Two years ago, I travelled from tiny Balarampur in Kerala to Mumbai, clutching my Ayurvastra booty—muted ochre bedsheets infused with neem and turmeric and sweet-smelling pillowcases soaked in indigo and sandalwood and stitched with hidden pockets of dried cumin seeds. One set was to bring powerful anti-microbial and anti-bacterial protection to my life and the other was for improving the quality of my sleep.
Ayurvastra or Ayurvedic clothing is the extension of Ayurveda into clothes (vastra) that heal. It is a tradition that is said to be as old as Ayurveda itself. Herbalists skilled in the knowledge of infusing and fixing fabric with medicated kashayams (decoctions of multiple herbs) and immunity-boosting herbs have had the knowledge passed down from generation to generation, some tracing unbroken lineages that go back centuries.
The little store in Balarampur had sections of bed linen, fashion wear and loungewear labelled for the disorders they would help prevent or manage—such as diabetes, insomnia or depression. Bowls of herbs, roots and leaves had been put on display—curry leaves for arthritis pains, jabakusum and touch-me-not for diabetes, manjistha for blood purification, haritaki for skin conditions, neem for its antiseptic qualities, turmeric for its anti-inflammatory nature.
Ayurveda rarely offers single-ingredient fixes. It is usually a carefully calibrated mix of herbs and oils. For someone on the wellness trail, however, it was like being let into a candy shop.
Even though it is a time-tested practice, it is only now that fashion houses and Western designers have started commissioning their versions of Ayurvedic clothes. Rwitivastra, a Kolkata-based brand, offers Ayurveda saris where the yarn is infused with medicinal herbs, while Monsoon Blooms, an Australian company, sources its yoga wear from Kerala’s Ayurvastra centres. I was on an editors’ trip to explore the creation of Ayurvastra fabric, branded as Ayurganic, for the fashion house Lecoanet Hemant.
During a pandemic, the immunity-boosting and healing principles of Ayurvastra make even more sense. One can argue that Ayurvastra’s extension to fashion (rather than as an adjunct of Ayurvedic treatment) is a gimmick, but the basic principle is corroborated by modern medicine.
Our skin is our largest organ and it has the dual ability to ward off toxins and let in medicine through absorption. The world of allopathic medicine, for instance, has made progress in administering drugs transdermally, often through time-release patches.
So, like cosmoceuticals in beauty and nutriceuticals in health, cosmotextiles are looking at new ways of delivering wellness and beauty benefits to consumers. Sunscreen clothing, wearable collagen, pro vitamin C infused clothes are available to us as we look for ways of living, looking and working better.
SeaCellTM, made by Lenzig, a company I track because of its closed-loop, eco-friendly innovations, uses Icelandic seaweed and cellulose in its patented yarn. Seaweed is a rich source of vitamins, trace minerals and essential minerals. The seaweed retains all its nutrients since it is not processed, and these are released through body heat.
Amino jeans made in Japan 15 years ago, before wellness clothing became a trend, were jeans proofed in arginine, a kind of amino acid that is known for its anti-ageing powers. The possibilities of having great legs and a great butt as you lounged are definitely appealing.
What could be the barriers to what seems to be a simple and time-proven way to wellness? I ask Vinit Shah, a practising urological surgeon in Mumbai, whose job involves understanding toxic build-up in the system.
“Transdermal absorption is an excellent way to deliver medicine,” he tells me, “but the side effects of the medicine remain the same irrespective of the mode of administration, whether it is ingested, injected or absorbed.” Dr Shah, however, warns that not all drugs can be introduced transdermally. There is a difference between absorption (when something enters the bloodstream) and penetration (when it only penetrates the skin layers). Nicotine in nicotine patches, for example, will enter the bloodstream, while hylouronic acid in a beauty cream will only penetrate the top layers of the skin.
The question of how long the wellness effect is likely to last comes next. The arginine in Amino jeans, for example, claimed to last 200 cycles in the wash.
The entire process of Ayurvastra is organic, using the five natural elements— earth, water, wind, fire—and mixing herbs at every stage to bleach organic cotton, dry it and fix the medicine on it. We don’t know what impact detergent may have on the medicinal herbs but I assume it is likely to detract from their efficacy. In any case, gentle handwashing with natural soaps is recommended for Ayurvedic clothes.
From my own experience, I can say the bedsheets I had bought were rougher than my usual sheets but oddly comforting and cocooning. Perhaps it was the neem killing off the infection I could not see. Or the fact that the cotton was genuinely organic. Three months down the line, the colours had faded considerably (I used the machine) and they were retired into kitchen cloths. The pillow covers did much better (they were hand-washed) and the quality of my sleep was noticeably better when I used them.
Like many of us, I veer towards Ayurveda and like the principles of Ayurvastra, but I also think modern medicine and medical technology are essential.
The pandemic though, has taught us that like one-pot cooking, we secretly want one-fix clothing: the kind that fits our goals of comfort, eco-commitment, well-being, health, immunity—and perhaps even cure.
Geeta Rao is a Mumbai-based writer who writes on luxury and wellness. She is the former beauty editor of Vogue India.