The Kantha Embroidery is the predominantly the most popular form of embroidery practiced by the rural women. The traditional form of Kantha embroidery was done the soft dhotis and saris. The thread for this craft was drawn out of the borders of the used cloth. It is a simple running stitch made on the edges. When five to six layers of the cloth were embroidered together it formed a quilt. Fewer layers of the cloth is used to make clothes for other purposes. The outer layers of the cloth comprises of white or light colored clothes which made the embroidery perceptible. Depending on the use of the finished product they were known as Lepkantha, Sujni Kantha etc. The embroidered cloth is used as stoles for women and shawls. The clothes also find use as covers for mirrors, boxes, pillows etc. The entire cloth is covered with running stitches and usually has beautiful folk motifs, floral motifs, animal and birdsfigures and geometrical shapes. Themes from day to day activities are also a common subject for the embroidery. Such stitches on the cloth give it a slight wrinkled wavy effect. The contemporary Kantha is not necessarily done on old multiple layered saris or dhotis.
It can also be seen on the present day garments like the sarees, dupatta, shirts for men and women, bedding and other furnishing fabrics. For these fabrics and dresses the base fabric used is cotton and silk. Bengal has an old tradition of Kantha embroidery. Kantha Embroidery of Bengal has enjoyed international repute for the fineness of the muslins woven in Dacca. With exquisite names like Running Water these were woven plain or patterned with thicker threads of whitecotton providing opaque patterns on the fine ground. The jamdani again white on white, was woven by a brocading technique. The embroidery of Dacca followed the same process. The pallus and borders of Kantha sarees were finely embroidered with the same motifs of the cypress, leaf and stem used by the weaver. In addition to the white on white was the natural colour of wild silk thread to provide richness and a light and shade effect to the work. Silver-gilt wire was sometimes used to enhance the effect.
The Bengal Kantha Embroidery is done on Shawls, sarees, coats, girdles in this way. Stem stitch, running stitch, long and short stitch, chain stitch, laid work of silver gilt wire over a padded foundation of yellow cotton thread all went to augment the woven design of the fabric for Kantha embroidery was done on both plain and patterned materials creating effects of subdued richness and elegance.
The bedspreads and hangings that found so much favour with Western clients were made of fine cotton cloth filled with finely ginned cotton and were embroidered with yellow silk on the entire surface. The Kantha embroidery was done with Tussar, Muga or Eri yarn which was unknown in the West which was cognisant only with fine cultivated silk yarn.
The fascinated buyers were very close to the folk art of Bengal. Along with indigenous, mythological and secular themes are those that show the Portuguese engaged in various activities, including the hunt, with their own countrymen as well as with Indians. In the old Indian tradition of painting the narrative unfolds in self- contained panels; the hierarchical character of the work reveals itself in enlarging the most important figures so that they dwarf the entire landscape.
The Kantha workwas done at Satgaon, the old mercantile capital of Bengal, which from 1537 onwards lost its pre-eminence to the port of Hughli founded by the Portuguese.
The tratition Kantha stitches can be found in modern Kantha Sarees. Chain stitch, back stitch, knot stitch, open work produced by lines of back stitch pulled to produce small holes are all used in the natural colour of the silk.
The same tradition of quilting and embroidery, though in a more folkish form has persisted in Kantha Quilts of Bengal. The Kantha used as quilt, shawl, handkerchief, pillow cover, cover for mirror, combs and toilet articles, is made entirely by women and is a marvellous example of the recycling of waste material towards the production of artistic goods. Old, worn out sarees and dhotis are placed one above the other, the best ones on top, the rest providing the filling. The borders have previously been unpicked to yield the thread which would be used for the embroidery. The word Kantha itself means patched cloth.
The Kantha embroidery in Bengal is usually done in simple running and darning stitches worked through all the layers of the material to form a pattern both at the front and the back, is started at the centre usually with a lotus medallion. From this the work proceeds outward covering the whole surface with a variety of designs.
The surface not covered by the embroidery is often quilted with white running stitches made with five or six threads put into the needle to hold the material firmly together. The border is closely embroidered to provide a firm edge to the quilt. When the Kantha is finished it becomes a thick covering and it appears to be one piece of thick material rather than a number of fine ones welded together.
