Salim watches as fine copper threads are drawn from copper alloys, then flattened under rotating rollers. The flattened copper threads are wound on a base yarn of silk, further flattened, then electroplated with silver. Before being wound on a reel, these gilded threads are passed through a brightener. It is a fascinating process. Salim is young. He listens as his father recounts tales of his great grandfather, when everything was done by hand, and the zari of pure gold and silver, was commissioned by men of wealth. He loves watching his father hunched over the karchob, the rectangular wooden frame on which the silk is stretched, as he slowly brings to life the intricate patterns that swirl in his head. Over the generations, the methods and materials have changed, but this is still a labour of love. Salim watches his father closely, because soon, he will join the family business.
Zari work is mentioned in our great epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – and there are references to it in the Rig Veda. Historically, zari consisted of pure silver wires fused with real gold leaves, known as kalabattu. From Vedic times, through the Mughal era, zari workers have been respected for their craft.
The core of genuine zari today is degummed, twisted, red or yellow mulberry silk yarn, over which copper lametta and badla (flattened wire) is wound. The copper zari threads are electroplated to produce gold or silver zari.
Cheap saris use a non-genuine variation called metallic or plastic zari that is made of slitted polyester metallized film.
Zari thread is used widely in weaving, and more selectively in embroidery. For intricate patterns, gijai or a thin, stiff wire is used. Sitara, a small star-shaped metal piece is used for floral designs. This type of embroidery is called salma-sitara. The dull zari thread is called kora and the shinier one is called chikna. Zardozi is the heavier, more elaborate embroidery used to embellish wedding outfits, and Kamdani, a lighter needlework that produces the glittering hazara butti (thousand lights). Mukaish, one of the oldest styles rendered with silver wire, is produced by highly skilled artisans, because the wire itself serves as the needle, piercing the material to complete the stitches. In Gota work, the woven gold border is cut into myriad shapes to create a variety of textures. Birds, animals, and human figures are attached to the cloth, covered with wires of silver and gold, and enthroned in coloured silks.