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Fishtail Sari Drape

Saris are a garment found in many SCA-period Indian paintings. Women and men wear saris in many different ways; usually relating to the functions they perform in society. For example, people that need to be highly mobile, drape saris into a pants-style. The "fishtail sari" is so called because the most ornate portion, or "pallav" hangs down in the front, like a fish's tail. This sari is especially useful for dancers, who generally need full leg movement in the course of dancing an Indian style. But the drape can be seen on a variety of men and women in pre-1600 pictures.

The word "sari" or "saree" means "draped garment", so generally any kind of un-sewn garment may be termed a sari. The verb for putting on a sari is usually either "wrapping", "tying" or "draping". They may be made of any type of fabric, but cottons, silks and synthetics are the most common. I find that the smoother, slipperier or silkier the texture of the fabric, the harder it is to drape it and keep it in place. Thus, rough spun cottons and thick silks are the easiest. Chiffon, light silks, and most especially the typical synthetics (such as rayon or acetate), are the hardest. Highly stiff fabrics, such as metal-embellished silk brocades take some adjustment time to conform to your shape. With normal wearing they will flatten out, but at first the drape will appear "puffy" and your hips will look larger than normal. The weight of the fabric will cause it to flatten out, after a while and body heat will press it into your shape, making it easier to drape. The type of fabric and the type of decoration applied to the sari tells much about the wealth, status, caste and place of origin of the wearer. I've written, and continue to write pages about sari textiles, and textile embellishment techniques - it's a favorite area of study for me. Please check out my pages on sari textiles and block printing for more information.

This demonstration is written by me, but inspired by Chantal Boulanger's book "Saris: an illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping", which details a wide variety of modern and ancient drapes, including the only source I have found for the fishtail sari. I have used her instructions for a baseline, and enhanced them with my own personal experience and digital images of myself draping this style. All pictures and text are my own creation, otherwise, and I did the modeling. Please contact me (beth at pir dot net) if you want to reprint or reuse this page. I like to know that people find use in what I write, and I like to know where pictures of my face travel. Thanks!

Just can't get enough? If you like these instructions, see my new addition on a Vijayanagara Era drape. It's an attempt at a drape shown in a painting from the old Vijayangara Empire - which reigned from the 14th century until 1565 in Southern India.

Get fabric Saris can be found in any number of places - local Indian merchants, SCA merchants, online. Also, either Indian-looking, or plain fabric can often be purchased at fabric stores. Plain fabric can be embellished with dying and printing techniques to imitate historic textile samples. The most important part is that the sari must be in the vicinity of 6 yards. Most modern saris are 6-yard saris, so buying a regular sari should be fine. I am 6 feet tall and 200lbs, a size 14-16, and 6 yards works fine for myself, and most of my shorter and smaller friends. Some of the ladies I know who are larger than myself have found that 9 yards saris work better. 9-yard saris are harder to dig up, but can be found in Toronto or through associates who go to India. The length can fluctuate by at least a half a yard in either direction. More or less than that, and draping this style can be difficult. For information about particular styles of sari textiles, see my pages on that subject.

Measure fabric for the fishtail For the fishtail, you will need to reserve a length of fabric on one side that will eventually form this embellishment. Using the fancy (pallav) end, measure a length that is approximately as long as the distance from your waist to the ground. If you will be particularly active today, dancing or walking long distances quickly counts, make the pallav a little shorter, so it is not in your way. I generally tie mine about 6 inches shorter before giving a dance performance.

Find the adjusted center point This is not the actual center of the fabric, but the center, minus the fishtail segment you have reserved. I usually find the center of the fabric by putting the non-fishtail end next to the measured endpoint of the pallav, so that the wrong sides are touching. I line them up so I am inside the sari. I pull along the two ends to align the center so it is behind my back. I am now holding the sari with the pallav/fishtail end in my right hand, and the plain end in my left. The sari goes behind my back, with the center point in the center of my back, and the right side of the fabric facing away from me. I do not need to keep track of the ends of the fabric for this step.

Tie a waistband at center Take the two sides of the sari in your hands, near your waist, leaving enough between your hand to encircle your waist. Pull and squish them so that you have two folded ties in front of you, about 6" long. Tie the two portions together around your waist, forming a waistband. I usually use a square knot (the knot that won't slip!) - right over left, left over right. The important thing is that the tie is comfortable and not confining, but also not so loose that the sari will fall off. This tie supports the rest of the draping, and it generally isn't untied until you take the sari off. Usually the waist of my sari sags a bit low over my hips.

Put left side section of fabric under left leg Take the section of fabric on the left side, the non-pallav section. Put it between your legs from front to back. Take it from behind and pull it to the front of your body, around your left side. You will now have formed a tube of fabric around the left leg.

Pleat left end Pleat the left end that you have just wrapped around your leg. You are pleating along the short/raw edge. I usually support the pleats in my right hand and use the left to guide and untangle the fabric while I pleat. I support the fabric with my right hand, holding one end between index and middle finger, and the other end between ring finger and thumb, adjusting after every layer. The pleats look best when they are somewhat regular, and somewhat in the vicinity of 4-6 inches.

