KANTHA

 

"Kantha, making whole again that which was fragmented or broken."

Crafts Museum, New Delhi

PROCESS    |    ARTISANS    |    HISTORY

Having worked with kantha for many years, I think what draws people to this craft form is the combination of pre-loved fabrics and meticulous artistry, which transforms used cloth into something aesthetically beautiful, yet durable and highly utilitarian. 

 

Kantha is on the edge of craft, recycling, art and design. It cannot be mass-produced and the small irregularities in the stitching are a reminder that each piece has been hand-made and is unique. Moreover, as a skill learnt in childhood by millions of rural women, many of whom are impoverished and live in socially conservative communities, it offers a vehicle for economic self-sufficiency, independence and empowerment.

 

For me as a designer, kantha is highly versatile and can be applied to almost any fabric in unlimited pattern/colour combinations, lending itself to constant re-invention. 

- Katherine

Founder, HOWS

What is kantha?

Kantha is a centuries-old tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from rags, which evolved from the thrift of rural women in the Bengali region of the sub-continent - today the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, and Bangladesh. One of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India, its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (prior to 1500 BCE). 

 

"Kantha" refers to both the style of running stitch, as well as the finished cloth. It was a craft that was practiced by women of all rural classes, "the rich landlord’s wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time and the tenant farmer’s wife making her own thrifty coverlet, equal in beauty and skill." 

 

It was never commissioned by kings, nor ordered by landed gentry, but passed down in learning and dowry from mother to daughter.

 

No single two pieces of kantha have ever been the same.

PROCESS

 

the making of our Kantha Sari Scarves

 

01.

Our Kantha Sari Scarves begin with a sari. The sari is made, then bought and worn by a woman somewhere in India. One day a sari-trader knocks on the door of the woman and asks if she has any saris to sell or trade. The sari passes to the hands of the sari-trader, who then passes it to another and finally another, and sometime later, the sari finds itself in New Delhi. 

 

We source our saris from a community of Gujarati sari traders in Delhi.  Every few months, Katherine makes a textile pilgrimage to our sari supplier, Mini, who lives above her warehouse filled with vintage saris and bits of fabric in North Delhi. Mini and her husband, Vinod, will first feed us a delicious Gujarati meal of mutton soup and chicken curry, followed by the sweetest, milkiest chai ever made. 

 

We then get into the serious business of buying and selling saris. Bundles of saris are brought into the room and Katherine, sipping her chai, looks through them, piece by piece. Those that attract the eye with colour and pattern, or soothe the hand with their texture, go to one side. All others are returned to Mini. We select up to 1,200 vintage, silk saris in one such session. 

Recycling in India

 

The tradition of bartering off old saris is an old one. While saris are most often kept for decades, or handed down to people close to the family (such as servants), used or old pieces can also be sold to a 'bhandiwali'.

'Bhandi' means utensils in Hindi. A bhandiwali will make her rounds of one particular area on a regular basis. When a woman wants to trade her used sari, she calls out to the bhandiwali who will come to her home and scrutinize all the saris; the ones she thinks can be recycled will be traded for steel utensils; cups, pots, pans or ladles depending on the condition of the clothing she takes. 

Image credit: Kunal Soni

02.

The saris are brought back to our studio where they are cleaned and carefully checked for all defects. Working with pre-loved textiles takes an inordinate amount of time in terms of quality control. Sections of the sari which pass the quality check are cut to size and piled to one side. (Fabric which does not pass the quality control goes to another pile, for cutting into smaller sections and making into our Sari Silk Necklaces.)


Our team then sort, piece by piece, through theses cut fabrics, pairing fabrics which look fabulous together and which will form the 2 layers of each of our scarves. Next, we match each pairing with cotton thread before tying up the fabric/thread bundle

03.
Once we have a large enough pile of bundled fabric, they are posted to a remote village in West Bengal and the cooperative with which we work. The cooperative, consisting of some 1,400 women kantha artisans, processes the bundles and prepares the fabric for the artisans. 

 

This preparation in itself is a big job: the bundles are counted and each piece of fabric is ironed. One artisan then makes large, tacking stitch around the edges of each scarf to hold the layers of fabric in place. The cooperative manager notes down in his ledger how many scarves will go to which artisan, before distributing the bundles to the workers.

