past & present by 18

Past & Present: Kantha + Shopping Roundup


Although the terms recycling and reuse feel very 21st century, those ideas are certainly nothing new. If you’ve been browsing Anthropologie or West Elm lately, you may have noticed kantha appearing on the scene next to the ikat and the kilims. Kantha is a style of quilting that originates in Bengal, in northeast India. It is reuse at its finest. Women would make the blankets out of discarded dhotis (the traditional men’s garment) or saris. First, the colored threads would be removed from the borders of the clothing. Then, the saris or dhotis would be layered — one on top of another — and stitched together to create a blanket. The simple quilting stitch would produce the initial design, then the colored threads (taken from the sari) would be used for the more detailed embroidery work. — Amy Azzarito

Image above: Early 20th-century kantha, The Victoria & Albert Museum


Katha Design

The more typical kantha design would have a lotus medallion in the center, which symbolized the universe, and four trees, one in each of the corners. The rest of the quilt would be embroidered with different motifs — birds, fish, animals and people. The decoration embroidered on the kanthas were often similar to the abstract rice-paste decorations made on the mud floors of village homes, and they were endowed with a similar protective symbolism. No two kanthas were like. They were used around the home for everything, from winter quilts and wraps for books or other precious objects to mats used for ceremonial purposes.

Image above: Early 20th-century kantha, detail, The Victoria & Albert Museum


Embroidery in India

The history of embroidery in India is long but obscure. Bronze needles that dated from 2250 to 2000 BC were excavated in India, but the first specific reference to embroidery came from Marco Polo, writing at the end of the 14th century about leather mats with designs in gold and silver. The earliest surviving quilts date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries — that tradition survives in the kanthas.

Image above: A kantha quilt in Zoe Johns and Max Catalano’s San Francisco home from Sneak Peek: Zoe Johns and Max Catalono

More kantha after the jump + a shopping roundup . . .


Kantha Today

Bengal and the rest of India became very industrialized around the first quarter of the 20th century, and the art of kantha making began to die out. In 1971, aid workers from Canada helped to revive kantha work after the Bangladesh Liberation War to provide an income for destitute rural women. In many villages, much of a woman’s free time (and her greatest creative outlet) is spent on her needlework.

Image above: Eight-year-old Billee’s bedroom in Australia with a vintage kantha quilt on her bed from Sneak Peek: Katie Graham


Facts to Know

1. The kanthas were made for women to use at home rather than as dowry goods, but making the object as a gift — an important aspect of the folk tradition — is maintained through the practice of “dedicating” it to one’s father or husband.

2. Kantha production is considered a folk-textile tradition in that it is produced by non-professionals for domestic use.

Books to Read

Indian Textiles — Not just kanthas, this book has information about the vast wealth of Indian textiles, and all are organized by geographic locations — perfect if you’re planning a trip to India (or even just armchair traveling). There is also a complete index, so if there’s any Indian textile you’re curious about, you can easily find that info.

Image above: A mix of textiles from India, including kantha, on the guest-room daybed from Sneak Peek: Paige Morse


If you want to collect kanthas, you can find vintage versions on Etsy or eBay, and you can find women’s cooperatives in India to support. I’ve rounded up some of my favorite kantha products — traditional blankets as well as more contemporary ways to use kantha. Happy textile hunting.

Image above, clockwise from left: Vintage Kantha Coat, $298; Kantha Floor Cushion, $98; Kantha Pouf, $70.80; Kantha Cosmetic Bag, $45; Kantha Blue Blanket, $450; Kantha Kisslock Pouch, $36.99; Kantha-Stitched Mug, $14


Image above, clockwise from left: Vintage Kantha Dress, $298; Kantha Coin Purse, $13.99; Kantha Flat Bracelet, $22; Kantha Quilted Pillows, $19–24; Kantha Throws, $128

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18 Comments

Rebekah Smith

There is an organization here in Chicago that has been working within the kantha tradition for quite some time. It’s called Hand & Cloth and they function as a development organization that gives Indian women who have been victims of trafficking a dignified way of earning an income. All of the blankets are hand stitched by these beautiful women! It’s a wonderful organization, here’s their website:

http://handandcloth.org/

Amy Azzarito

Melody – You’d definitely love the Indian textiles book that I mentioned – it’s absolutely beautiful.
xx Amy

kandyce

for kantha from a non-profit that works with former prostitutes in calcutta, check out saribari.com.

i LOVE them. they make bags, blankets, quilts, jewelry rolls and a few other things that i’m sure i can’t remember. i’ve bought their blankets as gifts for probably 6 different people.

John

I absolutely love the designs on these Kantha pieces…I have never come across this particular kind of Indian fabric design before. Thanks!

John@KDCUK

Mary

I have a blanket from the Hand and Cloth mentioned above. Not only is it beautiful and graphically rich, but it FEELS amazing.

Jenny

If you want to by Kantha and want to make sure the workers are being given a fair price please make sure that you ask around to find the right businesses to support! ConneXions.org.in , SariBari.com, Hand & Cloth, Shelano are all amazing businesses that provide so much more than a livable wage for their employees!

Sadly, there are other business owners out there that have their own financial interests as a priority much higher than that of the women that make the products. Some of these individuals will even pay for the “Fair Trade” logo but because standards are so ambiguous, they don’t have to do much to be considered fair trade.

Kantha products are so wonderful. My family has been enjoying our large collection of blankets for years but what is most important is that we know the women who made them and how their lives have been enriched by the business!

They make great christmas presents, I just ask that you shop wisely!

Emily

What a wonderful write-up on kantha! In addition to the women’s cooperatives in India, there is also a social enterprise in Bangladesh which works with more than 65,000 artisans, predominantly women, across the country who stitch nakshi kantha. Aarong, meaning “village fair” has a rich “story of stitches” and beautiful embroidered products that can be viewed on Pinterest.

Kate

I love, love, love the Kantha blankets and throws that Hand & Cloth makes. They are gorgeous and have an amazing story behind the company, where it really makes a true difference in the world to support them, because they pay women who were often formerly “red light district” workers to make the blankets. AMAZING.

http://handandcloth.org/

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