The expert artisans of Kantha embroidery are the rural women of West Bengal and Odisha (Orissa) as the art originated as a household craft mainly practised by rural Bengali housewives. The production time of Kantha products can vary between one day to one year, depending on the size of the piece, the intricacy of the motifs and the number of artisans involved. In older times, the process of Kantha embroidery consisted of a stack of worn garments, usually sarees and dhotis, being hand sewn together. The thread used to hand stitch and embroider these fabrics were obtained from the stitched borders of the worn sarees and dhotis. Thus, women would wrap the thread around their fingers while working on Kantha embroidery. In contemporary Kantha embroidery, artisans do not necessarily make use of a stack of worn garments; often, a white base fabric is used in order to enhance the colourful embroidery.
L: Traditional Kantha made with a stack of old sarees
R: Contemporary Kantha on a base fabric
The process begins with elaborate designs and intricate motifs sketched on tracing paper before being transferred onto the base fabric. As artisans take a complex approach to kantha stitching in order to create the intricate motifs of Kantha embroidery, the designs may be coloured in as a guide before being worked on with needles and threads. Today, Kantha embroidery can be found on contemporary products such as hats on top of traditional products such as Kantha sarees. Sometimes, in contemporary production, the tracing paper is often cut to shape and size before artisans begin on sketching the elaborate designs.
L: An artisan sketches a design on tracing paper
R: The artisan then colours in the designs before embroidering
The running stitch is one of the oldest and simplest forms of stitching, which is also referred to as kantha. The needle is passed in and out of the fabric in a manner that creates stitches of varying lengths. The underside of the fabric is also stitched, however, these stitches must be half the size of the stitches on the upper side of the fabric. Though the process may sound simple it is, in fact, quite time consuming and complex, requiring the utmost attention to detail. The heavy use of the running stitch, and the artisans’ ability to manipulate the stitches in a complex manner give Kantha embroidery its characteristic wrinkly and wavy effect. In Kantha embroidery, there are seven different Kantha items whose names dictate their different use: Lep Kantha: rectangular shaped wraps used in the production of padded quilts.
Lep Kantha for padded quilts to be used as a padded quilt
Sujani Kantha: pieces of rectangular cloth used in the making of bed covers or spreads for ceremonial occasions.
An artisan embroiders a Sujani Kantha
Baiton Kantha: square shaped wraps used in the production of book covers or covers for valuable objects.
An artisan embroiders a Baiton Kantha
Oaar Kantha: rectangular shaped pillowcases that feature simple yet alluring motifs and decorative borders.
A finished Oaar Kantha to be used as a pillowcase
Archilata Kantha: small rectangular shaped covers for mirrors or toiletries that feature an assortment of colourful Kantha motifs and borders.
Close-up of a finished traditional Archilata Kantha
Durjani Kantha: a small rectangular piece of cloth that usually features borders and the lotus motif. The cloth is turned into a wallet with the inward folding of three of its corners.
A finished traditional Durjani Kantha
Rumal Kantha: a piece of cloth that usually features borders and the lotus motif in the centre, used to cover plates or as household wipes.
Close-up of a finished traditional Rumal Kantha
Images: Institute of International Social Development, The Other Home, Utsavpedia, Gurusaday Museum, Venetian Red, Rub Rabbit