Tuck pleated end into front of waistband Tuck the end you have just pleated into the waistband. You can adjust how much you have tucked to get a wider or tighter leg on the left side. It should swag comfortably, with a fairly tight, but not confining lower leg, and a baggy hip. If it's too tight, walking will pull it out. If it's too loose, you'll end up tripping over the edge of the leg. In the case of thick, stiff materials, it may take an hour or so of wear to get it adjusted to your body on the first wearing.

Tuck upper border of sari around left side of waist Tuck the upper border of the left sari leg around the left side of your body. Not much is necessary - 3 or so inches will suffice. Tuck it around to the center of your back. More can be tucked for a trimmer leg. Too much will make walking difficult.

Wrap right side around right leg Wrap the right side of the sari around the right leg in the same manner as the left leg was wrapped - front to back, around the right side of body

Pleat right end and pull pleats to end of the fishtail Pleat the right end of the fabric, as you did the left. You will be pleating the end of the pallav. After pleating, align the pleats so they continue evenly down the pallav of the fabric, and hold them at the spot that you measured for the fishtail. You can re-measure against your leg if necessary.

Fold and tuck into waistband Tuck the part between the fishtail and the rest of the sari into the waistline. The fishtail should now hang loosely down the front. Adjust so that the fishtail does not drag on the ground or encumber movement, by tucking any extra into the waist. Also adjust so that the right leg is as comfortable as the left leg. As before, tuck the upper border around the side to the center of the back. You know have a draped fishtail sari. The ends of the upper borders should meet at the waistline in the center of the back, forming two layers of sari over the rear end.

Side note - going to the bathroom The last thing that practice draping will not teach you is... visiting the facilities. This can be done without removing the sari, so long as one is not wearing underwear. Since I have no suggestions of period Indian underwear, and removing the sari for every visit to the loo would be inconvenient at best - I think this technique makes sense. Begin by throwing the fishtail section (the loose part hanging down your front) over your shoulder, so it won't drag on the floor or fall in the toilet. To use the lavatory, or moon innocent passerby - pull the two sides apart horizontally apart. Reach below and pull up the layer underneath. This will probably involve hiking up the ankles slightly, particularly if your sari is tightly draped. I've used biker shorts for showing the sari draping, but normally I forgo this garment and stay completely modest with just the sari drape. The black section in the picture to the side is the biker shorts, and would otherwise be my rear. :)

Afterwards, you'll need to adjust everything back into place. The two sides that you tucked into the waistline at the middle of your back will have gotten pulled out slightly - tuck them back in. Also, everything will be all bunched up from being pulled out of your way. It just needs to be shaken back into place - so drop your dignity for a minute and do something that resembles the hokey pokey - shake it all around. The sari should fall into place pretty easily without any further assistance.

NOTE: In my experience, the traditional Indian toilet is a pit in the floor, rather than a pit mounted in a chair. So the position for using the facilities is squatting, rather than sitting. It seems to me that such a position is far more amenable to this style of drape.

Here's my take on the basics of using this drape. I've used it for many Pennsics now, and found it reasonably workable for most activities. For very serious physical labor, I either tuck the fishtail into my waist, or change into a more utilitarian drape. I see this drape most often on royalty, royal attendants, dancers, and learned people - villagers and other manual workers don't seem to have drapes that involve ostentatious floating fishtail parts, probably because they get in the way during heavy labor.

I should end by adding that all sari wrapping is a very personal process. Since you are adding the fit and tailoring while you put on the rectangle of fabric, the process is slightly different for each individual. The reward is, you always get a garment that fits you exactly as you are - you never need to take it out or bring it in, you adjust it when you put it on. To get something that is even on both legs, fits comfortably without inhibiting movement, and looks flattering, you need to practice putting it on and wearing it. Doubly so for performing a dance routine, or any other highly physical activity. I highly recommend trying on the sari and wearing it around the house for a few days before going out in public. And for dances, I can't stress the importance of at least one dress rehearsal. Preferably full dress, since Indian jewelry, hair and makeup also take time and have an effect on mobility.

2012 Note:

This may be my most famous addition to the SCA.  From my first Pennsic, I'd be stopped on the 'street' to explain this drape, and I taught it as nearly a comedic performing arts "happening" for many years, randomly demonstrating this to people.  I've draped queens, performers and PhD's.   If anything brought me into focus as a teacher in the SCA, it's probably this hallmark drape. 

It's funny how being willing to teach will bring you more than you might ever think possible.  I've never begrudged a chance to take the time to teach this drape, and I've learned all sorts of new things every time I have a new student.  Sari draping has been one of my favorite parts of the SCA and this remains my favorite drape.

Please use this information in the spirit in which it was intended - as a resource for all.  I don't endorse putting this on a commercial page for any sales, but I do endorse and encourage anyone to teach this drape with their own words and thoughts.  Just like a sari drape is fit to each wearer, make this information your own and fit it to your own style. 
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