The Making Of: Kantha Embroidery in Odisha, India

Embroidery is a detailed craft of adding decorative accents by putting needle to thread. Kantha is a traditional embroidery craft that began 500 centuries ago in West Bengal and Odisha by means of reusing and recycling dhotis, sarees and other pieces of clothing Bengalis were reluctant to throw away. Essentially, upcycling – the old school way. The term Kantha means ‘patched cloth’, and it refers to the continued narrative of making something unique out garments that would otherwise have been discarded, as well as the craft and stitch itself: a straight running stitch in Bengali embroidery.

It was a craft specific to rural women: taking cloth scraps or garments that might otherwise have been discarded and sewing them as a blanket for the winter. Its purpose was far from decorative, it would be more accurate to say that Kantha was created for the most practical purpose: to keep warm. 

Kantha Stitching Embroidery
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Photo taken from NewsInAsia


Home to many textile crafts, Odisha Ikat is another craft that is just as remembered as the Kantha embroidery. The process of Odisha Ikat is often referred as poetry on loom, the way the silk ikat grows and changes in vibrant colours. As one of the most important textile arts in Eastern India, Kantha embroidery is highly regarded as both a household craft and fine art. 

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Photo on the right taken from NewsInAsia


The reason for using dhotis and saris was twofold: to reuse clothing that they were reluctant to throw away, and create useful household items from fine quality muslin and cotton. Traditionally, the women would stack saris and dhotis on each other and hand-stitch a simple running stitch along the edges. From cushions, quilts (Nakshi Kantha), to even bedspreads. Elaborate Kantha was also practiced later on, where yarn salvaged from used and loved clothing were used to embroidery motifs across the fabric. Most often running stitches of flower, animal, and bird motifs would be stitched all over, leaving a wrinkled effect. Some were so elaborate that they would often be gifted for occasions and loved ones. As needle meets sari, Kantha stitching comes to life. Every embroidery is a form of personal expression, a story woven in and passed on to another.

Over time, Kantha became a generational skill, a craft passed on from small family businesses embedded in a community whose identity and culture revolve around a particular technique and its processes. 

Read more about the generational artisan partners we work with here.

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