04.
This is where the hardest work begins - the laborious running kantha stitch which covers the entirety of each scarf. This is particularly challenging and time-consuming on our silk fabric; traditionally, kantha is done on cotton which is much less slippery and easier to handle. An artisan will finish off a scarf by embroidering her name in the corner, just as an artist will sign their masterpiece.

It takes 15 to 30 days to complete one of our Kantha Sari Scarves, and one to two months to complete a Kantha Sari Shawl or Shrug, depending on how many hours per day the artisan works; in general, the ladies work around 3 hours per day.

 

The kantha stitching is often done outside together with a group of friends.  It's not only a job, but an important social activity.

05.

Once a week the artisans come to the cooperative center, where they drop off the scarves and receive payment. The scarves are quality checked and finished - this involves trimming thread ends and stitching the edges so the finishing is neat and tidy.

 

After washing and ironing, the completed scarves are sent back to our studio in New Delhi.

06.

Around 2 months after posting out the fabric bundles, we receive the completed scarves with great excitement. Each scarf will then go through at least three rounds of quality control before being photographed and put up for sale.

 

This is where you come in! Once we receive an order, the scarf is labeled, tagged and lovingly packed and posted out to you.

ARTISANS

 

#imadeyourclothes

 

Take the train northwards from Kolkata for several hours and you will pass verdant paddy fields, small villages and finally reach the district of Murshidabad. From the district capital, Bahrampur, a drive of around two hours will take you into one of these villages, and you may just feel that you have travelled back in time. 

Murshidabad is nestled in the center of West Bengal state, in Eastern India, bordering Bangladesh. But this isn't any old rural Bengali village. This village and those clustered around it are home to a remarkable cooperative of 1,400 women artisans who specialise in beautiful kantha embroidery.

Taught by their mothers, who in turn were taught by their mothers, the women have now made kantha stitching their livelihood -  it provides a sustainable and dignified source of income which has turned this region, which was once highly vulnerable to girl and women sex trafficking, into a model of development and empowerment.

Rural life continues unchanged in many aspects; buffalo are still used to plough the paddy fields; cow dung is dried into cakes and used for fuel and many families still struggle economically. 

However, there have also been great changes for the women and their families. The NGO which set up the cooperative years ago also runs a local school which is attended by all the children of the kantha artisans - girls and boys alike. Slowly, brick houses are replacing the mud huts families used to live in. 

 

House of Wandering Silk works with several hundred of these women, who stitch our kantha. The work is perfectly suited to the needs of the artisans - they pick the materials from the cooperative office, and can then work at home in their own time and at their own pace. They deliver the piece once it's complete and receive their payment.

 

It takes 15 to 30 days to complete one of our Kantha Sari Scarves, and one to two months to complete a Kantha Sari Shawl or Shrug, depending on how many hours per day the artisan works; in general, the ladies work around 3 hours per day. 

The artisans say that they enjoy the work, though some fabric is hard to work with; silk is much more slippery than working with cotton and so takes loner. Kantha provides a regular, reliable source of income for families which otherwise have only seasonal work. The women and their husbands also work as labourers on government infrastructure programs and their husbands as farm labour during planting and harvest months. Some months there is no work at all, and the families rely on the kantha work to meet their household needs.

In a society where women are very restricted - socially as well as economically - from finding work outside of the house, and in a context where their husbands earn consistently higher wages for the same work, the independence and confidence the women gain from earning their own income has ramifications much greater than the immediate economic benefits. 

Meet Lazina.

 

During a visit to Murshidabad, we asked a group of our kantha artisans if they had any message which we could share with our customers who wear and love their creations.

 

Their usually lively chatter went quiet and they averted their eyes, too shy to talk in front of the camera.

 

Then Lazina stood up, all confidence. She wrapped the kantha scarf she was working on around her neck, and told me to press record. 

Lazina is 18 years old. She comes from the village in Murshidabad where most of the kantha artisans live and although the furthest she's travelled is 2 hours away to the district capital, she is eager to visit Kolkata one day, just to see the city. Lazina was married (she tells me it was "partially a love match, and partially an arranged marriage") -in 2015 to her 28 year old husband. He's a good man, she says, and teaches classes at the local school, which is run by the same NGO which established the kantha cooperative.

