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
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 . . .
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.
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