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From Bazaar to Customer: What Upcycled Sari Clothing is and How We Make It

Saris from the bazaar ready to be made into Swahlee sari clothing.

The sun beats down on the busy marketplace, highlighting the vegetable sellers, clothing stands, and fragrant spice booths. The crowded scene sits next to a busy road full of honking horns, chattering bystanders, and rickshaws shuttling people from place to place. 

In the middle of it all, are five Swahlee team members examining saris to use in our upcoming product run. 

You’ve probably heard about upcycled sari clothing, but maybe you’re wondering … why upcycled saris? This Swahlee Journal article will help you understand what upcycled sari clothing is, how it’s made, and why you should consider adding a few pieces to your wardrobe. 

Keep reading to learn about the Swahlee way and how we combine kindness to both the planet and people through our upcycled sari line. 

Table of Contents  

  • What Type of Clothing is a Sari? 
  • What is the Difference between Saree and Sari? 
  • Sourcing Saris at Beltola Bazaar
  • How We Make Our Sari Clothing 
  • Are Upcycled Sari Tops and Skirts Really Sustainable? 
  • Creating Effortless Style With an Enduring Impact — Swahlee’s Commitment to Ethical Fashion

What Type of Clothing is a Sari? 

A sari is a long, wide piece of cloth worn by women in India and other parts of South Asia. It is wrapped around the waist and then draped over one shoulder. A cropped, fitted blouse is worn underneath. 

What is the Difference Between Saree and Sari? 

Both sari and saree are appropriate spellings for the same garment. There is no significant difference between the two other than preferential spelling. 

Sourcing Saris at Beltola Bazaar

When our stock is running low and we are ready to create another run of sari clothing, we head to a local bazaar to find the perfect saris. In a city like Guwahati, there are several massive bazaars to choose from. This time we decided on Beltola Bazaar. It is smaller than some of the others but usually has one of the better selections of pre-worn saris. 

Click here to shop our capsule collection.

Why Upcycled Saris?  

At Swahlee, we strive to do all things with intention. We use pre-loved saris to create our upcycled sari clothing for several key reasons. Saris allow us to focus on:

  • Unique beauty 
  • Empowerment 
  • Sustainability

Saris create stunningly beautiful pieces. Did you know that a single sari often has three or more patterns? Bright, bold, beautiful colors combine with intricate patterns and traditional prints to create truly breathtaking material. Because of this, no two sari pieces are the same, meaning no matter what you order, your upcycled sari top or skirt is truly one-of-a-kind. 

Our mission at Swahlee is to create excellent jobs for women who face barriers to safe, ethical employment. We believe in the intrinsic value and power of women and upcycling saris is another way to invest in both. Every upcycled sari top and skirt in our store has a story. 

The woman who loved it before you is not that different from you. She most likely has a family to love and care for. She has overcome obstacles and battled difficult circumstances. She has hopes for her future and stories to tell from her past. 

She may have been:

  • A dadi — or grandma — who wore that same sari to her granddaughter's first birthday party. 
  • A young, up-and-coming lawyer who just joined a new office and is on track to win a massive case. 
  • A starry-eyed newlywed with bright hopes and dreams for her family’s future. 
  • An expectant mother who has been trying for a baby for years and finally received the news that she is soon to be a mother. 

Each sari has countless stories to tell. 

In a small way, upcycled sari clothing connects the women of the world just a little bit more. 

Upcycling saris into new clothing is sustainable. 

One of the most popular fabrics available, cotton is soft, breathable, and holds color well. It’s no wonder that around 25 million tonnes of cotton is produced annually, the bulk of that being spun into fabric which is turned into things like clothing and home goods.

That’s a lot of cotton and, unfortunately, that translates to a lot of waste. Only about 12% of the material used for clothing is ever recycled, leaving the rest sitting in landfills. By using pre-worn saris, Swahlee keeps up to 9 yards of cotton fabric out of the landfill with every sari purchased. 

Upcycling Vs. Recycling

Both recycling and upcycling are popular terms that tend to be used interchangeably. Are they the same thing? 