 

In addition to spending around 3 hours a day on our kantha embroidery, Lazina loves to sing (she sings Bollywood and Tollywood songs all the time, she says) and she is studying a three year course in philosophy in a local collage. Since marriage she finds that she spends more time on the kantha - she prefers to do patterned kantha like stars, waves and hearts. The money she earns goes to cover her tuition fees of Rs.2000 a month (USD 30) and other personal expenses.

 

HISTORY

 

the story of kantha

Kantha, one of the oldest forms of embroidery from India and a craft practiced today by millions of South Asian women, originated from the most humble of beginnings. Born in the rural villages of Bengal, this art form all but disappeared in the early 19th century before being revived in the 1940s by the daughter in law of the famed Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

 

The revival of kantha was disrupted again during the Partition of India in 1947 and the ensuing conflict between India and what was then Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Finally, since the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971), kantha has experienced a re-birth of its own as a highly valued and much desired art-craft form.

While the word kantha has no certain etymological root, it is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word kontha, meaning rags. One of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India, its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (prior to 1500 BCE), though the earliest written record is found dating 500 years ago. In his book titled Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, the poet Krishnadas Kaviraj writes how the mother of Chaitanya sent a homemade kantha to her son in Puri through some traveling pilgrims. This same kantha is today on display at Gambhira in Puri. 

 

Kantha was a craft that was practiced by women of all rural classes, "the rich landlord’s wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time and the tenant farmer’s wife making her own thrifty coverlet, equal in beauty and skill." It was never commissioned by kings, nor ordered by landed gentry, but passed down in learning and dowry from mother to daughter. No single two pieces have ever been the same.

Kantha: the beginnings


As with all traditional textiles, kantha was influenced by external factors such as material availability, daily needs, climate, geography and economic factors. Historically, textile production was one of the most labour-intensive industries, and as such, textiles were highly valued. Thus, the recycling of well used cloth-turned-rags was a natural step in the lifecycle of textiles the world over. Given that this recycling was home-based work, it usually fell to the women of the village to prepare, cut and stitch the rags - giving old textiles new life.


Traditionally, old cotton saris, lungis and dhotis, which had turned incredibly soft through wear, were used to make kanthas, with the thread for the stitching drawn out from the fabric itself. Recycling at its best! Around five to seven fabrics would be layered together, with lighter coloured fabrics on the outside so the stitch and pattern was discernible. The stitch would cover the entire cloth to provide strength.


Women in almost every household in rural villages would be kantha experts, and spend whatever quiet time they had available - between looking after the house and children, tending to livestock and during the long days of the monsoon - on stitching the pieces. It could take months or even years to complete one kantha. The stitching could be handed down through generations, with grandmother, mother and daughter working on the same kantha.

Kantha: the stitch


In modern usage, kantha more generally refers specifically to the type of stitch used. The earliest and most basic kantha stitch is a simple, straight, running stitch, like the type used on our Kantha Sari Scarves. 

Over time, more elaborate patterns developed, which became known as "nakshi kantha". Nakshi comes from the Bengali word, naksha, which refers to artistic patterns. Nakshi kantha is made up of motifs influenced by religion, culture and the lives of the women stitching them. This most humble of cloths gave free reign to the imaginations of the women; kanthas told of folk beliefs and practicies, religious ideas, themes and characters from mythology and epics and the social and personal lives of the artisans; their dreams, hopes and every day village life. Although there is no strict symmetry to nakshi kantha, a fine piece will usually have a lotus as a focal point, with stylised birds, plants, fish, flowers and other scenes surrounding this. 

 

"A poet wanders off to a remote village and meets an old widow; her skin hanging loosely on a bony frame, eyes pale, mouth dry and wrinkled. She sits solitary in the courtyard with an enormous rug spread beside her. The poet intrigued, sits down and takes a look at the rug. Mysteries unfold. The kantha isn’t simply a quilt, it is much like a diary containing scenes and snippets of the old woman’s life – all weaved and stitched, as if one someone has neatly and meticulously drawn her life on a white canvas." 

This famous tale by Abadindranath Tagore talks of an 87 year old woman from Srihatta, Bangladesh, who had recorded her life story in a kantha stitched over years. 

