Kantha – is it quilting or is it embroidery?
Quilting is an embroidery technique in which two or more fabrics are stitched together to make a warm, and often decorative, fabric. In traditional Kantha quilting the process begins with pieces of discarded fabric or rags, and is a very effective way of recycling old and threadbare fabrics. Numerous approaches to quilting have developed in different communities to produce varied uses of stitches, patterns and designs. In India there are three areas with distinct Kantha quilting styles: Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar.
The following post was researched and compiled for the Canadian Quilter Magazine, Winter 2011. I have revised and augmented the article to share it with you today.
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In 1998 shortly after I had embarked on my London City and Guilds education one of the objectives was to research Kantha Embroidery and create a small sample. At that point I had never heard of Kantha, and not one of my quilting and embroidery friends was able to provide me with specific insights. In fact none of the fibre artists I was connected with was familiar with the Kantha technique.
I love a challenge, and with that my research began in earnest, starting within my personal library where I was able to find a short paragraph describing the Kantha technique in “World Textiles” by John Gillow and Bryan Sentance. It defined the technique as “quilted and embroidered cloths made from recycled fabric in Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh.” Two small images did not provide a better understanding despite using a powerful magnifying glass. A special trip to the library was unsuccessful, and since I was a committed ‘luddite’ Google searches were not something I resorted to until the next millenium.
Eventually a dog-eared techniques book from England, Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine, fell into my hands when visiting a second-hand bookstore. Lo and behold – one short paragraph was devoted to Kantha. The technique was simply described as several layers of white or light colored cotton cloth, such as saris, sewn/quilted together with predominantly white thread using successive rows of running stitches. Patterns and special motifs are outlined with black, blue or red thread in backstitch. Motifs include flowers, animals, scenes from rural life and sometimes even historical figures. The creation of the cloth was usually considered a ritual as it was used for ceremonial purposes.
Could it be this simple? The short answer is: Yes. Eventually I retrieved a copy of Piecework Magazine from January/February 1994 which featured a well-informed article with several excellent colour images of Kantha as well as a small project.
No time was wasted and I began with gathering simple supplies: three pieces of pale blue cotton, purple cotton floss, white rayon floss, basting thread, fabric marking pencil and embroidery needles. The stitches I had to acquaint myself with were running and back stitches! I quickly embraced this versatile quilting technique, and my first sample of three fish surrounding a pentagonal shape was soon completed. Filling in the shapes and the background with running stitches to create intriguing texture bordered on obsession on my part. What can I say? I love Kantha – the technique, the portability aspect of bringing my project along to meetings, doctors’ offices and even the possibility to stitch in the car are all strong reasons why I am passionate about Kantha!
By 2000 I was approached to teach Kantha for the first time. With my basic research I had enough information to share my knowledge in one and two day workshops. Classes were small and sporadic but year after year interest grew. I continued to immerse myself in new approaches of the technique and expanded my use and application of Kantha in a growing body of textile work. In 2001, I created one such variation by layering fabrics, including tulle and polyester sheer on hand dyed cottons to depict a landscape inspired by a postcard from Lake Powell, Arizona. Variegated sewing threads added dimension and texture. In 2004, I incorporated the technique in one of my first large quilts (60” h x 42” w) titled After the Storm I. Quilting cotton, polyester sheers, tulle, and hand-dyed silk threads were combined successfully to depict an abstract cityscape. The texture created by using the Kantha technique resembled rivulets of water running down windowpanes during a storm and channels in the soil caused by erosion. After the Strom II followed in 2008. Both pieces caught the attentions of collectors and eventually sold.
Renewed interest in my Kantha workshop in 2011 caused me to review my workshop handout and general information. Spring and summer were filled with travel to exhibition and workshop venues. With so much time spent on the road idle hands are not something I will ever get used to. A decision to augment my existing samples with new and expanded examples for my Kantha workshops led to another in-depth study of how to combine running stitches to create complex fill patterns for various motifs. Twelve new small samples are based on up-to-date research and led to more complex work almost completed.
An acquaintance recently returned from a trip to India. During a visit with her, she shared some of the textiles she acquired during the trip. While she did not have any true Kantha quilted items in her large stash I was able to identify hand-embroidered shawls with Kantha inspired stitches. To my surprise I discovered that my source books were not always correct in identifying the outline stitches of motifs as back and stem stitches. The items I handled had solid lines on the “public” side while turned over revealed broken lines emulating running stitch with doubled thread. I spent a little time in the studio and replicated the stitch, discovering in the process that by using this outline stitch the quilter will save about 1/3 of the thread, as compared to employing back or stem stitch. I call this stitch the Kantha Outline Stitch. It has been incorporated into my workshop curriculum. You can download it here.Kantha Outline Stitch Step by Step Instructions_reduced
Throughout the summer of 2011, I stitched my way across Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. My little bag of supplies and in-progress samples never left my side. I stitched in the car, campgrounds (as long as the light permitted!), during gatherings with family and friends, and I continue to be “hooked” on Kantha! While stitching in solitude one weekend in a Medicine Hat, Alberta, campground I contemplated why I was mesmerized by simple running stitches. A fleeting memory transported me back to my early childhood when my grandmother would buy me a new coloring book for our holiday trips. The anticipation while completing an outline on the fabric with backstitch was equal to the excitement I experienced as a child when taking hold of a crayon readying myself to make that first mark in the new coloring book.
In summary and to entice the quilter: With Kantha you have full control of the project on hand! This begins with the selection of the fabric, the design of a motif, outlining the shape, filling it in with your chosen thread color and stitches to creating the texture surrounding the motif.
My journey continues as I am working on a small bag inspired by traditional motifs. New ideas are emerging during workshops while participants add personal touches to the motifs provided in my handout. My samples have been compiled, photographed and arranged into a self-published primer for students who may be interested in pursuing the journey with me. Let Kantha into your quilting life and explore its endless possibilities…
With that motto I have had several teaching opportunities in 2012. A small group at the Saskatoon Quilters’ Retreat in April, twenty eager students at Quilt Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May, and ten students in Ottawa, Ontario in September invited me to share my passion for Kantha. The obsession may be catching – if you love historical textiles, travel (in reality in or arm chair) and the joy of hand stitching, try a small sample and spread the joy!
For anyone interested in finding out more about Kantha I recommend the following books:
Dorothy Caldwell; Dr. S. Morrison: Stitching Women’s Lives – Sajuni and Khatwa from Bihar, India. The Museum for Textiles, Toronto, Canada; 1999/2000. ISBN 0-9684411-3-0
Celia Eddy: Quilted Planet – A Sourcebook of Quilts from Around the World. Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York; 2005. ISBN 1-4000-5457-5
Darielle Mason, editor: Kantha – The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal. Philadelphia Museum of Art & Yale University Press; 2009. ISBN 978-0-87633-218-4