One stitch at a time

Did you know that kantha embroidery had a rather humble beginning in Bangladesh? And that each piece is a unique creation?

September 25, 2014 08:42 pm | Updated 08:42 pm IST

Kantha is a kind of embroidery where layers of cloth are stitched together.

Kantha is a kind of embroidery where layers of cloth are stitched together.

Winters in Bangladesh are very cold. Families with little means could not afford blankets to keep warm.

One day, a group of women cut their old saris to size and placed one length of cloth above the other. They smoothened the pieces with their hands to make sure there were no wrinkles or folds. They removed the thread from the cut pieces at the edge, and started sewing the old cut fabrics together using small running stitches. They placed stones on the four corners of the cloth, or tacked them down around the edge. The stitches were worked in parallel lines to fasten the material together.

And because the saris and dhotis were old and washed many times, they were soft. And with so many pieces sewn together, they proved to be quite strong.

Running stitches

This was the beginning of Kantha embroidery. The women experimented by using coloured thread, and instead of straight lines, stitched them in whichever forms they fancied.

The Sanskrit word kontha means “rags”, and it has a religious connection. Pieces of cloth stitched together meant family unity. It was a collective occupation, and helped in social participation as the women told each other stories as they went along. The embroidery was initially done free hand, interpreting motifs as they saw and imagined. Today, Kantha embroidery has become a big needle industry, where not only quilts but saris, dress material and other textiles are also stitched.

Various colours are used. The designs are traced out and then embroidered.

Though running stitch was primarily used, you see other stitches are used to create little whorls, flowers, creepers. Even the herringbone stitch is used. There are also specific border stitches.

Kolkata has a huge market for Kantha saris, stoles and fabric. Kantha embroiderers usually favour Tussar silk. Sometimes, fine quilting stitches are done all over using a neutral-coloured thread, and then bright designs are embroidered over them making the fabric look three-dimensional.

Traditional Kantha embroidery has carved a niche for itself. Each piece is a creation of self-expression, and is exclusive. Verses, stories, and legends are also embroidered on the fabric, and each is a labour of love.

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