Romance of the Running Stitch

In conjunction with the beautiful collection of textiles featured on The Story, Romance of the Running Stitch: Nagaland, guest blogger, Minhazz Majumdar shares some insights on the embroidery traditions of India

New Delhi: India has a long and enduring relationship with embroidered textiles and presents a dizzying array of embroidery traditions. The first needles discovered in the Indian sub-continent are from the Indus Valley civilization in Mohenjodaro and date back to 2000 BC. Examining the statuary and other material culture of that era, we can conclude that richly embroidered textiles were in vogue even then. By the 16th Century, the embroidery traditions of India were known as some of the finest in the world.

Dandelion Series I by Ajungla ImchenA silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)

Dandelion Series I (detail) by Ajungla Imchen
A silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style
77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)
Image credit: Saffronart

Kantha  and Sujuni are embroidery traditions from eastern India from  the states of West Bengal and Bihar respectively . Both embroideries are based on the simple running or quilting stitch and are great expressions of women’s thrift as they originated as magical recreations of a beautiful new textile from old used fabrics.  The term Kantha refers to rags and alludes to the fact that worn out clothing such as old saris and dhotis were layered and stitched with running stitch to create anew. Colored threads painstakingly drawn from the borders were used for embroidery.  Some believe that the tradition of Kantha originated from the patched up robes of Buddhist monks as they went around seeking alms, their faith promoting austere habits and re-use.

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Basket Series II (detail) by Ajungla Imchen
A silk stole embroidered using Kantha embroidery style
77 x 20.5 in (195.5 x 52 cms)
Image credit: Saffronart

Whatever be the origin, Kantha in the greater Bengal area (present day Bangladesh and West Bengal)  evolved into a women’s activity wherein the women magically transformed the old and discarded into new objects of beauty , creating wraps, quilts,  pillow-cases, bedspreads, book-covers, make-up bags, prayer mats and much more. The running stitch was used to great effect – by varying the length of the stitch and by either aligning (jod) or not aligning (bejod), different  effects and textures were created.  Themes in the Kanthas of yore where a mix of symbols ( the multi-petalled lotus drawn from the floor drawings alpona signifying the cosmos, the parrot, the messenger of the God of Love, peacocks for virility and so on) as well as scenes from daily life and historical facts such as British soldiers in their uniforms.

The Hunter and the Hunted by Archana Kumari An embroidered cotton panel with Sujuni embroidery

The Hunter and the Hunted by Archana Kumari
An embroidered cotton panel with Sujuni embroidery
Image credit: Saffronart

Women in the Bihar region have made Sujunis for quite a few centuries. As in Kantha old fabric were sewn together to make little quilts to place under small babies and to cover them.  In Sujuni, chain stitch is used for the outlines and running stitch for filling in the motifs.  In Sujuni, the ground or base on which the motifs appear is covered with running stitch done in straight lines while in Kantha, the ground may be covered in running stitch done more sinuously in circles, spirals, triangles etc as well as straight lines.

View the first collection of textiles Romance of the Running Stitch: Nagaland here.

Guest blogger, Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art and a craft promoter. She is the co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization that promotes arts and crafts as livelihood.

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