The Kantha embroidery

In the Bengali area, during the XIX century more or less, one of the richest and most fascinating artisan traditions became widespread, among those which can still be admired today. This is the “Kantha” workmanship onto fabric which unites embroidery and quilting, a technique deriving from saving pieces of materials from old saris, which would otherwise have become useless, and intended for protecting people from the cold at night as well as for protecting objects from the elements. This recycling technique by artisans has in time become an artistic handicraft, thanks to the creativity of the Bengali women who, in sewing and embroidery, have created their entire domestic and religious world. Kantha have thus become really authentic works of popular art and nowadays are much appreciated.
The fact of using pieces of old material fill Kantha with meaning: the ritual of giving back a new entirety is part of women’s role, in the home. The choice of materials to be joined, the sewing of the seam that joins them and the stitching, which constitutes the most characteristic part of Kantha, are all fundamental steps in the preparation, before the actual embroidery. The close stitching divides the material into sections and creates a “wavy” background on which the embroidery appears. Some recurring motifs are the Kalka, a floral motif with a particular shape that is reminiscent of a pineapple, but also a stylized flame and half of the Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang. Then there is the fish, which indicates the close link with nature and is the symbol of good luck; or the lotus flower and the alpona, symbols of the cosmic harmony and of the deepest femininity, such that they are used to decorate the homes of newly-married couples on their wedding day. These are all carried out without a preparatory drawing and represent the female universe and each woman expresses through these symbols her own creativity together with her own family tradition. These characteristics, which are mostly unchanged, make each Kantha piece unique and precious.
The embroidery work technique is long and refined and, as often happens in the Global Southern countries of the world where there is an abundance of manpower, women who embroider these fabrics receive little money in exchange. Some of them have however discovered the value of the tradition that they are passing on, they have set up cooperatives and begun to sell their work for a fair price. These women know that they are the keepers of a tradition of high artisanship and are proud of their capacity to express themselves through embroidery.

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