top) and slender half petticoat, the latter often helps to anchor all that textile wrapping and fabric manipulation. Some sari folds need to be held with stitches or pins, while others are in more free form, like fabric origami for the body.

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