In this episode, Isabella covers a variety of Indian embroidery techniques from across the subcontinent.
As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a new website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast.
Whatsup stitches!!! Welcome to episode 8 of season 2 of this here pod, Sew What?. We are back at it because there is so much delightful and intriguing and beautiful and strange and thought provoking historic needlework to look at and think about and talk about and love and all that good stuff. Today’s episode is about needlework from a region I’ve not really covered on the podcast yet and that is India. I talked about colonial Indian needlework last season but I want to talk about Indian embroidery itself instead of just in the context of British colonialism. Indian needlework is something I’ve loved for a long time but haven’t really studied in depth before so I’ve learned a lot in the process of researching and writing this episode and I hope you’ll learn a lot by listening to it!
As always, and hopefully you’re not TOO sick of me saying this but it’s good to remind you all and to say it for those who are listening to Sew What? for the first time, images of what I’m discussing today and sources are up on the podcast social media pages. That’s @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Or on sewwhatpodcast.com. There’s also https://www.patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast if you wanna support the pod.
Okay, let’s get into it, shall we? Indian embroidery. An almost daunting task because there are many, many different types of Indian embroidery. I can’t go through all the different types chronologically, because that would be confusing and a bit weird, so I’ll go through the different techniques region by region. Unfortunately, I truly do not have the time to go through every single technique, so I’m gonna talk about some of the most famous and/or widespread. I’m really excited about talking about Indian embroidery because India has SO many different types of embroidery that are really distinct and each region developed its own style and I love that it’s possible to see how these styles shift and develop across time and place. Okay, onwards!
Let’s start with chikankari, also called chikan work. Chikankari comes from Lucknow, India, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It’s historically a type of white-work embroidery worked in very small stitches on cotton. It involves white stitching on white fabric, basically. Today chikankari isn’t limited to just whitework – it now involves a variety of fabrics and colours. What has stayed the same is its emphasis on very delicate, light stitching. Chikan work is made by block printing a pattern on a piece of fabric and then embroidering along that pattern and then washing the fabric to remove the print. It reminds me of basically exactly how I do embroidery – draw a pattern, embroider the pattern, then wash the pattern out. Simple and straightforward! But actually not really, because chikan work is actually super labour intensive. It involves around 35 different stitches that you can divide into three groups – there are the flat stitches, the raised and embossed stitches, and the “jaalis,” the open, trellis-like stitches that involve opening tiny holes in the cloth.
Wanna know more about the history of chikankari? I bet you do. Well, it’s believed to have been introduced by Nur Jehan, the wife of a Mughal emperor named Jahangir who ruled from 1605 to 1627. Chikankari definitely did thrive under the patronage of the Mughals, from Nur Jehan in the early 17th century all the way through 1857, but references to this type or a similar type of embroidery have been found from all the way back in the 3rd century BC. Megasthenes, a Greek historian, diplomat, and ethnographer and explorer of India in the 3rd century BC mentioned the creation of embroidered, flower muslin fabrics in India. We love to see almost 2,500 years of history!! That emphasis on floral patterns and motifs is still present in chikankari today – almost all chikan work uses floral imagery.
Next, let’s talk about kantha embroidery. Kantha is from West Bengal and Bangladesh, specifically from the regions of Bengal and Odisha. Kantha work is known for its simplicity, as the basis of it is a running stitch. Kantha was traditionally practiced by rural woman, using old and worn out materials like garments. Layers of this recycled cloth are quilted together with that simple running stitch and then decorated with embroidery in a variety of stitches like darning, satin, and buttonhole. Motifs include birds, other animals, flowers, and depictions of everyday activities. Kantha is used to decorate things like sarees, dress materials, bed covers, wall hangings, upholstery, and a whole variety of fun and flirty textile bits and bobs of all sizes. This type of embroidery is really colourful and I am SUCH a fan of mixing together bright colours so kantha work is right up my alley.
