Anna Hergert, Art & Design

Ode to Kantha – The Simple Running Stitch Exhibits a Lot of Potential

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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

This entry was published on December 16, 2012 at 10:02 am. It’s filed under Art, Creativity Update, Design, History, Recycle, Repurpose & Re-Create, Reuse, Special Project and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

11 thoughts on “Ode to Kantha – The Simple Running Stitch Exhibits a Lot of Potential

  1. Pingback: Me and Kantha Stitching | debby quilts

  2. Hi there! I was glad to find this post, as I’ve found it very difficult to find any information about Kantha! Thank you for the great article. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about how the edges are “bound” in the traditional type of quilt? When I see images of them, it looks as though it’s a double whipstitch that overlaps to form an “X,” but what I can’t figure out is if the fabric has been sewn together inside-out first to hide the raw edges, or if the edge stitching is done along raw sides. Thanks!

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    • Glad the Kantha post was helpful – as to finishing your Kantha, anything goes! I usually apply a wide binding with added running stitch. I have never used a double whip stitch as that does not prevent fraying. I have also turned excess fabric over the outer parameter and stitched it securely to the back.
      I hope this helps. Check out the preview of my newly published Kantha book on this blog (under New – Kantha Book). The images in there might shed more light on your question. Anna

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  3. Dear Anna,

    Thank you for the very informative article. I enjoyed following your journey through your writing!! Just recently, I bought a quilt from a woman from Qatar who used the basic Kantha running stitch through all three layers of a block quilt of vintage and modern fabric. The stitches went through every block evenly. There are 156 3 &1/4 inch blocks with a 3/4 inch binding all round. Expert even stitching, an art in itself! Being familiar with India, I knew that this stitch is popular in West Bengal, with the rural women. On further investigation, I found the stitching could be rather elaborate and very striking. What a find you encountered years ago that set you on your life path! This kantha (rag) quilt with its running stitch will be framed and hung for display. The colors chosen for the blocks and the layout exceptional as one also can see the quality stitching running through the quilt.

    The books you mentioned, I have one of them and it is a delight.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    Would love to see you in Chicago sometime!

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    • Dear Debra, thanks for the lovely note! So glad you found the article I posted a while ago.
      I would love to return to the Chicago area to teach – I was there in January 2009 and very much enjoyed meeting a group of talented quilters.
      Happy creating, Anna

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  4. Thank you for your information on Kantha, I’m currently using a Kantha style running stitch to quilt a large quilt with no hoop. It is such a lovely way to quilt, I can just pick up the quilt, thread a needle and go for it, and much better for my back as well.

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  5. Marie McEachern on said:

    Hi Anna
    Thanks for posting this great stitch. We are travelling in Ecuador and I’ve been itching for some hand work. I am going to start a small Kantha project right away. Wish you would come to Calgary for a visit and a class. Thanks for your blog and your sharing.
    Merry Christmas
    Marie

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    • Hi Marie,
      Glad my post sparked interest and inspired you to start a new project while traveling!! Way to go!
      About coming to Calgary – my travels in 2012 took me north, south and east of where I live. I am coming through Alberta in 2013 – my calendar is pretty full already. How about coming to SK? I am offering Art Quilt Campus just north of S’toon in August and have a couple spots still open.
      Happy travels and stay in touch!

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  6. Hello Anna,
    Thank you for this interesting information. I find that more and more I am using what I had always called ‘seed stitch’ in my quilts. I love the effect! I have been using it as a quilting stitch through all 3 layers. Do Kantha stitches go through all 3 layers or just the top? If this is the case, do you use a hoop so you do not distort your work?
    I must take a Kantha class from you if I ever get close to your teaching venues. In the meantime, I will continue experimenting.

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    • HI Karen, Glad to know you found the Kantha info interesting.
      Speaking of seed stitches: We explored them in the design classes you took part in when I still lived in Calgary – they are GREAT! And I have to admit: they are my favorite stitch by far when I add hand stitching to an art quilt. In contrast, Kantha truly is running stitch, executed without a hoop. The pieces are small for the most part and the hand-held execution lends them an ancient look. Try it sometime. I use two or three layers of turban cloth and stitch all the way through. Have fun!

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