The history of kantha work goes back thousands of years in India, centred on the Bengal and Orissa areas. The word ‘kantha’ itself comes from Sanskrit and means, simply, ‘rags’. This is because it is based around the idea of recycling old clothing, especially saris which can be up to nine metres long.
The classic end-product is a double sided quilt, or Dorokha, made of multiple folds of the material or a wadding interfill, fastened together with running stitches and further decorated with a huge range of other stitching. Other items decorated with kantha embroidery are saris, plate covers and furnishings. These days plain and decorated cottons are used more than repurposed saris. The stitching thread traditionally came from unpicking the clothing material, but cotton thread is now more or less univerally used.
Most examples were plain and functional but special pieces would be worked on by all the ladies of the family, binding the generations together and creating magnificent family heirlooms to be passed on. Examples from Moslem villages are often strikingly geometric whereas Hindu examples use a lot of religious iconography. This is a stunning Bengali example from the second half of the nineteenth century:
These days, though, this ancient craft has been reinvented once more and we import kantha quilts that are both very useful (many people layer them to suit the outside temperature) and very attractive. Just as important, they are eminently affordable. The technique is also used for more decorative pieces and is used in our ranges of cushions, bags and purses.