What happens to old saris?
February 6, 2015 1:25 AM   Subscribe

I've come across a website exporting used silk and rayon saris from India. A few seem in poor condition, or have some obvious stains. But some appear pristine. My question is, one, is there not a market for second-hand saris in India? Two, what renders a sari unwearable, apart from stains and rips and obvious wear? Like, would you not be seen dead in a fabric pattern from 5 years ago? And three, would you not want your mother's or grandmother's vintage silk saris, and if not, wouldn't somebody else? I can't understand why it makes economic sense to export this stuff: the garments on the website seem too cheap for 5 yards of vivid silk, even if the buyer has to discard portions of it.
posted by glasseyes to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (27 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Keep in mind that there are new polyester saris for as little as $1.50USD. It is not difficult to find saris for thousands of dollars and I have heard of ones for tens and even hundreds of thousands.

There is a market for used saris in India and other parts of Asia (as well as the West, of course). I was first exposed to them through cotton blouses and cute handicraft items in Bangkok. I have bought at least a hundred used saris in Kolkata, re-purposing them through a women's disability project. There are many qualities of silk- the most common are not silk at all, and a 6+ yard mixed 'silk' sari may be purchased new for under $10. I've purchased beautiful 'antique' soft cotton saris for as little as 10 rupees (under 15cents). The silk (real and mixed) used saris I purchased cost between $1 and $5 each and they were full (6 yards).

Something to consider- markup is important. Looking at that green silk piece you posted- that is $12 USD - We'll round it to 700 rupees. Even if they bought it for half of that, 350 rupees, 350 rupees is a decent amount of money in India. A low-to-medium level office worker in a biggish city may earn $150/month. The gross profit is nearly a day's wages!

As for what renders a sari unwearable, I would say to ask what renders any item of clothing unwearable. The Indian women I have known have run the gamut from rich to poor and their choices reflect fashion, necessity, and financial ability.
posted by maya at 1:49 AM on February 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

When I lived in Mumbai, I was always asking my Indian friends if there were any cool second-hand shops I could rummage around in. They were horrified by the idea of second-hand clothing and insisted no self-respecting Indian would abase themselves by shopping at one.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:25 AM on February 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Google "kantha" and you'll find dozens of places that sell things made from quilted recycled saris, some of them quite expensive. Anthropologie is getting over $300 for a bedspread. It seems to be a mainstay of catalogs that sell free-trade goods as well. They're quite beautiful.
posted by Otter_Handler at 3:42 AM on February 6, 2015

Best answer: Like, would you not be seen dead in a fabric pattern from 5 years ago? And three, would you not want your mother's or grandmother's vintage silk saris, and if not, wouldn't somebody else?

So this stuff is pretty complicated, and definitely, fashion and tastes change. However, my mother has an absolutely amazing collection of saris (mostly silk) which she has been basically collecting since I was a baby or earlier (so about 30 years). She wore a sari every day for work, and is fond of bold, grand designs in silk, but with less glitter and gold than her contemporaries.

However, she definitely still culls her saris periodically -- she'll often give one of her saris to our housekeeper or to a friend. These saris aren't damaged in any way - she's just clearing space and keeping her collection meaningful. I think taking an old sari from a friend or a relative is different to buying them in a used sari shop - it doesn't carry the same stigma, since you know the "provenance" of the sari and the person who was wearing it. It's also common to repurpose sari material for other uses. Many Indian women will use the material from their old saris to make other garments, particularly for their young daughters. For example, I've definitely had many skirts and Indian-style clothes (salwar-kameezes, pavadai-davanis) made from old sari material from my mother. This often happens when a particular part of the sari wears out, making it unwearable as a sari, but most of the material is still very usable.

My mother doesn't have many of the saris she wore when she first got married however, as at that time she was into light, easy to maintain saris in chiffon. She says she wore these to death - she just wasn't as much into clothes (and probably didn't have the budget she has now), and wore the same set of 10 saris or so on a rotating basis. I think her taste has also changed considerably - she would never wear most of the light, floral patterns she wore at the time.