Upcycling is different than recycling because recycling involves breaking material down and turning it into something else. One great example of recycling is when clothing is made from old plastic water bottles. Recycling often uses chemical processes to break down post-consumer materials. 

Upcycling is when a material is reused and made into something more useful. The original material is kept in its original state (in other words, it isn’t broken down chemically) and is given a second life. Since it doesn’t involve any chemical processes, upcycling is an even more sustainable solution than recycling. 

At Swahlee, we love preserving the quality and legacy of each sari we touch by upcycling them into garments that can be worn by women on the other side of the world. 

Swahlee team member selecting saris for sari clothing.

How We Select Our Saris

When we take a sourcing trip to the bazaar, we don’t simply buy whatever print catches our eye; we are meticulous in our selection, making a point to select only high-quality, beautiful saris. 

Every sari we purchase must, at the very least, meet our three top criteria:

  • 100% cotton. We only source cotton saris because we know they make the best, most light, breathable, sari clothing. 
  • High-quality. They might be pre-loved, but that doesn’t mean the saris we choose are poor quality. We carefully examine each one to make sure they have minimal blemishes. If they have too many flaws to work around, we leave them behind. 
  • Beautiful, diverse patterns. We choose only the most beautiful prints and designs and we always make sure we select a wide variety of options. We look for neutrals, bold patterns, and timelessly classic designs. 

How We Make Our Sari Clothing 

Once we have a good supply of saris, it’s time to start turning them into our upcycled sari skirts and tops. 

Cleaning and Second Inspection 

The first stop for a Swahlee sari is the washing machine. We make sure our saris are thoroughly cleaned before anything else. After we have washed and dried them, it’s time to give them a second inspection. 

Our team carefully inspects every inch of each sari, noting areas with stains, holes, or other blemishes and marking them with small pieces of tape. 

Everything we do at Swahlee is done with intentionality and careful attention to the details. We pride ourselves on creating beautiful, high-quality pieces. 

Munu inspects a sari purchased at the bazaar.

 

Choosing the Design and Cutting 

Once we have inspected and marked the batch, we evaluate how much fabric we have from each one after avoiding the blemishes. The amount of cloth dictates how many things we will make and whether the sari will become skirts or shirts, or a set with both. 

We also have to decide which part of the sari we want to be which part of the clothing item. Since each sari has a variety of patterns, we carefully select which ones go best where. 

Finally, it’s time to cut out each part of the new shirt or skirt. 

Amansi is our primary cutter and she makes sure that every piece is cut carefully and correctly. 

Sari clothing pieces cut out next to the pattern we use.

Sewing it all Together 

Once the pieces are all cut and ready, they head off to the heart of the office, our sewing room. Swahlee seamstresses spend hours on each piece, ensuring that every stitch is perfect and that every inch meets our high standards. 

We believe quality takes time, which is why our Upcycled Sari Tie Neck Halter Top takes about half a day to make and our Upcycled Sari Button Midi Skirt takes a day and a half. 

Our seamstresses are highly trained and most have years of experience creating beautiful sari clothing. 

Sagarika sews together the newest sari top.

Quality Control Check

When the Swahlee seamstresses finish sewing each piece, our team performs an in-depth quality check. We go over each seam, measure every hem, and snip off each leftover thread. If a piece doesn’t meet our standards, it goes back to the sewing room. Once we are satisfied that each piece meets our high standards, they are ready for final ironing. 

Ironing and Packing 

From our upcycled sari skirt to our tie-neck tops, each garment is carefully ironed and packed for its journey to its new home. Our administrative coordinator, Amar Jyoti, handles the boxing process and makes sure to tape the box thoroughly to ensure that the stock reaches its final destination in prime condition. 

All of our pieces are packed with our signature tags, sharing information about the piece and offering care instructions, as needed. We believe that sustainability is in the details so our tags are made from recycled sustainable paper crafted partially from rhino and elephant dung by elrhino, a paper company working for the conservation of both of these majestic, endangered animals. 

Munu irons out any wrinkles left in a sari blouse.

Sending it Off

Finally, after hours of dedicated work, we have a run of upcycled sari clothing ready for sale. 

