Kantha is an ancient form of hand-stitch embroidery originating in India. The word kantha means “rags” in Sanskrit, reflecting a tradition of using discarded clothing or garments to remake old cloth into bed coverings and other household items. Kantha also refers to the indigenous quilt form and to the running stitch itself, which gives the cloth the wrinkly appearance that is characteristic of kantha.
Rural Bengali women used the simple running embroidery stitch to hold recycled cloth layers together using threads taken from old saris and stitching techniques passed down from mother to daughter.
An Ancient Stitching History
Kantha is one of the oldest forms of Indian embroidery and perhaps the most well known. The ancient practice was first mentioned in a book by Kaviraj 500 years ago. The technique is indigenous to West Bengal and Bangladesh and continues to be the principal textile art in the region, practiced mostly by women. This area was known even in ancient times for the export of exceptional quality cottons and silks.
The kantha stitching was traditionally quite simple; beautiful old sari borders were reused and soft dhotis (men’s clothes) were stitched inside the layers. Several revivals of kantha embroidery and quilt making have occurred in India and Bangladesh over the past 75 years, which has redefined this ancient domestic tradition and helped women secure a livelihood through stitching.
Cultural Motifs and Colors
Early motifs were related to nature, the sun, the tree of life, and the cosmos. The wheel represented order in the world. Traditional motifs that reveal nature and culture are still stitched into cloth today, along with the simple running stitches seen in contemporary scarves. Hindu designs often featured the lotus, which is a sacred flower, as well as the power of life offered by water and sun. Motifs might reveal caste, village, status and day-to-day folk scenes, including religious iconography. Muslim designs usually presented geometrics and florals. Thread colors of red, black and blue were often used in early work, with white used on backgrounds, but today color use has expanded as more materials become available.
Contemporary Kantha Textiles As Art and Fashion
Older forms of kantha quilts often told the life stories of the makers, who used compact designs and old materials. The individual was believed to be the “soul” of kantha and an individual could record their life story in cloth using the colors of everyday life. Today, women often work in teams to elevate the art form and find economic stability using new fabrics and designs. In 2013, a fashion collection featuring stunning kantha garments by Tarun Tahiliani, brought another round of global recognition to kantha textiles.
The continuing story of contemporary kantha is featured in the documentary film THREADS, by Canadian filmmaker, Cathy Stevulak. This film tells the story of a passionate teacher and artist, Surayia Rahman, who worked with women in Bangladesh, teaching them the skills needed to achieve economic independence. The artisan group is named ARSHI, which means mirror in Bengali. Learn more about this story at http://kanthathreads.com You can also watch a video clip of an artisan using the traditional stitching technique on kantha textiles. ClothRoads appreciates the assistance of Cathy Stevulak and Patrick Finn in the creation of this blog post.
In Bengal, kanthas were first used as baby diapers or wrappers.
Kantha may be spelled and pronounced in various ways: kantha, kaentha, ketha, kheta.
Nakshi kantha is the name now commonly used for lightweight embroidered quilts.