Herringbone, chain, satin, straight, double running, double darning, blanket stitch (for edges), couched are used in various combinations in different pieces.
The Kantha designs are a blend of religious and secular. Gods and Goddesses, human beings, lions and tigers, trees, flowers, nutcrackers, hoodahs, beds, chariots, palanquins all blend cheerfully with a host of other motifs in various permutations and combinations.
A special kind of kantha has for its inspiration a weave that has long been discontinued. It exists now only in the kantha. By reproducing the same pattern in each row on a circular or linear arrangement by flat running stitches, the Kantha embroiderer skillfully creates an impression of a woven material. This perpetuation of the Kantha design could perhaps be explained by the fact that the original design was woven by women and when, for some reason, it lost its popularity as a commercial commodity other women came forward to keep it alive though in a non-commercial garb.
Applique also appears on Bengal kanthas, though rarely. Thin strips of colored cloth are stitched with tiny invisible stitches to form various designs. In large pieces the designs are bold and well defined while on items of personal use they are proportionately small and finely worked.
The making of the kantha provides the bengali women with an outlet for self-expression. Although the themes are similar, it is in the working that individuality shows through as in other places. This healthy competition brings liveliness and exuberance to what could easily become a lifeless and static craft.
Kantha, a popular style of embroidery that comes from West Bengal, is a significant symbol that displays the skill and talent of the rural women in Bengal. Kantha, which basically means ‘throat’, is associated with Lord Shiva. The story revolves around how Lord Shiva consumed poison while stirring up the ocean, and therefore the significance of this word goes all the way back to the Vedic times. This type of stitch is basically the ‘running’ stitch, and is very simple. Traditionally this embroidery was used for quilts, dhotis and sarees, but over a period of time it has evolved and made its way right into the heart of Indian fashion. The yarn is taken from old saree borders; the design is then traced and finally covered `with running stitches. Today this kind of embroidery can be found on shawls, pillow covers, dupattas, and home furnishings as well.
Origin and history
Kantha is perhaps the oldest forms of Indian embroidery as it can be traced back to the first and second A.D. The thought behind this needlework was to reuse old clothes and materials and turn them into something new. This is what makes kantha embroidery only one of its kind. Kantha work is approximately 500 years old, and there is a myth surrounding it which points out that Lord Buddha and his disciples used old rags with different kinds of patch work to cover themselves with at night, and this gave the kantha embroidery its origin. Traditionally women would take 4 to 5 sarees, layer them together and create different running stitches on them which they then used as blankets to cover their children with. However, what started as a way to make life more comfortable went on to become a big trend in clothes and furniture as well.
Sources of Inspiration
Day to day life was the biggest source of inspiration behind this craft. The motifs designed on clothes or bed spreads were of birds, animals, folk scenes, fishes and imagery that depicted different views of livelihood for the people living in Bengal. Reprocessing was another form of motivation, since initially women recycled their old clothes and turned them into something more practical, like covers for furniture, or blankets. Economical, practical and yet beautiful is what Kantha embroidery is all about.
Faces behind the fabric For decades Kantha embroidery has been the source of income for the rural women living in West Bengal. However, the literal face behind the revival of this skill and technique is Shamlu Dudeja, who is a revolutionary and teacher, and more importantly the one who realized the importance of this craft work. She took great initiatives in the early 80s’ to empower the rural women of Bengal who practiced the art of Kantha embroidery and encouraged them to take it more seriously and professionally which then helped to lay a strong foundation in making this stitch work more popular and sought after.
There are 7 different types of Kantha stitches. The first kind is the Lep Kantha, which is used to make warm, padded quilts. Then there is the Sujani Kantha which is used to make bed covers for ceremonial occasions. Baiton Kantha is used on covers meant to wrap books and other precious objects. Oaar Kantha is used on pillow covers, while Archilata Kantha is used for covering mirrors and usually comes with colorful motifs and borders. Durjani Kantha is small pieces used to make the insides of a wallet, and the last kind is the Rumal Kantha which is used to cover plates, and come with a lotus motif right in the center.
This kind of embroidery truly marks a flair for style in any individual who wears it, while maintaining the appeal ofcomfort and leisure.
