all kantha! chapter one

It has been a few years now since I started to love Kantha quilts and to work with these gorgeous textiles. At the time, I encountered them in a shop at the flea market in Old Jaffa, Israel. Worldwide, you could procure Kanthas in fairly mainstream retail chains. Although the Kantha fad seems to be ebbing, there are still quite a few people out there who share my passion, and for them, I am writing this series of blog posts. 

kantha

I don’t claim to be a Kantha expert, but working with them over the years I have made certain observations! I still find that actual information on Kantha quilts is scant on the internet. While we love how they look and feel, we don’t actually get down to the facts on who made them, how, and for what reason. 

Some basic Kantha facts:

  • Kantha stitching is a traditional Bengali craft, practiced in the Western parts of India and in Bangladesh.
  • Kantha quilts are traditionally made from layers of used textile pieces such as saris, dhotis and other fabric scraps.
  • There are many different forms of Kantha stitching. The one we know fairly well in the West is a simple, running stitch applied in rows, which produces a slightly wrinkled effect on the textile pieces. However, Kantha stitching can actually expand to the creation of wonderful images and scenes of village life or symbols.
  • Even the simple Kantha stitching presents in many different forms - with regard to design, the alignment of textile pieces, the number of layers of a quilt, the density and style of stitching, and patterns used to embellish the simple stitches. 
  • Depending on the density and size of stitches, it can take weeks or months to complete a Kantha quilt. The denser and smaller the stitching, the higher the value of the quilt!
 Women at work in Meherpur, Bangladesh

Women at work in Meherpur, Bangladesh

So why am I personally so attracted to these textile pieces? Apart from the obvious, aesthetic reasons, for me, Kantha quilts embody many aspects of the search of values lost in the spirit of our modern times. Although nowadays often "mass-produced", they still exemplify a tradition and craftsmanship from a different era. Kantha quilts represent a way of life where constant lack of time and a need to be efficient are not necessarily central. On the other hand, they stand for a culture that values and re-uses its resources because they are scarce. Simply put - who in our western society could imagine taking the time to gather pieces of worn and torn fabrics, layer and align them neatly to form a rectangle and then sit down and apply hour by hour row after row of a seemingly boring, straight stitch?

And yet, don't we all wish we could sometimes take a moment and focus on a very simple, straight-forward task like a running stitch? As a kind of meditative time-out we so much need in our ever so busy lives?

kantha quilt

I don’t want to romanticise the making of Kantha quilts. It is hard work (try stitching a small patch!) and often done in an environment that simply doesn’t leave these women with much choice with regards to their line of work. Kantha stitching may be a crafts(wo)manship practiced by women of different societal backgrounds, sometimes at leisure and in groups of women, simply to make a useful, recycled blanket, and at times to create a veritable piece of art (like knitting in our Western society). But it has also become a line of work upon which Bengali women depend to sustain themselves and their families, especially as Kantha quilts have become known to us Westerners. 

kantha

Up in my next Kantha post - different Kantha designs I have come across!