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