Kantha work has been around for ages and has been favorite among those who love taking fashion and style to levels beyond the ordinary. Conventionally, the motifs used were of animals or birds, but now with modern-day designers, experiments in designs are also being done. One can see cave art, Egyptian murals, Hindu mythology and even pop art being illustrated through this fine stitch work.
The demand for this type of embroidery is not limited to India alone, but designers in UK and Japan have also reached out to local sellers and have used this embroidery in their designs as well. Kantha work is famous worldwide and Indian designers who use this embroidery to promote originality in their style helps make Kantha work accessible and more so likeable by many. Kantha work has been around for centuries and still makes Indian fashion go around. With the current development in its technique and the different flavors of style that it brings to the table, kantha embroidery has become a favorite form of stitch work with designers across the globe.
The best thing about Kantha work is that it can be an accessory in itself, and does not need any additional embellishment to make it look better. This is because it can be used in different forms and for different purposes. It can be a unique and fun looking table cover, and it can also be a funky border for a saree. One can accessorize it, however, and not worry about going wrong since this kind of embroidery is adaptable to any occasion. Since Kantha embroidery can be found on all kinds of objects and garments, it can be molded to a specific use according to one’s needs and preferences. Ideal to attend a mellow gathering or a Pooja next door.
Maintaining the quality of a kantha blanket or even a kantha saree is not complicated. Any special trick of the trade is not required to keep it in a good condition. Normal hand or machine wash would be adequate and would not ruin the longevity of the fabric or embroidery.
Interesting facts and comparisons
In Sanskrit, the word “kontha” means rags.
Kantha is the most popular form of embroidery in West Bengal and has been around for more than 500 years.
Initially Kantha was used on cotton or silk. But now it is used on other fabrics as well like Georgette, crepe
Today, Kantha embroidery work has become the fashion label in the Indo-Western world. Lets find out the fascinating history of thisunique art form that remained in mystery until it was revived. Indian textiles have the long and vast history. The textiles with their signature embroideries explicit themselves in the modern world of today’s fashion. Fashion designers have named this nine yard mystique a ‘Renaissance of style’.
Saris were first originated in India. Some of its finest examples can be traced from the sculptures dating back to the 100 BC. Saris are basically unstitched length of cloth measuring 42- 19” wide and 5.5 to 9 yards which were earlier spun in textile machines that have today become the bequest of our times as hand loom saris.
Kantha is a art form that belongs particularly to West Bengal. Earlier the Kantha saris were usually drape by the women of West Bengal as to protect themselves against the cold.
Kantha work involve complex artistic work done by the weavers with the blend of exquisite embroidery in ornamental running stitch. The traditional work on the Kantha saris in the form of floral motifs, animals and birds figures and geometric shapes looks amazingly fabulous.
Renowned fashion designers in India working on western styles and fashions, still make great use of the ethnic traditions and their designs often depict the rich embroidery work of the earlier craftsmen, celebrating Indian textile tradition. There are seven different types of Kantha. First is the ‘Archilata Kantha’ that involves the great mirror work with the wide, decorative borders. The second one is the ‘Baiton Kantha’, that are square wraps used for covering the books and valuables. The most famous is the ‘Lep Kantha’ which are rectangular wraps, used to cover the quilts. Then there is ‘Oaar Kantha’, found in the pillow covers in simple designs on which a decorative border is actually sewn afterwards.
Not less competitive is the ‘Sujani Kantha’, the quilted Kantha used as blankets on the special occasions. Last but not the least is the ‘Rumal Kantha’ that are used as the rubefacient wipes or plate coverings. The Kantha embroidery is the predominantly the most popular form of embroidery practiced by the rural women, with earliest and most popular being the basic running stitch or “phor”. Traditionally worked on dhotis, sarees and dupattas, it give a wavy, wrinkled look to the fabric.
The stitch originated in Bengal to make quilts from waste fabrics that were arranged in layers and stitched together.
lour palette can be used very interestingly in kantha stitch, from one to maximum 20 colour combinations can be
used together in a single piece.” These days the unique traditional art is also done on the line of men’s wear – jackets, sherwani, shawls, coats and suits; women’s wear – sari, salwar kameez, tunics, dupatta, lehenga, scarf, dress materials and ponchos, and accessories include hand bags, clutch purse, runners and mobile cover.
Kantha embroidered sarees, shawls and stoles have always been a mark of richness and sophistication among Indian women.