There is definitely a very strong sense of fashion attached to saris. This is something that takes one quite a long time to learn, and since I don't wear saris very often, it's not something that I've taken the time to completely immerse myself either. However, everyone at the Indian weddings one goes to, will be looking at everyone else's saris and know where that sari was made, what particular style it is, whether it's in or out right now. Fashions in saris are not quite as ephemeral as that for Western clothes however. This site has a great explanation of many of the major sari styles. Wearing each of these styles means something - a Kanchipuram silk sari might have been thought to be a bit old-fashioned ten years ago, but now I hear everyone clucking in approval when one decides on a Kanchipuram silk, as it's thought of as being classic.

Another thing to note it that because saris are meant to be kept in the family and handed down (there are simply no sizing problems, if you think about it, since the blouse and underskirt can always be restitched for another person and the sari itself is just one big piece of cloth), women of the middle classes and above are willing to spend way more on a sari than one would imagine - if my mother really loves a sari, she'll go ahead and fork over thousands of dollars for it. However, it will remain pristine for decades, as she gets her saris pressed, and she has amazing taste, so even her old saris still look stunning.
posted by peacheater at 4:52 AM on February 6, 2015 [112 favorites]

Response by poster: Really interesting subject, thanks everyone for the answers so far. I understand about the rate of exchange affecting viable prices - Nigeria is the same, as the Naira, having parity with sterling when it was launched, is now about N288 to the pound. N288 has real purchasing power in Nigeria which £1 in England certainly does not. Goods imported from China, The Philippines, Thailand, Dubai etc, are cheaper bought in Nigeria than the West.

ask what renders any item of clothing unwearable. The Indian women I have known have run the gamut from rich to poor and their choices reflect fashion, necessity, and financial ability.
Yes, but fashion is such a variable, and so are the reasons why people appreciate what they do. Some people scour charity shops in UK for vintage items, and part of the satisfaction is the thrill of the hunt, and part of it is the sense of appreciating an overlooked item, and part of it is finding a quality item cheap (though as charity shops wise up this becomes rarer.)* Then again, there's designer vintage. In Nigeria, Dutch wax print is popular for dress fabrics but with caveats. Some of it's highly fashionable, some it's old school (the first link) and being nostalgic for the old school stuff would in some circles mark you as a thoroughly Westernised intellectual. So I guess I'm curious about this sort of detail too - like if there are a bunch of hipster students rummaging through their grandmother's saris, or an equivalent trend?

I had seen the quilts and noticed how expensive they are here. And had also wondered about cotton saris - perhaps it's rare for them to be exported. I also wondered, looking at some of the designs, whether they are made in other countries as well as there are some rather East Asian-looking designs.

maya, it would be interesting to know more about your project, if you didn't mind.

I think taking an old sari from a friend or a relative is different to buying them in a used sari shop This makes a lot of sense. And this: Many Indian women will use the material from their old saris to make other garments, particularly for their young daughters does a lot to answer the question. I'm thinking of buying a couple to make little silk gifts, so was wondering, is there not a local industry doing so, why such a sari surplus?

* and some of it is pure nostalgia
posted by glasseyes at 7:27 AM on February 6, 2015

I'm thinking of buying a couple to make little silk gifts, so was wondering, is there not a local industry doing so, why such a sari surplus?

There are of course, but machine-made printed silk just simply isn't that special in India. I'm looking at the saris you linked to, and they seem like pretty reasonable prices to me. Everyone has silk saris and you could get a perfectly decent, brand new silk sari for 2000 rupees (32 dollars). Whoever is selling those saris online, has figured out that they seem more special to people in the West, and is trying to sell them where they can get a good price.
posted by peacheater at 7:36 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: they seem more special to people in the West
Yes they do! Particularly after paying through the nose for 2 scant yards of poly-viscose to make a flimsy robe with!
posted by glasseyes at 8:59 AM on February 6, 2015

There is absolutely no market for second-hand silks in India. There's not much of a market for second-hand anything, actually, apart from books, electronics and cars.

Why? Cultural thing, I suppose. Old things get passed on either to relatives, household help, or, if you're like me, the baby of the family with no-one younger who needs your hand-me-downs, donated to charity. There was an orphanage near where I lived that my mother and I would make regular donations to. I'm cringing at the very thought of buying second-hand clothes in India, even if it's something I do regularly in the West. I guess part of it is that Indians are much more likely to wear their clothing to rags to begin with.
posted by Tamanna at 10:00 AM on February 6, 2015

Best answer: Lucy Norris's excellent book Recycling Indian Clothing goes into this a great deal. If I have a chance later, I'll dig thru it for quotes, but here's a hasty link to two posts (1, 2) I did, including the photo series that it was paired with
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:09 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, extrapolating, I'm guessing that if the idea of wearing second hand is inconceivable to the professional classes, then so is the idea of selling one's old saris? And that there's no parallel to the way middle class kids (and adults) do trawl secondhand shops looking for treasure here. But spamandkimchi's link does explain how some old clothes enter the market* only I'd have thought they would indeed be almost in pieces by then.