And now, let’s delve into a brief history of kantha embroidery, why don’t we? This really is a whistle stop tour of the techniques and history of a bunch of different types of embroidery. I hope you’re enjoying the ride! Because I think it’s really fun because this episode is just wall to wall facts and I LOVE facts. But okay, yes, kantha history. There’s a really good overview of kantha’s terminology and history on a website called Strand of Silk, which is a clothing company based in London and Mumbai which platforms Indian fashion. I really like the way they describe kantha so I wanna share it with all of you! Here’s what they say: “Interestingly, Kantha embroidery derives its name from the same word with two different meanings. ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, which reflects the fact that Kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or cloths. The word also means ‘throat’ and was named so due its association with the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva. The Samudra Manthan, a popular episode in Hindu mythology, describes that in order to protect the world, Lord Shiva consumed the poison that came about due to the churning of the ocean. Goddess Parvati was shocked by Lord Shiva’s actions and wrapped her hands around his neck, strangling Lord Shiva and stopping the poison in his throat, rather than allowing it to drop to the universe that is held in Lord Shiva’s stomach. The potency of the poison caused Lord Shiva’s neck and throat to turn blue, therefore giving him the moniker, Nilakantha; ‘nila’ translates to ‘blue’. Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery that originated in India. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient pre Vedic ages, however, Kantha embroidery as we know it today was found in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s 500 year old book, Chaitanya Charitamrita. Motifs found in early Kantha embroidery include many symbols that were derived from ancient art. These symbols depict or are reflective of nature, such as the sun, the tree of life and the the universe. It was not until later that Kantha embroidery was used as a medium of cultural and religious significance, which came about as a result of Hinduism's influence and was used in ceremonies and pujas, including to celebrate weddings and births. Rural housewives in West Bengal played a significant part in the evolution of Kantha embroidery. It was customary for these women to make use of Kantha’s widely used running stitch and embroidery techniques to create quilts for their families, as well as embroider personal fabrics and garments such as sarees, dhotis and handkerchiefs with simple running stitches along the edges. For centuries, the techniques of the hereditary craft were, and still are, passed down from mother to daughter. Though it continued to be practised amongst rural women, recognition of the craft faded over time, until it was revived on a global scale in the 1940s by the renowned Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, which is part of the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. It was revived yet again by Shamlu Dudeja in the 1980s when she founded Self Help Enterprise (SHE) which helped empower women and their livelihood through Kantha embroidery.” Kantha is probably the type of Indian embroidery I knew most about before starting research for this episode, but learning much, MUCH about it has been a treat!
The next type of embroidery I wanna get into is Phulkari. Some say it’s the most famous type of embroidery to come out of the Punjab. Punjab is in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, and is made up of eastern Pakistan and northern India. It’s also the heart of India’s Sikh community. Phulkari literally means “flower work” and it does, unsurprisingly, involve embroidering flower motifs. This type of embroidery is unusual because it’s worked in darning stitches from the reverse side of the cloth and the design appears on the front side. The ground fabric is usually a hand-woven cotton dyed red or indigo blue and the embroidery threads are very very vibrant silk threads which creates a contrast that is honestly just delightful. We love a bright colour!! We love some ground fabric-embroidery thread contrast!! Big fan. And there are a lot of different styles of Phulkari embroidery and it can be stitched on a whole variety of stuff. One notable example is phulkari on headdresses called baghs, meaning gardens. They’re traditionally made in preparation for weddings and a single one can take up to a year to complete. The dedication to the embroidery!! Truly I could not do it but I respect and admire those who can so, so much.
