Sunday, December 05, 2010

Kantha, Embroidered Quilts of Bengal

Ever see a book that gives you instant goose bumps, heart palpitations and the feeling of mine-mine-MINE?

Kantha, the Embroidered Quilts of Bengal, book cover
Certainly Kantha, The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal is just such a book for me!*

Here are a couple of pictures to whet your appetite for this distinctive type of thread embroidery.

Kantha quilt with mandala center
Kantha quilt
Kantha quilt, detail showing embroidery of a fish
Kantha quilt, embroidery detail
Disclaimer... Sadly my pictures, photographed from pages in the book, don't do it justice at all. The abundant images are so exceptionally good that one could classify it as a photography book. We get large, full color pictures that show not only the quilts in their entirity but also many exquisite detail images that one can study for hours, looking at both technique and design elements. You can see more (and better pictures) here and here.

What I especially love about Kantha embroideries are the strong, story-telling designs, the simple yet effective stitches used to illustrate the designs, and the pull of primary colors toward fundamental truths. Maybe that's the real beauty of them, an unpretentious, honest story, told by a stitcher who never for even a moment dreamed her work would one day be in a book or hang on a museum wall and who would be amazed at the offer of even the smallest amount of money for it.

Take a moment to click on the pictures in this post, to study them. What do you see? What attracts you about them? What do you imagine about the life of the woman who created each of them? To me, they beg that kind of attention. With greatly aroused curiosity, I wonder about the life and intent of each story-teller.

Considered to be a sign of thrift, Kanthas are made from small scraps of well-worn fabric from clothing, no longer useable, stitched together and then embellished with colored threads pulled from worn textiles.

Stella Kramrisch, a legendary figure in the history of South Asian art, writes that the foundation, made of rags, exemplifies that nothing is being wasted, useless bits are joined and acquire wholeness and a unity of meaning. This act of perservation carries with it and becomes the technique and symbolic form of an imperishable knowledge. It belong especially to women. The needle and thread string together the single parts of the object and also the maker of the object.

In concept, I am reminded a little of quilts made by the women of Gee's Bend. I wonder what might have developed with their quilts if one of them had concieved the idea of telling stories with thread embroidery on top of the quilts which already told a story with worn fabrics from work shirts and the like?

*You can read more about the making of the Kantha book from an exhibition of 85 pieces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here. The large, 300-page book includes a wealth of information about the history, religious beliefs and self-taught art of women of all classes in two regions of South Asia known as Bengal, or today as West Bengal and Bangladesh. It's currently available from Amazon for $40, or hopefully from your local library.


  1. I love using Kantha style lines of running stitch in embroidery!

  2. I'm sooooo glad you did this post, Robin, I have indeed learned more! I am hopelessly drawn to this kind of stitching and you have helped me to understand *why* a little better - you are so good at getting right to the heart of something. I think it is one of your art forms.

    Much to be learned from these women who had to rely on thrift and ingenuity! I hope they knew how beautiful they were...

  3. How many times did you find yourself holding your breath as you looked through the book! I don't think I have ever seen this work before. Thanks for the links. I certainly want to see more.

  4. These are absolutely gorgeous - I have not heard of this type of quilting/embroidery and intend to find out more about it. Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Wow! These are so beautiful and real. I'll be looking for this book to show up at Powell's. Thank you!

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I am going to amazon!!!

  7. thank you for your link to your PDF of "one Bead at a Time" Look forward to reading it and also your new book

  8. Anonymous12:32 PM

    Like Sweetpea, I am sooo glad that you posted about this book. I had never heard about it but have been seeking info on kantha quilts for a couple of years.


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!