RECYCLED SARI KANTHA
our artisans & process
Kantha lays at the cross-roads of art, craft, fashion and design, combining thrift, meticulous artistry and story-telling.
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.
Our artisan partners
Take the train northwards from the urban sprawl of Kolkata; you will pass verdant paddy fields, endless fields of coconut palms and small mud and brick villages, finally reaching Bahrampur, the district capital of Murshidabad, many hours later. Murshidabad is nestled in the center of West Bengal state, in Eastern India, bordering Bangladesh.
The rural communities here are highly conservative and economically marginalised. Men rely on seasonal and poorly paid work to earn an income: farm labour during planting and harvesting seasons, working on government infrastructure projects, or migrating to the city. Some months there is no work at all.
Women are relegated to the home to care for children, animals and occasionally assist with farm labour - for which they are paid even less than their husbands. There is no where else for them to work; and even if there was, it wouldn't be socially acceptable for them to leave the home for an outside job. Most of the women had no chance to attend school and are illiterate.
Life here may be peaceful, but it's not easy.
A few hours south of Bahrampur will bring you to a cluster of picturesque, though unremarkable-looking, villages. These aren't just any rural Bengali villages, however. They are home to a extraordinary cooperative of 1,400 women artisans who specialise in exquisite kantha embroidery.
Taught by their mothers, who in turn were taught by their mothers, the women have now made kantha stitching their livelihood. Through training, experience and perseverance, these artisans have elevated kantha from a craft creating items for personal use, to an art-form in products sold across the world.
The work is perfectly suited to the needs of the artisans - they pick the materials from the cooperative office once a week, and 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. The cooperative provides training and loans, as well as regular work and payments at least 2X above market rates.
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, this kantha provides a sustainable, independent and dignified source of income to any woman who wants it, turning this region - once highly vulnerable to girl and women sex trafficking - into a model of empowerment and positive development.
The NGO which created the cooperative many years ago also runs a local school providing top-quality education to girls and boys alike. Something unheard of in this area, where government schools are notoriously ineffectual.
There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.
Since 2011, House of Wandering Silk has worked with hundreds of these artisans. 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 artisans work around 3 hours per day. The artisans say that they enjoy the work, though some fabric is more challenging to work with than the traditional cotton, like our slippery upcycled silk saris.
There are visible improvements in the village: brick houses are replacing the mud huts families used to live in. Girls are sent to school. And then choosing - and able - to gain higher education further afield.
There are non-visible changes too. In a society where women are highly restricted - socially and economically - and in a context where their husbands earn consistently higher wages for the same work, the ramifications of an independent income are great: increased self-confidence and social standing; the benefits of an added income to the health of their children; and the pride that comes with knowing your hand work is cherished and appreciated around the world.
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.
During a visit to the village, 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 in 2015 to her 28 year old husband - she tells us it was "partly a love match, and partly an arranged marriage". 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.
Sari 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
No single two pieces of kantha have, or will, ever be the same.
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.
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.