The next type of embroidery is for those who love glitz and glamour and just like bling in general. It’s BIG TIME SHINY. It’s called Zardozi and it’s basically Indian metal thread work. Zar means gold and dozi means work, so it’s literally goldwork. But it also involves silver. It involves a heckin lot of gold and/or silver wrapped threads and sometimes embellishments like pearls and precious stones. It is LUXURIOUS. Zardozi comes from Persia and was historically used for palace furnishings and animal trappings. The 17th-century Mughal emperor Akbar was a big fan and it continued to be popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, it was stitched on velvet or silk exclusively. It’s still used today to decorate special occasion garments, like wedding sarees, but it usually involves imitation gold and silver because real gold and silver is ‘SPENSIVE. No matter what, though, Zardozi is so shiny so if you like glitzy stuff this is the one for you!!!
I don’t know about you but sometimes when I think about Indian embroidery I think about those lil mirror sequins that are often a part of embroidery from that region. I think it’s because when I was younger and I knew people who’d visit India they’d always come back with some embroidered textile with those lil mirrors on it. Childhood me did not know that those mirrors are part of a specific kind of embroidery from India, called shisha (meaning glass) or mirrorwork embroidery. Mirrorwork embroidery is popular in Gujarat and Rajasthan, especially in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Like a lot of the other embroidery styles I’ve discussed today, mirrorwork started in the 17th century, during the Mughal Empire. The reflective, mirror elements of this type of embroidery may have originally come from the use of naturally occurring mica, which was actually used to make things shine and glitter in 17th- and 18th-century English women’s needlework and decorative arts, too. From the 19th century on, manmade pieces of mirrored glass were readily available. Traditionally, this glass was blown by hand and then cut into a variety of shapes using dampened special scissors, but now, thicker glass made in factories is more common. While mirrorwork is sometimes just decorative, some communities believe that mirrorwork is auspicious as a tool for warding off evil, as it reflects bad luck and evil spirits away from the wearer. In shisha embroidery, these glass mirrors are accompanied by really colourful embroidery. Textiles embellished with mirrorwork are worn during Navaratri festivities. Navaratri is a Hindu festival that lasts 9 nights and is celebrated in autumn. It’s also called Durga Puja and, although it is celebrated in different ways in different parts of India, it always celebrates the female expression of the divine. During Navaratri, people celebrate the creative power of the Goddess, who is personified in the forms of Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. But mirrorwork is not limited to Navaratri! It also adorns bags, various lil accessories, and large scale pieces of home décor.
Also, I don’t need to give a big shpiel about it but Indian embroidery has its own form of crewel work. It’s from Kashmir and it’s called Aari. It’s a speciality of Kashmiri artisans and it involves making elaborate floral motifs favoured by Indian royalty.
There’s only one more type of Indian embroidery I wanna get into and that’s because I wrote a fair few essays about it in undergrad. That specific type of embroidery is embroidery using beetle wing casings. Yes, you heard me correctly. It involved stitching literal beetle wings onto clothing, usually. The wings were taken from the Buprestidae beetle, better known as the jewel beetle, and it was especially trendy in the 19th century. The wings were pierced with holes and clipped into shape before being sewn directly onto a ground fabric. They were oftentimes complemented by gold threads. People were into this style because the iridescent wings were sparkly and glistened in candlelight, and also because the wings were valued for the permanence of their colour and their durability. The beetle wings were used on headcovers, blouses, and accessories. This style spread beyond India and became popular in 19th-century Britain and continental Europe, too. There are quite a few examples of beetle-wing embroidery on muslin dresses from throughout the 19th century, but because the wings were delicate, they were most often used just as a trim instead of an overall design. There is an exception to that I will mention in a second, but before that, lemme just say that the style was first noted in British newspapers in the 1820s and early 1830s. These newspapers mentioned that several women wore dresses decorated with beetle wings at court. This fashion spread and by the 1860s the fashion was very popular in Britain, so much so that beetle wings were being sent from India and embroidered onto fabric in Britain instead of all of the embroidery being done in India.
Perhaps the most exceptional piece of beetle wing fashion, the exception I mentioned just a minute ago, is aptly called “The Beetle Wing Dress.” It was designed for actress Ellen Terry, who wore it when she played Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre in 1888. The dress was designed by Alice Comyns Carr and she said the dress should look “like soft chain armour… [and] give the appearance of the scales of a serpent.” The costume was so iconic that Terry was painted in it by John Singer Sargent in 1889. The actual dress was crocheted out of sparkling blue and green yarn and then dotted with beetle wings all over.