Kanthas as “repositories of memories of particular makers, givers, recipients, and owner." Antique kantha quilts from the 19th century at an exhibition at the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, December 2014. 

In the district of Murshidabad, West Bengal, India, where we work with a cooperative of 1,400 kantha artisans, the women focus on a specialised form of geometric patterned kantha, called par tola. This has evolved along the lines of traditional Islamic art which focuses on geometric patterns rather than life forms, which are discouraged by the Quran. The beauty of this kantha is that the shape is formed by looping threads on one surface only, so the reverse side of the fabric remains a simple kantha of straight, running stitch, while the front side is a complex geometric pattern. 

Kantha can be categorised by stitch type:

 

Running kantha, which is a straight running stitch and the original and earliest form of kantha.

- Running kantha can be further classified into that using figures and story telling (nakshi kantha) or geometric patterns (par tola kantha

Lik or Anarasi (pineapple) kantha is practiced in the Chapainawabgonj and Jessore areas of northern Bangladesh. There are numerous variations of this form.

- Lohori kantha: ‘wave’ kantha. This type is popular in Rajshahi (Bangladesh) and is divided into (a) soja (straight or simple), (b) kautar khupi (‘pigeon coop’ or triangle), and (c) borfi (‘diamond’) forms.

Sujni kantha: this type is only found in the Rajshahi area of Bangladesh. A popular motif is an undulating floral and vine pattern. It's worth noting that Sujni is also practiced in Bihar. Swati Kalsiis one of the most exciting contemporary kantha designers to work with this style.

Cross-stitch or carpet kantha was introduced by the English under the British Rule in India.

Kantha: the cloth

 

Traditionally, kantha was an intimate and utilitarian item, made over a long period of time for use by the family; every family in Bengal had a number of kanthas for personal use. The majority of kantha was used as light coverlets during the mild Bengali winters and breezy monsoon nights. Another early use was for swaddling babies. Expectant mothers would spend the last months of their pregnancy stitching the cloth, in the belief that it would bring good fotune to their families and and protect the baby from diseases. Other kanthas were specifically created in different sizes for use as satchels or purses, as floor covers for special guests, to store personal items, to cover the Quran or use as prayer mats, or as pillow covers.

 

To make the kantha cloth, the fabric is first cut to shape and layered to achieve the desired size and thickness. The layers are spread out on the ground and ironed. The artisan will first stitch some large, loose basting stitches around the edge of the fabric to hold the layers together. The finer kantha stitch is then made, starting in one corner and making short, parallel running lines to avoid creases and warping in the fabric. Kantha on the traditional cotton fabric was much easier than the silk fabric layers that our kantha artisans create; while cotton layers stick together, silk slides and slips and the kantha is much more time consuming. 

 

For par tola geometric kantha, the stitching count is done from memory; no pattern is drawn. For nakshi kantha, the pattern was traditionally outlined with needle and thread. Today, patterns are first drawn by pencil and then copied by tracing paper onto the fabric. In some types of kanthas (carpet, lik and sujni, etc.) wooden blocks were used to print the outline. 

Kantha today

 

If you travel in Bengal today, you will still find modern iterations of the traditional patchwork kantha quilts; airing in the sun on verandahs in Kolkata or laid out over paddy fields in the villages to dry. But the bulk of kantha production is made for commercial consumption - both domestically in India and Bangladesh, and for the export market. This, in theory, is a good thing - the rural women of Bengal, who are limited by economic, cultural, social and religious factors from finding gainful employment outside of their homes now find themselves in high demand to produce enough kantha for this market. 


In practice, kantha artisans suffer the same exploitation as their brothers and sisters working in almost every handicraft sector in the region. In a study carried out for the Journal of Social Work and Social Development on kantha artisans, it was found that the majority of women were cheated on payments owed to them, suffered from irregular or late payments, and were socially immobile due to an absence of training and advance payments. It was found that the average annual income from kantha production was a meagre Rs.2,000-4,000 (USD 30 - 60) per artisan, which is far, far below anything which could be considered a living or fair wage, even in the context of kantha work being on a part-time basis. 

 

Happily, there are a growing number of designers becoming more conscious of the importance of applying fair trade principles to their work, and it's possible to find ethically produced kantha products, like those we make at House of Wandering Silk.

 

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