Monday, March 12, 2012

Part Two: Understanding the Textile World

In an earlier post I mentioned that my love of textiles came from family memories and inherited embroidery silks.
These inspired me to stitch and to make.

I have been using some of these beautiful silk threads in some of my samples, it's amazing to think about when they were last used and whose hands they were in.
It's a real inspiration to touch and use them.

I recently found this in amongst some other threads, there is something wonderful about the old packaging that is missing in the products that are available today.
Rediscovered threads
I thought about which textile piece I would choose from my home and I have settled on my textiles from India. Although I will make sketches and drawings from the decorative elements of the pieces, it is really the history and story behind the technique "Kantha" and the women involved in it's production today that makes these pieces very special to me.

We went to India just over a year ago, "let's go to India" we said, "let's experience the culture, the colour of the country, let's go by train... it'll be fun"
To be honest it was an amazing trip, the country was incredible, the sights were, at times, fantastic, the people were friendly. There was so much history, a country with people that have experienced so much in the last century.
We went to Kolkata, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Shimla, Agra and Delhi, and yes, we travelled by train.

Our first stop in India was Kolkata, and it was everything we had prepared ourselves for, from the sheer quantity of the human population who live and work there, to the crazy driving and the busy roads.

Our tour guide took us to all the sights in Kolkata during the days we spent there, and we persuaded him to take me to somewhere with textiles.

I had wanted to bring back two things from India, a piece of Khadi cloth and a piece of Kantha embroidery.
I will have to go back for the Khadi cloth.
(Note: Khadi cloth is a coarse homespun cotton cloth. It came to symbolise the movement started by Ghandi, the freedom struggle, which led the people of India to boycott foreign goods and promote those manufactured in India. Reference)

He took me straight away to a centre which made and sold Fairtrade products, Atisana CCWB (Crafts Council of West Bengal)
This centre supports women from the region, training them and selling their goods at a fair price.
It also aims to revive, preserve and support the traditional crafts that would otherwise be lost in a modernising society.

With the Kantha I was lucky although we nearly ended up without any money...............

We bought many things from Artisana: textiles: woven and embroidered; puppets and objects made from wood and palm fronds; paintings....
We met the artistsans that created some of our purchases:
Beautiful artwork that tells a story in song
This wasn't the painting we bought - but one quite similar.
The lady broke into song to tell us the story of the fish that are depicted in the artwork.

I chose two pieces of Kantha work, 1, a small single layered piece, and another, a larger more traditional piece, with three layers - it had possibilities of being a tablecloth or a bedspread, or just a piece of treasured textile that I would lovingly handle and look at from time to time.

Happy that I had chosen my embroidered pieces, I browsed through the other rooms of objects and artifacts. My husband appeared, he was agitated, "The bill is 120,000 rupees!!!!! That's all our money, forever."

We quickly realised our mistake, we hadn't noticed the last, but crucially important, zero. The one that took the bill from hundreds to thousands of pounds.
There was no decision to make, it was heartbreaking but true, we had to face the lady who had made the bigger of the pieces of Kantha work and tell her we had made an error.

She was resigned to our decision, but without looking closer we knew we had just elevated her earnings and bought her a comfortable life for a time.............and then turned around and taken it all away again.
We bought another, smaller piece. It has two layers of cloth, it is beautiful, it is intricate... I still think about the piece I left behind and the lady that made it.

The first piece:
Kantha 45 x 42cm
This was the first piece I chose, it is approximately 45cm x 42cm.
It is made entirely by hand by a lady from the Bengal region.
It is a modern piece made for sale, traditionally kantha was produced for use by the family.
It is made from a single layer of cream fabric decorated with colourful patterns and designs.
Kantha's with patterns and designs worked on them are known as Nakshi Kantha
Detail of the cloth
The colours of the stitching are vibrant: oranges, greens, yellows, blues and pinks.
The picture depicts a tale of everyday rural life for a boy growing up.
He may go to school, but he will also tend to his animals.
The stitches used are the running or Kantha stitch, but also, satin, stem and herringbone.
Closer detail of the stitching
Traditionally the thread used to stitch the kantha would be those pulled out of a sari.
However this is a modern piece and is stitched with 2 strands of cotton, the base fabric is also cotton.