So, we’ve gone from the 17th century to now and all across the Indian subcontinent, but where is Indian embroidery at today? A V&A article about Indian embroidery states, “Today, contemporary designers are adapting traditional Indian embroidery techniques to create cutting-edge fashions.” There are some notable Indian designers taking historic embroidery techniques to make contemporary clothing and textiles that celebrate hand-making skills. One example is Manish Arora, a Mumbai-born designer whose fashions involve applique, embroidery, and some wonderfully heavy embellishment from crystal beads sequins. Arora is known for his bright, psychedelic colour palette and kitsch motifs in clothes that combine traditional Indian embroidery, applique, and beading with Western silhouettes. His clothes are truly SO fun and I would love, love, LOVE to wear even a single piece of his stuff.
Indian embroidery making its way into contemporary art is also present in the work of Ekta Kaul, a London-based textile artist and educator. Kaul makes “StoryMaps,” narrative cartographic textiles, using kantha embroidery. She uses kantha embroidery for its ability to embellish and quilt, and also because it’s a really sustainable form of making. She says, “I love kantha’s ethos of mending, repurposing and upcycling. Traditionally, old saris and dhotis were layered and embroidered with threads pulled out from the borders and repurposed into functional or decorative textiles. This is the very definition of green design, which is something we need more of in our current times of fast consumption and burgeoning landfills.”
Aurora and Kaul are just two contemporary makers, but I really like that they are indicative of the wide variety of Indian embroidery techniques. Some of the techniques are opulent and some are a lot simpler and involve old, already used textiles. Some are shiny and some are bright and some are light and some just blend in. I love that variety. And it makes sense, of course, because the Indian subcontinent is really massive so of course different regions have different techniques and all that. But, as someone whose research has really honed in on the needlework techniques of a quite small island, it’s really exciting to me to see the richness and variety of needlework that comes out of the millions of Indian people over hundreds of years. I hope it’s exciting to you, too. I also love learning about Indian versions of art forms whose European and American styles I’m more familiar with. I mean quilting, like kantha, and crewel work, like aari. I love that across the world, needlework motifs and styles and compositions and uses and colours look different, but the desire to decorate and embellish is the same so different regions create similar needlework styles. In all that difference, there’s similarity. I know I say this a lot, but the universality of needlework is so powerful and important and poignant and delightful!!!! I love it!!!! And I think you probably do too or else you wouldn’t be here.
Also, as a final note, what’s important to think about which I didn’t talk about much in this episode is the women who stitched and are still stitching these many different types of Indian embroidery, oftentimes for almost no money. I have found very little information about Indian embroiderers beyond a few academic papers in the field of ethnography. Why is that? Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, maybe I’m limited by being in England and not in Indian and not knowing a huge amount about India in the first place. I’m sure there are many wonderful, important, meaningful, and poignant stories in past and present examples of Indian embroidery but I’m not able to access them and I don’t want to speak to something I know woefully little about. Because I can’t speak for the women who have embroidered in India in the past and who are embroidering there today, I am posting on all the Sew What? social media pages and the website videos of Indian women embroidering so you can see the skill and art that go into every stitch. I hope that provides some information about the people side of Indian embroidery, which wasn’t a part of this episode.
I hope that during your time here you’ve learned a lot about Indian embroidery and that you’ve enjoyed it. And I hope you’ll come back next week to learn about other pieces of historic needlework and the stories they have to tell! As a reminder, be sure to check out this week’s images and sources on the Sew What? Social media pages. And please like, rate, review, and subscribe to the pod if you haven’t already! And, as always, thank you so much for listening.
Now go out and stitch some stories and please do NOT put beetle wings on your textiles because the beetles really don’t deserve that. Bye!