After we carefully pack them away into boxes, there are a few places our sari clothing could go:

  • To a wholesale customer — we are expanding our wholesale line and love sending orders to our sellers! 
  • To our American-based distribution center — if a piece isn’t yet sold, it goes to our distribution center so it is in the States, ready for its new home. 
  • Directly to a customer — since opening our distribution center in the States, we don’t send directly as often, but sometimes we still do. 

No matter which channel your  Swahlee sari clothing comes through, you can rest assured that your piece is sustainably and ethically made by women who are paid a fair, living wage. At Swahlee, people come first.  

A Sari’s New Life

Our upcycled sari pieces offer you effortless style with a fun twist. Each piece is beautifully one-of-a-kind. No matter which style you choose, your sari garment is sure to spice up your wardrobe while bringing unique elegance to your everyday. 

Brianna is one of Swahlee’s long-time customers and she loves our sari clothing for a few reasons … 

“I love that, when I make a purchase from the Swahlee sari line, this fabric is getting a second life when normally it would be discarded. I love the soft, breathable fabric that gets softer with every wash and doesn’t fade or have pilling. I love that each piece is unique, no two are alike!” 

But, even more than the quality, Brianna loves the impact she knows she makes with each purchase. 

“I love thinking about the hands that make the sari fabric, wondering if it was worn by anyone before me. And then thinking about the hands of the women who make my garment … women supporting women! Although we live halfway around the planet from one another, we are all interconnected in a unique sisterhood.” 

Brianna loves wearing her Upcycled Sari Tie-Neck Halter Top paired with the Wide Leg Trousers or our Button Midi Skirt during the hot months. When there is a chill in the air, Brianna finds that the halter top pairs wonderfully with a cardigan for an effortlessly stylish look. 

An orange and red sari ready to be sewn into sari clothing.

Are Upcycled Sari Tops and Skirts Really Sustainable? 

It seems like everyone is talking about sustainability and the importance of recycling and upcycling different materials. At the same time, it often feels like, just as often, people are saying that products and methods once considered sustainable are not as good as they’ve been touted to be. 

You might be wondering, are Swahlee’s sari tops and skirts actually sustainable? 

Andrea, the founder and managing director of Swahlee, puts it like this … 

“Yes. Our sari pieces are very sustainable. For one thing, they are created from material that is already well-used. It has had one clothing lifecycle and we are giving it a second one. Additionally, we are upcycling, not recycling, which means we aren’t using any chemical processes.” 

Sustainability and Second-Hand

Not only does upcycling prevent additional chemicals from being used, but it also gives a second life to material that would otherwise end up in landfills. 

Second-hand shopping and sourcing has long been seen as a great way to be sustainable in everyday life. When you use second-hand material, you bypass resource-draining manufacturing processes and unethical working practices. Second-hand sourcing and fashion is incredibly sustainable. 

Purchased saris packaged up and ready to go to the workshop to be made into sari clothing.

Creating Effortless Style With an Enduring Impact — Swahlee’s Commitment to Ethical Fashion

At Swahlee, we believe that everything we do should leave an impact that improves people’s lives, not devalues them. The fashion industry has long been known for its poor factory conditions and low worker wages. Commercial fast fashion makes a practice out of exploiting people

Not Swahlee. 

Everyone in our company receives a fair, living wage. Swahlee provides a clean, comfortable, and safe working environment for everyone on our team, from founder to seamstress. We exist to change what’s possible for the women we employ. 

Many of the women at Swahlee are pursuing higher education, which vastly broadens their horizons. 

We also believe in loving our planet and caring for our resources. When it comes to wardrobe size, Swahlee believes that less is more. That’s why we offer our stunning Capsule Collection, designed to give you all the flexibility you need from just a few, sustainable pieces. Our sari clothing provides your capsule wardrobe with a classy pop of color while remaining versatile enough to fit with just about any other piece from the collection. 

When you shop Swahlee, you aren’t just buying beautiful sari clothing; you’re impacting lives and empowering women. 

Thank you for being part of our enduring impact.

Click here to shop our Capsule Collection.

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