Introduction to Kantha and Kantha Purse (Article one)
My first two historical archive pieces as stated in my previous post are kantha pieces from India/Bangladesh (Bengal).
Kantha means quilts (Husain,6,2008) and are originally from Bengal. Kantha cloth has layers usually two, three or up to seven layers and is made from old sari or dhoti (light muslin in cream or white) much washed and mended and this would eventually made into a kantha piece. The quilter may change the colours of the quilting stitches to form images like flowers, animals and leaves. The items are “quilted together to make cold weather quilts, eating cloths, purses or wraps for mirrors or precious objects and cloths for religious rituals (Gillow, 187, 2014)”. Also the cotton provides a lightweight wrap for early mornings or evenings.
In researching Kantha and from the viewing “The Fabric of India” Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert I discovered that Bangladesh and North East India are famous for cotton growing an occupation that goes back centuries. Also that different regions produce different weights of fabric from fine muslins to heavy cottons (Husain,6,2008). This translates into the final design of the kantha depending in part on the quality of the cotton used – with more coarse cloth there is more simple embroidery.
Any stitch can be used in Kantha but the most common is running stitch (called in some parts of West Bengal a ‘piper’s share’ which means footsteps).
My first piece is the Kantha purse which I purchased from John Gillow , a well known UK textile author and collector,some years ago. It has a cream lightweight and woven cloth background which makes me think it is made from a former dhoti. The embroidery is beautiful kantha stitches in several colours cream, black, grey and rose. The stitching is very small and is in the shape of flowers leaves. The purse is an envelope purse and the layers are two possibly three. There is evidence of mending of the cloth in parts and some irregular stitching. Predominately the stitching is running stitch but the purse is appears to be sewn together using a blanket stitch. There is a fancy stitched section on one of the sides of the envelope top which includes a type of ‘turkey tracks’ stitch. Interestingly on the blanket stitch there is some organ and green which seems out of character with the rest of the purse so I am not sure if this has been added later or replaced worn stitch. It is also possible that the purse was made out a larger kantha quilt possibly a baby quilt. I include some photographs of the purse below:
As can be seen from the photographs the purse fabric is well worn and soft almost silk like. The piece is at least vintage but I am not able to put a date on its production. I did not ask at the time of purchase but understood it was”old” and this was reflected in the price paid by me for the item. John Gillow came over to Wellington, New Zealand (where I was living) and gave a very informative lecture on historic Indian textiles and afterwards he had some small pieces for sale. I loved the patterns and the feel of the purse and John had only few pieces with kantha stitching which I had only read about in books. So I snapped it up and have always felt a sense of history and respect for the maker when I handle the item.
In the next blog post I will talk about the Kantha Throw.
Gillow J, and Barnard N, 2014(paperback edition), “Indian Textiles”, Thomas and Hudson, London
Husain S, 2008, “Kantha embroidery – a workbook”, Abhimanyu Gahlot, Shiva Offset Press, India