Inspired by kantha

I’m going through a bit of an embroidery phase. First there was the Threads of Silk and Gold exhibition at the Ashmolean, then there was all the stunning embroidery I saw while in India (which I have yet to blog about).

But today I thought I’d show you what I’ve been working on since I got back from Gujarat, inspired by a piece I bought there.

Ironically, given that Gujarat is famous for its embroidery, my favourite of the many pieces I bought was not from Gujarat but from Bangladesh. Mr Wazir, whol ives in Bhuj, is famous for his collection of around 3,500 textile pieces, mostly from Gujarat but also elsewhere in India. He’s remarkably hospitable to visitors who just turn up on his doorstep without appointment (like us), offering tea, showing them pieces of his collection, and selling at reasonable prices.

All his collection consists of older pieces of work, as he says the quality of modern textiles is not as good. Fifty or even 20 years ago, women were expected to start sewing pieces for their dowry from quite a young age, and the standard had to be good to impress their future mother-in-law, or they wouldn’t get a husband!

Today, thankfully, women have more opportunities for other work and education, so most do not choose to focus on embroidery skills, and the quality of pieces that are made for the tourist market is not as high (though I have to say I was still impressed with most of them!).

We bought several pieces from Mr Wazir, of which my favourite is a kantha from Bangladesh. I fell in love with this at first sight. Compared with all the colourful designs, fancy stitches and shiny mirrors in the other work around it, this shone out as a beacon of simplicity.


It feels, dare I say it, almost Japanese – certainly the texture of the diamond shapes reminds me of the patterns achieved through stitched shibori.

kantha close up

Close up shot of shibori circle

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, women make kanthas from old saris and dhotis, by folding them to create several layers and stitching through all of them. Traditionally they also used thread unravelled from the sari border – so a great form of recycling.

I just couldn’t work out how they achieved the textured effect, but of course Debby, my tutor at Morley College and fount of all knowledge when it comes to constructed textiles, knew. It’s simply parallel rows of running stitch.

So I had a go at a sampler of different motifs and tensions.

kantha sampler

Looking at the circular motifs, I noticed that if I kept the tension of the stitches very tight, the white ridges between the stitches would protrude more and the circles started to form little domes.

This reminded me of my turtle project from many moons ago, and I wondered whether I could use this stitch not only to create pattern and texture but also to create a 3D form – just like a curved turtle shell.

sunburst turtle

And it does! As you can imagine, it’s a bit slow, but here’s the work in progress.

kantha turtlekantha turtle close up

Bandhani in Gujarat

I was really looking forward to seeing a lot of Indian bandhani, or tie-dye, while I was in Gujarat. And I wasn’t disappointed!

bandhani samples4 bandhani samples1 bandhani samples2 bandhani samples3

Bandhani is so popular in this area that a lot of it is now printed rather than tied and dyed by hand. It’s usually quite easy to tell whether a fabric has been printed rather than tied, as the dots are too regular – they lack the organic irregularities of something produced by hand. Also, the printed fabrics are usually synthetics, whereas the hand-tied pieces are cotton or silk.

However, just to reassure customers that fabrics are tied by hand, many shops leave the binding on, and just untie one or two sections to show the pattern. I love this, because for me the most exciting part of shibori is undoing the resist to see the final result for the first time.

So by buying a piece of bandhani that is still bound, I get the vicarious thrill of seeing the result without having to do all the work! 😉

bandhani unbound

The shots of different bandhani saris below were all taken at a market in Chhota Udepur, eastern Gujarat. It’s a big tribal area, and it was fascinating to see bows and arrows for sale alongside more conventional fruit and veg!
bandhani sari2 bandhani sari1bandhani sari14 bandhani sari3 bandhani sari4 bandhani sari5 bandhani sari6 bandhani sari7 bandhani sari8 bandhani sari9 bandhani sari10 bandhani sari11 bandhani sari12 bandhani sari13

From the pictures you can see that most of the bandhani is of the tied variety, but I did spot one sari that used a stitch resist. Given the area’s reputation for stitching, I wonder why stitch isn’t used as a resist more often.

bandhani sari stitch
One of the very few bandhani saris I saw that used a stitch resist

The skill needed to bind the dot patterns ratchets up to a whole new level for silk wedding saris.

At Kachchhi Print, in Dhamadka, it was incredible to watch the wife of the proprietor demonstrate her tying skills on a silk jacket she was making. In the photo below, the marks on the fabric are where the dots are to be tied, and you can see the density of the knots that she has already tied.

bandhani tying2

Tying at this level is usually restricted to wedding saris, which take around a month to make and start from around £100. Even though this was a relative bargain I couldn’t really justify buying 6.5 metres of such fine work, but at Kala Raksha later in the trip I found some very fine bandhani scarves that were more manageable in terms of size and weight!

bandhani scarf 001

bandhani scarf 002

Namda felting in Mundra

It was quite a surprise when our driver Deep took us to visit a felter in Gujarat. I’d read a lot about embroidery, tie dye, weaving and block print in the state – but nothing about felting.

namda felt

Felt-making runs in Karim Umar Mansuri’s family – his father and grandfather before him also made felt. However, according to Mumbai newspaper DNA, he now has to do carpentry on the side to make ends meet, as he can’t sell enough felt.

Karim showed us photos of some of his rugs, all in natural-coloured wools, and in great organic designs. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my baggage allowance!) he didn’t have any in stock, or I’d have snapped one up.

He was kind enough to show us how he made one of his smaller pieces, crouched on the vinyl floor!

