The kurta, introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 16th century by central Asian Mughal invaders, has been a staple wardrobe item ever since. Traditionally worn by men, this loosefitting, long-sleeved, open-neck tunic is ideal for hot climates, as is the feminine version, the "kameez." When teamed with "salwar" trousers and a long scarf called a "dupatta," the outfit is called a "salwar kameez," "salwar kurta" or "ladies' suiting." In recent years, fashion designers have discovered that the simplicity of the kurta makes a perfect template on which to interpret ever-changing moods of the times. A woman's kurta, especially one that carries a famous label, is often called a "kurti."
Pick your pattern. Veteran designers draft their own, but for guidance, catalogues of major sewing pattern manufacturers also feature kurtas, frequently under names such as kaftans or tunics. Little is available from Indian suppliers. If you want a kurta, buy the fabric, take it to a tailor specialising in ladies' suitings, specify the length, sleeve and neckline treatments you want, and he can have it ready in a few hours. See Resources for sample patterns.
Customise your pattern for length, neckline, sleeve and fit preferences. These are the only areas where you can exercise your creativity while still retaining the basic shape of the kurta. Check out photographs in Resources for ways other designers handle this.
Research design and textile motifs. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, themes from a multitude of different cultures and artistic traditions find expression in textile art. Some regions, including Bengal and Kashmir, are renowned for embroidery. Others, like Rajasthan, are famed for weaving, dyeing and block-printing. Within the specialities of every region are those of subregions, sometimes as small as a village, where unique design traditions handed down for centuries are kept alive and vital by local artisans. See photographs of Indian textiles in References.
Shop for Indian fabrics. Most North American cities have areas where shops catering to customers with origins on the subcontinent are concentrated. In addition to fabrics on bolts, look for sari shops, where you'll find cottons, silks, chiffons and georgettes pre-cut in lengths of five to seven yards. Most sari fabrics already have designs, often very elaborate, along all borders, and careful cutting can incorporate them into the design of a kurta.
Pre-wash Indian cottons and blends before cutting. The dyes are notorious not only for bleeding when washed but also for rubbing off on the wearer's underwear. A long soak (or two) in cold soapy water removes much of the excess.
Let your inner designer go wild. Apart from retaining the basic shape of the kurta, all rules have gone out the window. They can be form-fitting or draped, plain or dripping with trim, hip to floor-length, sheer or opaque, casual or formal. Anything goes.