So much of the vibrant color that defines Linen Feast comes from upcycled sari products such as kantha blankets, rugs, bags, and scarves. I have often wondered about the way in which a used sari travels from the closet of a generous Indian woman into the hands of an artisan. And so on my recent trip to West Bengal, where repurposing used saris has been practiced for hundreds of years, I determined to uncover the path of a used sari. While I am not claiming to be the first to grace the web with information about used saris, I will say I was surprised at how little is written not only on the used sari market that I visited, but also on the fascinating used sari trade.
Cotton kantha used for scarves, table runners etc
When I inquired about this mystery at Sasha World, I learned about the used sari market, which is, depending on how you look at it, a night or morning market. The market runs from about 2:00 am - 7:00 am, and clears out by 7:30 - 8:00 am so that the road on which it takes place can open. This market is referred to by its location in Kolkata as the Girish Park Market, but I was told to go to Liberty Cinema, which is another landmark, and Liberty Haat is evidently another name for the market.
When I go again I will take a taxi, but as an added precaution (for a woman roaming Kolkata's streets alone at 4:30 am) I hired a driver. The market runs for several blocks and features hundreds of sellers who spread their wares on the street. The sellers sit behind their stacks of saris and other clothing. I had forgotten to inquire about pricing for a used cotton sari, so I turned down the first sari, which was offered to me for 100 rupees. I then used 100 rupees as a benchmark and set out to find more saris at a lower price. In the end, I paid 70 rupees for each sari and purchased 5 cotton saris from 3 or 4 different sellers. I should note here that the two times I walked away from the offer (once for 100 rps and once for 200 rps per piece), nobody chased me down to lower the price. Also of note is that I was later told 70 rupees was too much, and that I should have paid no more than 50 rupees.
Now while this market experience was fruitful and solved the mystery of how the sari gets from the seller to the artisan, what I learned about how these saris arrive at the market is of even more interest to me. Devika of Sasha World explained that the used saris are initially traded out of homes for steel kitchen equipment like utensils and bowls and cups. Although she doesn't know to what extent this trading activity is practiced anymore, Devika remembers a time when a sari trader would call out while walking through residential areas. If somebody indicated that they had used saris (or other clothing) to give up, the trader would come and barter with steel utensils. Where did they get these utensils? Upon selling the used saris, the sari trader uses the money to buy more steel kitchen supplies and begins the trade process again.
I don't know the extent to which this barter system still thrives, and was not able to find much online to learn more, so if you have personal experience or more details, please share in the comments!