A sketch: My sketch from an image in the kantha cloth.
The outlines are drawn in black permanent marker, the 'stitches' drawn with a fine paintbrush and acrylic inks.
My sketch, using inks and marker pen

Using a viewing frame, I selected a small area from the drawing.
I then repeated and rotated the image on the computer:
Repeat design of the Kantha work

The second piece:
Kantha 90 x 100cm
This was the second piece that we bought.
Again it is modern and made for commercial reasons.
It is made from two layers of fabric with decorative Kantha stitching done by hand.
Detail of the cloth
Unlike the last piece, the stitching between the motifs was done in white thread.
Because this fabric has been created with two layers of fine cotton, the fabric begins to ripple with the kantha stitching.
Detail of the stitching

This piece was worked in stranded cotton, and you can see where the design had been drawn on as a guide to work from when stitching.
Today the patterns are drawn on, tracing the design onto the cloth.

Originally the design would be outlined using needle and thread, then the focal points would have been worked and then the filling motifs.
In a design like this, the central motif would have been worked first, from the centre out, followed by the corners. (link look under "Kantha making" in the link).

The sketches:
I drew two sketches of the motifs that are featured in the kantha cloth.

The first is drawn using black permanent marker pen and acrylic inks.
Sketch drawn with marker pen and acrylic ink

The second is outlined in black permanent marker and coloured using watercolour paints.
The watercolour paints were softer and more subdued in colour than the acrylic inks.
Sketch drawn in marker pen and watercolour

The third piece: This was a piece of kantha that I bought in Saudi Arabia, it has been crafted in India and uses some of the more traditional methods of making kantha.
Silk wrap with kantha stitching, 85 x 215cm
It has been made from two layers of sari silk.
The original sari fabrics have been recycled to make my wrap.
The kantha stitching is made up of bands of orange stitching, next to bands of black stitching.
The fabric is rippled from the effects of the kantha work.
Detail of the stitching
The front and back of the wrap are not identical, but the wrap is beautiful, soft, lustrous and warm.

All three of these pieces hold a special memory for me, the wrap introduced me to the beauty of the work, the other two pictorial pieces introduced me to the lives of the women from Bengal  and the stories that they tell in their stitching.

I bought the bedspread in India too... I may have not been entirely truthful when I said that I just wanted two things from India.

My love of stitching came from my childhood, my mother taught me to stitch and in turn I have taught my own daughter.
We have a shared history with these women from Bengal, although their expertise has a longer history than mine.

During our travels across northern India I kept a diary, the kantha work inspired my pages. Along with the written word I made notes using images of the world around me. Here are some of my pages:
Leaving Kolkata for Darjeeling
I started to stitch between the pictures that I drew. Just looking at these pages takes me back to the holiday.

Tiger Hill, Darjeeling
The train tracks of the famous "Toy Train" make the stitches on this page.
This was also the day I met the women from Tibet, refugees who were busy spinning and weaving.

Darjeeling to Kolkata
I introduced more stitches to the page.
This page shows the bustling city and the incredible Kolkata train station.

More stitching and elephants from the bedspread. 

Although I chose three pieces, their lives were intertwined by a common theme, that of the women who made them.
The stitches I make are for my enjoyment and my education, the stitches these women have made are to feed, clothe, and educate their families.

An addition to this post is made here following my tutor's report.
I have featured the work of Jean Draper and Dorothy Tucker who are contemporary artists using Kantha as a source of inspiration in some of their pieces.

Finished Pages:


  1. Beautiful textiles and a personal story. Great blogging Jackie. I have been looking around my home for my textile family story and so far I just find items I have made and I was thinking of pulling out the jacket part of my wedding outfit to write about. Incredible, just writing that and thinking about it again has reminded me that the veil I wore was my Granny's and that she had made a handful of lace motifs to decorate the netting. I have my story - thank you! Best wishes, Katharine

    1. Thank you, I really enjoyed retelling the story. I can't wait to read your story.
      Jackie x

  2. I also enjoyed reading about your India trip, and seeing your images and sketches. I have just returned from Jaipur and it has evoked lovely memories, especially of the hard working women who do the most spectacular sewing in primitive conditions. I will write in my blog about one of the hand-stitched wall-hangings I bought there and will treasure it forever. Katharine look forward to reading about the jacket of your wedding outfit