I knew it would be enjoyable to learn about this ancient form of stitching, but did not realise how much Kantha would fascinate and absorb me. Perhaps it is a combination of the softness of the cloth, the simpleness of the stitching, the slow and meditative nature of the work that is so attractive. I can’t pinpoint the appeal, but I do know that I am entranced and could easily spend my days working new patterns into old cloth
Two of the classes I did at the South African National Quilt Festival were with Dorothy Tucker, a renowned teacher and textile artist from the United Kingdom. The first class was an Introduction to Kantha and the second was titled Contrasts in Cloth. (Last week I wrote about my whirlwind fabric journal class with Sue Cameron.)
Dorothy generously and gently shared her knowledge of Kantha with us. She brought modern and ancient samples, including her own work, and wove information about the tradition into her instructions on how to actually stitch a Kantha cloth. In the first class we made a sampler.
If you look carefully between the stitching you will see an inner frame. This was where we started with our blank cloth of soft cotton. The basic stitch is a simple running stitch. This has three variations.
- Along the top edge I practised the method called “blocking”, where blocks of stitches are made by alternating triple rows of running stitch. The bottom border is an example of what can happen when one gets carried away.
- The side edges of the inner frame are examples of “stepping”, where the second row of running stitches is offset, or stepped, in the middle of the stitch in the previous row.
- The bottom edge (which runs through the bottom of the ‘tree trunks’) is where I practised “bricking”. Here the stitches and spaces are alternated, row by row.
One can also create patterns by (4.) weaving through the stitched lines. There are three examples of my trying this out on my sample. I will leave you to spot them.
Like a quilt, a Kantha cloth consists of layers. Traditionally old saris are used and the good parts of the cloth become the front and backing. The worn sections of the old sari are used as wadding between the bottom and top layers. The number of layers can vary. So, unlike a quilt, a Kantha does not have thick, purpose made batting as an inner filling.
Dorothy gave us very useful sheets that show the three basic stitches and the variations and patterns one can create using these four methods (including weaving). I have referred to her work sheets often in these days following the classes. For the record, I did not do all the stitching on the above sampler during the one day class. I continued to stitch in the evenings over tea with new friends and after the festival was over.
In the second class I could focus more on the design of my piece, given that I had learnt and practised the basic stitches. Dorothy Tucker gave us a list of five contrasts as prompts, and practical advice on how to start working on the cloth, which was to draw the design onto the cloth, then stitch around the outline of each shape, then to fold in the edges and stitch the design around the cloth’s border. After this, you go back and fill in each of the shapes or pictures. I chose the contrast of “old and new”, and used a worn white linen napkin for the background and new hand dyed plum perle thread for the stitching.
Dorothy explained that traditionally a lotus flower is placed in the centre and is surrounded by appropriate symbols. Kanthas were often made to celebrate a marriage, for example. She gave a list of the meanings of the various symbols and I chose to use the lotus (for its representation of cosmic energy and harmony) and a combination of wheels (symbols of order) and whorls (as cosmic forces of energy which bring good luck) in my design. The actual stitching or filling in of the shapes has taken on a life of its own. This is how far I have gone with it:
It is going to be a long time in the finishing. Dorothy did warn me that I was tackling an ambitious project when she saw the size of the old napkin I decided to use. But, like a good book, I think I will be sorry when I put the final stitch into this piece. I am thoroughly enjoying the quiet time I am spending with it and my threaded needle.
I am taking the liberty of copying part of Dorothy Tucker’s Artist’s Statement, which appears on the Textile Study Group Website :
My choice to stitch by hand and the way I build a contemporary stitched textile continues to be inspired by kantha. Kantha is a Bengali word for cloth and stitching an embroidered quilt. These quilts are made from the good parts of old worn saris, layered and held together with lines of running stitch. I am intrigued by the free style qualities evident in the drawing of kantha designs, the mix of non-representational images and decorative motifs, and the individuality of each kantha.— Dorothy Tucker
As I became more informed about making kantha I began to reference the woven saris borders and coloured stripes sometimes sandwiched between layers of folded cloth work by including layers of coloured fabrics in my work.
For images of her work, follow this link: https://textilestudygroup.co.uk/members/dorothy-tucker/
I wanted to learn more about the history and tradition of Kantha and so visited the Grahamstown-Makana public library and also checked the online catalogue of the university library. Neither have any books on the subject. So I resorted to the internet, with not much success because I became overwhelmed (and am old fashioned enough to prefer researching in books). I did find a succinct summary of the art form and images of beautiful examples of Kantha in the V&A collection. The link is https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/kantha-a-south-asian-quilting-tradition
Dorothy provided a reading list of books on Kantha, which I will hunt down. Meanwhile, I continue to happily stitch on my Westernised version of the lotus.