Alea Ismail

“It is something that I would pass down to my daughters, if they were interested in wearing saris”


Your name, background and earliest textile memories.

My name is Alea Ismail. I am second generation Bangladeshi. My parents are originally from Comilla. My father came during the second World War and my mother joined him the mid 1960s. And been here since birth and really for the last 50 odd years.

Where did you experience textiles – Brick Lane or the markets?

We had various sari shops in Tower Hamlets. I remember visiting them with my mother. Especially a few on Brick Lane. I think Whitechapel. The main one I remember is a really huge sari shop in Brick Lane. That’s where I accompanied my mum to buy her saris. She would bring saris from Bangladesh. That’s when I encountered Jamdani. When I was a teeneager, especially during Eid time when I was looking for something to wear.

Tell us about that memory – your feelings about that time?

I remember I use to go through all of my mum’s saris and would choose the best saris… go through them and the one that caught my eye.

The black and gold Jamdani. Black was almost always my favourite – the combination and texture of it. It wasn’t see-through but it was a nice delicate material. I remember wearing but always looked for that sari, but I think my mum might have given it to a family member in Bangladesh. I have since bought a few Jamdanis but I’ve never been able to find anything similar to that combination of the black and gold. Where I have seen it online, in Aarong it’s far too expensive to buy that.

What do you feel about Jamdani – does it connect you with your culture?

I think it does ‘cause it’s cotton. I know it’s handloom and it takes ages and the designs are quite unique. So you can never find the same one again, which I like, the uniqueness about it. The material, I enjoying wearing the Jamdanis. I have a few now. It is something that I would pass down to my daughters, if they were interested in wearing saris.

How important is it to pass textile heritage down to the next generation?

For me I don’t wear saris on a daily basis but I do during weddings and Eid celebrations, so for me it’s important that we get to wear our national heritage clothing, if we choose to. I find the cotton saris and Jamdanis are really traditional. And wearing them you get a sense of belong – of this being really traditional and part of Bangladesh. It’s such good quality material that it’s under-estimated, understated and not that well recognised. Had it been marketed in a way to show it’s uniqueness, the quality of it is something that would be quite popular and world renowned.

Do you still wear saris and what types do you wear?

I do wear them and I enjoy wearing them. I just find it’s not practical to wear on a daily basis. For me it’s more about the celebration: Eid, wedding and certain functions like Mehendi, where I do wear them, and I do have a collection. But I don’t get the occasion to wear it as much as I would probably want to. You need an occasion to wear them really. I have a collection of saris from cotton, silk to Jamdanis, not a massive collection, but I do have some that that I’ve given away and a few that are my favourites. I’ve got a few Jamdanis I’ve kept and hopefully with my daughters, will pass them down to them.

In your earliest memories of Bangladesh, did you see any weavers making cloth?

No. Memories I had was when I went, not as a child but as an adult. I did go to some of the arts and crafts shops where they sell some of these saris and ones like Aarong, where they sell a lot of these cotton saris – obviously cotton saris are quite popular in Bangladesh. Looking for something a bit different, it could be cotton saris it could be Jamdani. I remember in Dhaka going to the craft shops where they had the muslin, I remember the muslin sari which I’ve still got. Buying some cotton and Jamdani. Jamdani and muslin are similar in the way they are made, that’s my understanding of it.

Are there any other memories you’d like to share?

I just find that when I have searched, Googled to buy some Jamdanis a couple of years ago, I did have a look, I remember they’re really expensive now… now, especially in a shop like Aarong, you’re looking to pay 3 or 4, 5 hundred pounds, so they’re not within the average person’s reach now. They’re really expensive. I know a friend going back and her husband bought her a gift and paid a lot of money for a really nice Jamdani. They are available, but not within the reach of the average person nowadays, I’m not sure as I’ve not been to Bangladesh for some time. If I did go back, I’ll probably still be looking for that unique black and gold Jamdani sari.”

A younger Alea Ismail with the ‘missing’ black and gold Jamdani

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