Or perhaps the people who are given them - relatives, household help, charity - often go on to sell? Who buys? A shopkeeper? A domestic worker? (Silk? Really?) A migrant worker? Because if they are sold in the market, as maya describes, then they are bought.

I'm aware how grimy and sweaty and filthy life can be in the tropics, and I'm thinking of the task of washing and ironing warehouses full of secondhand saris and I'm feeling...faint but intrigued. I've ordered a garment and will report back.

The other thing I'm aware of is how parallel economies with completely different systems of monetary value sit side-by-side in developing economies, and even in urban centres, some people are still enmeshed in a traditional life. From the answers here I feel this question could - and has - diverged in interesting ways. Class signifiers; systems of patronage; clothes as discrete objects of value and as signifiers of so many other things; group identity; nationalism; global trade; recycling and environmentalism etc. Exoticism, appropriation and culture clashes also perhaps. I wish I could ask a kind Mefite for a comprehensive overview.

Thanks for the answers so far, everybody, I wont mark resolved yet in hope of further fascinating input.

*Households do not sort rubbish into organic and recyclable categories; everything not used or saved in the home is simply left outside on the doorstep every morning. What little is thrown away is first sorted by the man who collects it from the doorstep, who removes anything he spots which has a resale value, such as food tins and plastic water bottles. These can be sold to small middlemen specializing in recyclable commodities bought by weight. By leaving them on the doorstep, residents eliminate the need to find somewhere to sell them, instead tacitly giving them away as gifts to the sweepers, whom they know will earn something from them.
posted by glasseyes at 1:20 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can confirm the South Asian stigma against buying second-hand clothing. My parents are upper-middle-class Bangladeshis (my dad is especially fond of designer clothing) and they are aghast at the idea of second-hand clothing. Their excuse is "you don't know where that's from!! What if it's dirty?!" and also "how can people respect you in old clothes?!".

But I think a large part of it is pride: they associate second-hand-ness with poverty, and perhaps consider it an insult to their many years of hard work and sacrifice to make sure we will never go hungry or be in need of anything, including clothes. If I can afford finer clothing, because they made damn well sure I could, why would I want to pretend I am poor by resorting to old clothes?

(Of course, what my parents don't quite grok is that a large part is because their fancy favourite designer clothing is never really in my size let alone my style - thrift stores have been a godsend in that regard.)
posted by divabat at 1:30 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sari Sak
posted by caryatid at 1:45 PM on February 6, 2015

Best answer: I enjoyed watching this video about simple quilts being made from saris and other old clothes.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:41 PM on February 6, 2015

Response by poster: machine-made printed silk just simply isn't that special in India.

There's a fabulous export opportunity there for someone. Competitively priced silk and silk mixes for dressmakers would do very well here. Maybe there's trade protection laws that mean it can't happen?
posted by glasseyes at 3:47 AM on February 7, 2015

Best answer: There is a market, however, for the original pure gold and silver zari borders from old Benarasi and Kanchipurams (Kanjivaram). A gazillion years ago, when the world was young, traders would come door to door iirc

Saris, along with other old clothes, could also be exchanged for pots and pans by such door to door traders. This is probably one of the main sources of the used saris, glasseyes and maya

Bhandiwali - This is an unique concept. The used or old clothes can be sold to a 'Bhandiwali'. 'Bhandi' means utensils.This lady does the rounds of your locality once a week. All you need to do is shout out to her and she comes to your doorstep, scrutinizes all the clothes, the one she thinks can be recycled will be traded for steel utensils. She will not pay you money, instead give you steel cups, pots, pans or ladles depending on how good/bad your clothes are. She then sells them to vendors who buy it either to sell them on the roadside or recycle to make new clothes, bags or just fabric.

