The Kurta: A Wardrobe Staple of the Mysterious East

Hi readers, thank you for visiting! This is a brief post about a garment which is a wardrobe staple in the South Asian countries of Pakistan and India.  Today, these two nations are among the very few countries where ancient garb is still worn on a practical, daily basis.

The kurta is a tunic worn over pants  (the shalwar and other bottom garments which I’ll write about in a future post). It is a unisex garment which is unique in that it takes on a feminine look when worn by women, and on men it looks, well, manly.  You can safely say that a kurta is a distant cousin to the caftan.

Pictured here is a drawing which can be titled “kurta specs”. It’s hand drawn but I will surely try to create it in Power Point or other software, notwithstanding my very poor graphic design skills.  Kurta specs

The next photo shows how drapey and feminine it looks when worn. (No, I did not sew the pink chiffon kurta pictured below.) You can also see the seams if you click to enlarge the image.  I’ve worn kurtas my entire life; not everyday, but quite a lot. I think it is elegance and comfort personified. A note about the metallic embroidery – it’s called “kamdani” and is done with very narrow metal strips. Kamdani embroidery is unique to the South Asian region.

Pink chiffon kurta

The brief information below was a presentation I did many years ago for my local American Sewing Guild neighborhood group. I thought you might enjoy it, too.  Here goes:

  • Components of a traditional kurta are all geometric shapes.  When pieced together, they form a loose unstructured garment.
  • The neck is the only curved edge. It is normally finished with a bias facing or bias binding.
  • The neck has a placket opening
  • A shoulder seam is optional since the front and back can be cut as one long piece, but it’s advisable to have a shoulder seam since, like all garments, a kurta hangs from the shoulder.
  • The only bias edge is one edge of each side piece ( each side piece is called a “kali”)
  • Suitable fabrics range from soft cotton lawn, voile, shirtings, chiffons to raw silk, hand wovens.
  • Traditionally, the entire kurta was hand sewn. As in anything handsewn, the results were soft and exquisite. No one sews a kurta by hand anymore.
  • Seams are traditionally very narrow and felled on the wrong side. French seams are also used. A serger rolled hem or a very narrow three-thread seam can also be used for some quick sewing.
  • The only interfaced part of a kurta is the placket.
  • Hidden side seam pockets are added to men’s kurtas.
  • Lengths follow the fashion of the day.
  • The underarm gusset is one of the great traditional features of the kurta.
  • Side slits are optional. Old kurtas had no side slits, but slits are added to modern versions.

See below for a couple of close-ups and details:

The neck placket on this kurta is “faux”. The designer outlined a placket shape in “kamdani” embroidery and called it a day.  This time I agree with the designer because a real placket in chiffon would have taken away from the airiness and lightness of the garment. What do you think?

IMG_0948

This is a picture of the underarm gusset. I apologize for the unclear picture but you get the idea. gusset close-up

In a future post, I will detail the construction order of a kurta!  Do you think you would be interested in making one? This will not be a sew-along but just one post and you will be free to ask any questions you may have.

Simplicity pattern 4528 resembles a kurta, and of course I’ve made at least three versions of this pattern.  Can you think of any other western adaptation of the kurta? I would love to see your thoughts in the comment section.

As always, I’m thrilled that you read this post. Thank you!

Samina

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8 thoughts on “The Kurta: A Wardrobe Staple of the Mysterious East

    1. It’s very comfy — maybe that is why people in South Asia never really gave it up. It suits the tropical climate. You are right in that if it’s belted, or shortened to tunic length, it becomes so western. I’ve seen it used as a beach cover up, as sleep wear and many other interpretations.
      You should try making one :).

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  1. This looked so familiar. A few years ago we did a very special Sew White Sewing Bee to benefit the American Independence Museum in Exeter, NH. One of the many items we were tasked with creating is a 1780-1810 Shift. It was a white plain-woven linen. It is created in a very similar manner with many felled seams. These shifts did not have the lovely button placket which is a lovely detail. I had not thought to make it in a lovely fabric. Thanks for the delightful, informative post. The wonderful thing about the Shift is no pattern is necessary.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Janith! I would love to see more information about the 1780 – 1810 shift. I can get a little obsessive with fashion & sewing history.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Anita. I’ll be posting the construction details shortly. So glad to see that you like the kurta. An elderly relative of mine made one for me as a gift entirely by hand. I must say that it was the most comfortable, light as air piece of clothing I ever wore.

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  2. I totally understand. A few years ago I made a pattern along very similar lines. I may have to try to find this pattern and make a new kurta for the coming summer. Something in a cotton voile I think. Looking forward to your future posts. 🙂

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