This isn’t a tutorial: there are plenty of embroidery tutorials already online–and if you need a lesson for the running stitch, well, you’d better get on it 🙂 I’m sure there are a lot more inspiring sites out there that i haven’t found yet, so feel free to add in the comments, or write your own post! Some of you old time readers may recognize a lot of this, as it used to be on my old blog. I’ve since edited, amended and clarified here.
Some of you may be familiar with the “Slow Cloth” aesthetic, which encompasses fine craftsmanship, a reverence for the natural properties of the cloth and the process, sustainable practices, the sharing of applicable knowledge in tradition and innovation and the mentoring of these qualities. As this valuable approach to all crafts grows, many are discovering there is a world of possibilities in global history and cultures. India in particular has a rich treasure trove of design and technique, so we will focus this time on one from there: Kantha. (*Slow Cloth can also be done by or combined with machine work, can be woven, knitted, dyed, etc. It is not just a hand technique or just an embroidered or quilted piece, but a sensibility. For more info on Slow Cloth, visit Elaine Lipson’s Red Thread Studio.) LINK HAS BEEN UPDATED, as it was broken before!
Kantha is the original thrift craft of embroidery and quilting, and has become a major component of the “hand worked” aspect in Slow Cloth textiles, but really it’s a basic sewing, embroidery and quilting stitch that has been used everywhere from time immemorial. Practiced for centuries by the rural artists of India, it epitomizes recycling and repurposing. Poverty and necessity dictated that any usable piece of fabric had to be used over and over, superstition adding that old cloth is believed to possess magic, repelling the evil eye, keeping its user safe. Threads were often in short supply too so they were drawn from the same cloth and used to stitch two or three layers together. A simple running stitch makes up most but not all Kantha, and true Kantha in the form of religious, domestic and ceremonial items, is created by using that stitch in simple motifs. Combinations of those patterned motifs create vignettes of daily folk life indigenous to the area, or are from the imagination of the woman working the cloth.
The earliest and most basic stitch found in kanthas is the running stitch, the predominant form of this stitch called the phor or kantha stitch. Other forms of stitches used are the Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, darning stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, Lik phor or anarasi or ghar hasia (Holbein) stitches. The stitches used in modern-day kantha are the Kasmiri stitch and the arrowhead stitch. Stitches like the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch are occasionally used. (Reference)
So, true Kantha isn’t just a running stitch. Yes, running stitch is basic, easy to do, easy to teach, but that running stitch doesn’t have to go in straight lines: it can make up motifs, outlined and filled in with itself or other stitch variations, be used as border applications and not just as embroidery, but as a form of quilting. Be a little more innovative though than the ubiquitous slapping a couple of scraps together and running lines across it: use your imagination! (Sometimes i feel this one should be called the “racing stitch” as people brag about what they’ve done as TAKING A WHOLE THREE DAYS. Pfft. It’s not about the time, it’s about the use and skill.)
Do these look like straight lines? Nope.
Notes: Some Kantha borders are interlaced, but no couching is done. I consulted an Indian embroiderer in 2009, who was very helpful in explaining the uses, designs and differences. For the interlacing, a line of what we refer to as plain Kantha, the basic running stitch, is done and then the stitches are interlaced through the running stitches. (Known as Paichano or weaving of the thread.) Some of the borders that i thought were couched are stitches done back and forth: complete a line with running stitch, and then reverse to fill in. (This is how a plain seam is done as well, something i remember well from my teen days out in the world on my own with no sewing machine, of how i built my patchy skirts!)
A rich visual resource is this commercial page for stunning antique works.
Above, left, you can see that the outlines were made with the running stitch, then filled in again with just a running stitch. Right, variations in stitch type fill in some areas.
There are many border patterns that could be combined as well. And don’t think of them as “just” embroidery or as “just” quilting , fuse them, as many of us now do. Running stitch doesn’t have to go in straight lines: try circles, shapes and specific objects as well.
Did you know that kantha is classified into different types as/for useage?
- Lep kantha are rectangular wraps heavily padded to make warm coverlets. The entire piece would be stitched in wavy, rippled designs over which simple embroidery was executed.
- Sujani kantha are rectangular pieces of cloth used as blankets or spreads on ceremonial occasions.
- Baiton kantha are square wraps used for covering books and other valuables. They are elaborately patterned with borders of several rows of colorful designs.
- Oaar kantha are rectangular pillow covers in simple designs with a decorative border sewn around the edges.
- Archilata kantha are small, rectangular covers for mirrors or toilet accessories with wide, colorful borders in assorted motifs.
- Durjani/thalia kantha are small rectangles with a central lotus design and embroidered borders. Three corners of the rectangle are folded inward to form a wallet.
- Rumal kantha are used as absorbent wipes or plate coverings. They also feature a central lotus with ornamented borders.
“Kantha” is more than a running stitch in simple lines, holding scraps together: it’s SO much more than that in skilled hands. Look at the optical illusion created by a very creative artisan, on this piece! Some of the background has domed a bit because of the tension of the stitch used this way, but it appears even more dimensional, due to the slight shadows.
My own first attempts at “kantha” were culminated in “Every Beat Has A History”, from 2009. I went every direction possible, intersecting, echoing, circling and jagging ziggy that i could:
Done on “whole cloth” (one of Deb Lacativa’s hand dyed damasks), the only “scraps” were the pieces used to create the large centre appliqued anatomically inspired heart.
About cultural appropriation: None of these motifs are specifically a copy or exact replica of any of these people’s personal symbols. In this case, embroidery is embroidery, and since the stitches are all the same all over the world, no one person or group has a claim on them. It’s in the use, the combination, the colours and the personal aesthetic that lifts them WAY above cultural commodifying or appropriation. If a stitch used by one group is then passed on and used by another, and that’s a Bad Thing, whomever thinks that is way off base! This is how trade, cultural exchange and welcoming new or different ideas shaped the world after all! And NO ONE has a patent, license, ownership, trademarked, copyrighted stitch, even if they change it to “So and So’s” “something else” stitch. You don’t get to rename it, claim ownership: you didn’t invent it, it’s not Something New and Individual to you. Don’t Bogart that stitch, man!