And an interesting snippet that shows the bartan wali is still around (bhandi = bartan depending on region etc etc)

I reach home and park the car. A bartan wali ( you know the ones who take old clothes etc and give you steel bartans in return) is sitting outside the gate. " Bibiji, take a look at my basket. I have got so many new utensils". I smile and shake my head-" don't have the time." She is made of sterner stuff and repeats her plea. I again shake my head. That is not good enough for her. I am made to hear about all the neighbors, apparently with truckloads of old clothes and an equal amount of time , who took shining new bartans and shared their plans for what to do with the new thingies. So, Mrs S ,three houses away, chose a sieve because her purani sieve had been stolen by her jharu-poche wali ; and that Mrs P took 6 new steel glasses because this will be her daughters first karva- chauth and apparently steel glasses are de rigueur. I tell the woman that I can hear the phone ringing and rush inside.
posted by infini at 10:15 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

glasseyes, you might be able to get the stuffs you're looking for in shops serving the asian diaspora, and I'm going to memail you based on your long thoughtful comment on recycling and repurpose
posted by infini at 10:21 AM on February 8, 2015

Response by poster: Heh. Thank you. I was so hoping you'd chime in.

I should have included this earlier: previously, a post on the blue about saris.
posted by glasseyes at 11:04 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

There certainly isn't the same culture of mitumba in South Asia the way it exists across most of SSA. There's always someone to hand it down to and the culture of charitable giving is inherent without the extensive infrastructure of charity shops and second hand clothing outlets more prevalent in the West. This implies however that some informal markets do exist. Also answers your questions on sorting, sourcing and cleaning.

Rags are part of the informal sector's extensive value chain of recycle, repurpose, reuse and resale. Here's an interesting snippet,

In the last four years, India received imports from at least 30 countries, and oddly, from third-world Kenya, Tunisia and Congo.

Btw, that culture of not sorting out waste has its own issues, though commonly a NIMBY problem that's externalized.
posted by infini at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Marking the question answered but I'd like to list, in no particular order, some of the interesting stuff gleaned from links in the comments. Not all of it has been a direct answer.
1. There's a massive second-hand market for clothes in India. Unlike in UK, these clothes are washed, ironed and mended before sale. This represents employment for a great number of people with diverse skills.
2. As the price of gold and silver has risen, vintage saris containing these metals are recycled purely to extract them i.e. the saris are destroyed. Nostalgia for old styles and fabrication standards or for times gone by doesn't seem to be a part of the use of second-hand garments at all.
3. It's probably difficult if not downright uncomfortable to be eccentric in one's dress as an Indian woman. Saris represent status, income, convention and an ideal of womanhood that any social being would find tricky to disregard. (Please correct if I'm wrong about this.)
4. "Chiffon and pearls", a classic sari look pioneered by the great beauty Maharani Gayatri Devi, while terrifically old-fashioned today, still has intimations of royalty. (It's extremely elegant.)
5. Amrita Sher-Gil. Amazing artist of Indian/Hungarian heritage, died 1941 at the age of 28 of unknown causes. As a mixed-race person, she constructed, to an extent, her own Indian identity and personal style, and is "sometimes known as India's Frida Kahlo."
6. Craftswomen could come to your house to make you a quilt out of your old saris.
7. Certain very high-quality fabrics, processes and embellishments are certified by government. One of the links quotes a price range of between $6,000 - $60,000 for hand-spun, hand-dyed, hand-woven silk sari embellished with gold and silver thread (zari.)
8. Political actors have definitely mobilised the saris of their own dress to indicate authenticity, national unity, support for local industry, historical awareness and so forth. But outside of politics clothes aren't normally wielded so symbolically.

Thanks to everyone for such fascinating contributions here, which I hope I haven't unduly distorted.
posted by glasseyes at 7:27 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Spot on, and I learnt something new - that Amrita Shergil was of part Hungarian heritage. She's been so thoroughly assimilated into the local arts and culture heritage.

Also excellent sense of nuance in your understanding. Especially 3., though there are those who have made their particular choice of saris into a personal statement of style, like Mrs Indira Gandhi who, though a widow and shouldn't be in colour, wore muted and pastel shades considered to be of as immense taste as Gayatri Devi's pearls and chiffon.

Does it work the same way with West African prints - Vlisco is entering the NG market and now I'm curious. Or is this an Ask in its own right?
posted by infini at 8:50 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was surprised by the answers because the norms are so different - then I remembered India's been a global exporter of fabric and fabric products for 300 years - then I remembered that's actually the Eurocentric view and it's been a great deal longer than that.