First he wet the corner of a cotton sheet and started rolling out some coloured roving, wetting it thoroughly before forming a double outline of a circle.


Then he formed the outline of a butterfly and filled in the gaps with different colours of wool. I should say that apart from the roving, the wool didn’t appear to have been combed in any way. I don’t know what type of sheep it was from – Deep’s interpretation skills didn’t extend to discussing different sheep species! 😉

However, Craftmark suggests that it’s a type of wool known locally as CDX, or waali-yeer.




After filling in the outlines Karim filled in the rest of the circle in khaki and added a red border.


Then he put another layer of white on top. He did a little bit of dry rubbing and patting, but not very much. All the wool apart from the roving was dry – he didn’t wet between layers.


After completing the layout, he folded the rest of the sheet over the top and rolled it up – again, no wetting was involved.


I am convinced something got lost in translation here, because when I asked what happened next, I was told that he soaked the roll in hot soapy water and then left it out in the sun for seven hours to felt – and that was it!

I asked several times whether any rubbing or rolling was involved, miming the actions, but was told definitely not. Maybe there was some friction involved as part of the soaking process, but this didn’t come across in any way, and we didn’t have time to stay and watch.

But the pieces I saw were definitely very firmly felted.

There isn’t much about namda felting techniques on the internet, but I found a report of felting businesses in Tonk, Rajasthan, which describes the methodology as follows:

“The mass of fleece is sprinkled with soapy water and rolled and kneaded until the layers of wool are felted. The namda is then soaked in a large cauldron of water and finally laid flat to dry in the sun.”

Craftmark also suggests that the felt may be rolled by foot, or by treading on it.

If it’s possible to make felt just by soaking it and laying it out in the sun without the hard work of rubbing and rolling, I’m  moving to India! 😉


Back from India

What a culture shock, arriving back from a balmy India to a freezing cold, sleety London with not a single cow anywhere on the road! 😉

I had a fabulous time touring Gujarat for three weeks, saw some amazing sights, met some wonderful people – and bought some terrific textiles. Our driver, Deep Singh, booked through Northwest Safaries, was excellent – courteous, safe, and completely unfazed at negotiating junctions involving, cars, buses, autorickshaws, bullock carts, camels, motorbikes (not to mention cows, goats, and wild pigs). He’s been doing the job for nearly 30 years, so he took us to artisans and producers – including, to my surprise, a felter! – not mentioned in any of the guidebooks.

I’ll be writing about some of the textiles and techniques I saw over the next few weeks, once I’ve caught up with real life again! But here are a few photos just to whet your appetite from this wonderfully inspiring trip.

With our excellent driver, Mr Deep Singh
With our excellent driver, Mr Deep Singh
gujarat haul
Some of my textile haul!
gujarat tyres
Even tyres in Gujarat display wonderful textures!
gujarat bags
Patchwork bags at the market
gujarat chair embroidery
Faded embroidery on a chair in the street
gujarat children
Friendly children in the cotton fields
gujarat cow
Probably the best-dressed cow we saw in India
gujarat cushion
Gorgeous cushion in Ahmedabad hotel
gujarat fish market
The most intense fish market I’ve ever been to, in Diu
gujarat geometry
Wonderful Mughal carving
gujarat hodka ceiling
Colourful ceiling display
gujarat leaf plaster
Leaves were used to create patterns on the plastered walls of a hut we stayed in
gujarat market
One of the most artfully arranged markets I’ve seen
gujarat rope chair
Rope chair in hotel bathroom
gujarat stone peacock
Peacocks are a very popular motif


Out of office

The builders/decorators still haven’t finished, but I’m leaving it all behind for four weeks and heading to Gujarat in India for a shot of sunshine and a treasury of textiles, hopefully like the photo below.

Image by Meen Khadri/Flickr
Image by Meen Khadri/Flickr

I’m told that WiFi is not very common in that area, so I don’t know how often, if at all, I’ll be able to post – you might have to wait till mid-January for news.

So wishing you all a very creative Christmas and happy new year!

Bandhani (Indian tie dye)

When I was in Colombo I came across a wonderful shop called Rithihi, at 19 Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 3. (Sadly, it doesn’t have a proper website.)

Rithihi stocks a fantastic range of Indian fabrics, including amazing wedding saris (I fell in love with a block-printed sari depicting ducks swimming in a lotus pond, but it was a little pricey). I know it’s rather ironic swooning over Indian textiles when Sri Lanka has such a great industry of its own, but my eye was caught by a pile of bandhani cotton.

Bandhani is tie dye, the Indian version of shibori, and uses mostly the binding technique, tying small circles in the cloth with thread so that the final pattern is a series of dots. I bought a couple of pieces, shown above and below.

For me, the interest lay not just in the combination of colour and pattern, but also in the technique used. I could see this because much of the binding was still in place when I bought it – you can see this in the bottom left of the photo above. So as I pulled it out, I could see how it was done.

1. The fabric (fine muslin) was folded in four, and all four layers were tied at the same time. This obviously saved time and effort.

2. The binding was continuous over large areas of the pattern. By this I mean that the maker didn’t cut the thread after binding each circle, but continued the next circle using the same thread. So it was very easy to remove the thread – simply by stretching the muslin out on each side, the tension caused the threads to pop off. It was a bit like watching lots of little white flowers suddenly opening!

This was much easier than laboriously tying each single circle individually, and then trying to remove the thread after dyeing! Below is a sample of my own attempt at this technique – nowhere near as delicate!

So I may see if I can adopt this technique to speed up the process. But I doubt whether I will ever be as fast or skilled as the ladies below!