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How designing my own lehenga helped me feel like myself postpartum

"Designing and wearing a lehenga that featured block printing became a way to reconnect with myself again through roots and culture," writes Sahar Aman.

Designing my own lehenga helped me cope with my postpartum depression. (Photo via Sahar Ibrahim)
Designing my own lehenga helped me cope with my postpartum depression. (Photo via Sahar Aman)

That first big family event post-birth really hits home.

I had spent more than a year in maternity clothes and nursing bras, and the idea of dressing up for my brother's wedding after the physical and emotional experience of becoming a mama felt more than daunting.

I was only a few months into this new chapter of my life, and struggling with postpartum depression. I had a difficult labour and birth, followed by a very distressing breastfeeding journey. Like too many first-time mothers, I blamed myself for all of it. I couldn't help but think my body had failed and betrayed me.

Like too many first-time mothers, I blamed myself for all of it. I couldn’t help but think my body had failed and betrayed me.

I hoped that after a few weeks, once I settled into motherhood, this line of thinking would pass — but instead, it became worse. The thoughts of failure continued to gnaw at me, making me feel miserable, worthless and anxious. My mood was in shambles. I cried a lot in secret. I felt nothing like myself. Our baby's pediatrician clocked that I likely had postpartum depression. She referred me to a psychiatrist, and shortly after, I began therapy, which started to help.

I didn't want my postpartum depression to stop me from being a part of my brother's celebration. I just wanted to wear something special to help me feel more like myself again.

Thanks to the beautifully designed clothes, South Asian weddings are a sensory explosion of tradition, textile crafts and artisanal techniques. Planning outfits for a South Asian family wedding is often a detailed process, especially when there are multiple events. It's tricky under normal circumstances, let alone when you're postpartum.

Little did I know that creating a lehenga using South Asian artisanal techniques would become a small but powerful part of my recovery.

A Perahan craftsman uses hand-carved wooded blocks to print a bespoke design on a piece of fabric.
A Perahan craftsman uses hand-carved wooded blocks to print a bespoke design on a piece of fabric.

As a Pakistani-Canadian, I have always been proud of my heritage and the age-old textile crafts that come with it. Earlier this year, several of these practices were honoured by the luxury fashion brand Dior during its landmark fashion show in Mumbai. One of the techniques featured on the runway — block printing — dates back thousands of years. This art form involves hand-carving intricate patterns, motifs and shapes into wooden blocks. Craftsmen use the blocks to print beautiful bespoke designs on dyed fabrics like cotton, linen and silk by hand.

Little did I know that creating a lehenga using South Asian artisanal techniques would become a small but powerful part of my recovery.

While textile block printing is understood to have originated in China, it found its way to South Asia, where the local artisans came to have a real knack for it. Applying their regional customs, expertise and creativity to this medium, they have passed it down for generations, all the way to my mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law, Nasra Omar, is a textile designer with a renowned block-printing clothing label called Perahan.

Perahan was created in 1982 by Nasra Omar. She goes into her workshop every day and works very closely with all the craftsmen on their unique designs.
Perahan was created in 1982 by Nasra Omar. She goes into her workshop every day and works very closely with all the craftsmen on their unique designs.

Block printing helped me at a time when I was struggling with the challenges of postpartum and being a new mama. Looking for wedding guest outfits during a trip back home had been a disheartening experience. Trying on clothes in a body I was struggling to make sense of would leave me in tears in fitting rooms. So, I decided to design two lehengas from scratch in Perahan's block printing workshop, and this experience unexpectedly became a way to reconnect with myself.

Trying on clothes in a body I was struggling to make sense of would leave me in tears in fitting rooms. So, I decided to design two lehengas from scratch.

Perahan's workshop is home to shelves groaning with the weight of hundreds of hand-carved wooden blocks. The walls are covered in black and white detailed patterns. Rolls of fabric and beaded laces peek out from cupboards and drawers. On any given day, you will hear the repeated dulcet thuds of a wooden block finding its mark on a vibrant piece of cloth.

"Many of Perahan's blocks are made here by Mohd Ibrahim. He was our very first craftsman and has been working with me since 1982. However, I also have century-old blocks that I bought 30 years ago from someone who inherited them from their grandmother," says Omar.

Spending time in Perahan's environment wasn't a postpartum magic wand, but channeling an ancient craft by pouring over wooden blocks, motifs and intricate designs tapped into my artistic side. And there is evidence to suggest that being creative can be helpful during postpartum. Earlier this year, a group study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that art-related activities can be beneficial in alleviating anxiety and depression in postpartum women.

Perahan is renowned for detailed dupatta designs. This royal blue dupatta is embellished with peacock motifs.
Perahan is renowned for detailed dupatta designs. This royal blue dupatta is embellished with peacock motifs.

The creative process of designing my lehenga was very intentional. I added meaningful touches to encourage how I hoped to feel. For example, on one of them, I chose a peacock motif for the lehenga's border. Native to South Asia, this majestic bird is renowned for confidence, something I wanted to harness. I picked royal blue for the dupatta — a colour often associated with queens — because I wanted to feel like one.

I picked royal blue for the dupatta — a colour often associated with queens — because I wanted to feel like one.

I love how wearing desi clothes makes me feel now, but that wasn’t always the case. In high school, I felt embarrassed by shalwar kameez, saris and lehengas. But in later years, I found my own sense of expression and style in wearing South Asian outfits.

Sahar Aman at her brother's wedding with her daughter of six months.
Sahar Aman at her brother's wedding with her daughter of six months.

When I showed my brother the lehengas a few days before the wedding, I was really touched by his response. He called them a work of art. On the day of the events, although I was excited to dress up in the final product, wearing these traditional dresses for the first time in my postpartum body was an emotional experience.

I still carry trauma in that part of my body, which I am working through in therapy; perhaps that's partly why designing my own lehenga was so reparative.

I felt vulnerable baring my stomach in a choli after my emergency cesarean. I still carry trauma in that part of my body, which I am working through in therapy; perhaps that's partly why designing my own lehenga was so reparative. On the day of the wedding, I did feel like I was glowing and flowing.

Sahar Ibrahim
Sahar Aman.

Seeing Dior feature something so close to home on a global stage was wonderful, but for me, block printing is more than a trend on the runway. At a time when I wasn't feeling like myself, it became a way to connect with myself again through art, roots and culture.

I'm not saying wearing a block-printed lehenga healed me or anything like that, but I celebrated myself and the body motherhood had given me at my brother's wedding. It was a small but important step in my postpartum recovery and in finding comfort in my skin once more.

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