The Dutch wax prints sold by the likes of Vlisco are imported, Brunnschweiler in Manchester was heavily involved but I think Chinese businesses are taking over now. As per this link a Chinese group now owns ABC Wax, a former Brunnschweiler subsidiary.

So in Nigeria there's different local weaving and dyeing traditions of highly valued fabrics and these are cottage industries. Then we had a nascent actual modern fabric industry but had a political catastrophe in the form of the Abacha robber baron government, repercussions from which are ongoing. At the moment infrastructure is so problematic it's hard to keep a modest industry going, I think; infrastructure being power, water, roads, security and a workable bureaucracy. (Nigeria's in a bad way. We hope it's improving.) An incredibly profitable industry solves its own problems but a moderately profitable one needs a bit of nursing. It seems there's fabric factories in Ghana but I don't think the Nigerian ones are producing at all.

Anyhow, as you say, it probably would be worth a separate post. Lots of research to be done though! I love the traditional strip cotton weaving and I have a man's suit made from it dating from the early 50's - it's not as if I could actually wear it in Nigeria - dress in male clothing! No, no, no!
posted by glasseyes at 2:09 AM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The saris have arrived and I said I'd report back.

I ended up going back to the website for more and they put them all in the one parcel. I also had to pay not import tax but VAT, which I hadn't realised would apply to used clothing. So with P&P and VAT each sari cost me something like £16/$25, which is actually more than I thought they would be.

First thing, the vendor absolutely does their best to represent the saris accurately with detailed photographs. Having said that, it's necessary to pay attention to the photographs, where stains are visible if you look carefully; and pay attention to the item description heading - ie if it says something like 'craft decoration fabric' I think that means there will be more worn patches. I'm assuming.

The ones I got have been cleaned and ironed. They tend to have a little wear where you would expect, the hem. A couple have some stains, again where you would expect at the hem and the front. Occupational hazard of walking and of eating I guess. I'd say they are in good condition, and very nice fabric. There's a rayon one which doesn't look as if it has any wear at all, rayon being more hard wearing than silk. But they do all smell really dusty, which I suppose is the smell of the warehouse. Really, really, bothers-an-asthmatic dusty, and the plastic bags they're in are dusty as well. So those are going in the bin and the saris are all going in the washing machine.

I think I'm pleased with my purchase. I can't fault the vendor on anything. There is one I might not have bought if I'd seen it in the flesh - the colour is more acid than appeared in the photographs - but I'll still be able to use it. The cost per yard for the fabric bearing in mind some will be discarded works out at about £3.50/$5.40.
posted by glasseyes at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Thanks very much for that report back at the end--I've been following this discussion with interest and have been thinking of buying a few saris from the original site for projects of my own.
posted by Sublimity at 5:43 AM on February 21, 2015

Response by poster: Well, it's buyer beware. Now that I've washed and ironed them I think I'm very pleased with half of them, and 'oh well, I can use that bit,' about the rest. The printed light silk have less wear than the heavy crepe, so they've been better value.

But, looking round the internet, there are places to order new saris, still not too expensive compared to what you might pay on the High Street. See here (these are cotton.) Rs784 is about £8 or $13 I think. But then you've got import tax, postage and handling to think about.
posted by glasseyes at 9:52 AM on February 21, 2015

I bought a number of really nice saris only slightly used in Dublin, Ireland some years back. I think most customers of the shop were non-Indian. Irish or even American. Mahrani's Oriental Clothing.
She not only had saris but lengha outfits and shalwar - khameez. I believe a lot of her stock was bought from women returning from India or Pakistan with newer, more fashionable saris and other clothing.
It's quite true that Indian women come under a lot of fashion scrutiny, by both men and women. A less than fashionable woman isn't liked. Neither are any eccentric tastes in clothing or other things.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:30 PM on March 1, 2015

You will enjoy Vintage Indian Clothing - they have done a series on styles from every decade of the past century
posted by infini at 4:43 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a postscript, Dazzling, empowering, weighted in history: my relationship with the sari by Shahidha Bari in The Guardian; Radio documentary My Mother's Sari by the same author, BBC Radio 4.
posted by glasseyes at 12:07 PM on May 1, 2015

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