I thought it was just a pretty cushion but then I discovered the history behind the style of embellishment incorporating small mirrors that was featured on some of our products – shisha work!
Marco Polo, as long ago in the 13th century, wrote about this type of mirror work embroidery. Its origins can be traced back to Persia – traders and travellers then brought shisha to the Mughal courts of Afghanistan and North India. This style of work was quickly embraced by local muslim artisans who began to use mirrors in many of their traditional Islamic designs. They reasoned that the mirrors helped to trap or blind the evil eye, reflecting bad luck and so keeping the home or the wearer safe.
Similar religious beliefs also moved in to both Hinduism and then Jainism where Torans (the traditional cotton door decorations) would be covered with mirrors to ward off evil spirits and keep the threshold secure.
The craft of shisha work was, and is still, mainly practised in the northern Indian States of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana but this technique can be found in many other parts of the country too. As an example, the Garari Jat community use the tiny mirrors to embellish their dress yokes, whereas in Gujarat they use the mirrors to highlight embroidered animal’s eyes and the centres of flowers.
Each State, and each community, has evolved its own style of mirror work… so hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of history lie behind each cushion!
While I was writing my ‘insight’ on kantha, it reminded me of my experience in Goa when I met a lady that had been stitching godhadi work for over 75 years and was now well into her nineties and bright as a button.
Godhadis are native to Goa and the neighbouring state of Maharashtra and come in a myriad of variations – the women consider them as true home accessories. They are usually made from recycled clothes like saris and contain many more layers, sometimes up to six (and without wadding), than kantha so they are heavier and thicker. Some forms are closer to patchwork and are a riot of colour, but the ones I actually saw being made used intricate patterns created in simple running stitch on plainish cottom sari bases. I found this work fascinating and noticed immediately the sense of community that sharing this work creates, just like the sewing groups we have in UK. Us women just like to come together to sew and talk!
Although stitching is traditionally done by hand, our wonderful teacher, due to her eye sight failing, had had to resort to a sewing machine (like most modern practioners of the art) to create the running stitch patterns that is the signature of this style of work. Normally the stitch patterns run in straight lines in kantha, but the hallmark of Goan godhadi are ornate spirals and circles. Many of the pieces that are created as you become more skilled and creative contain tiny intricate stitches combined with different techniques.
So I decided to have a go myself to see what I could create. I took a new plain but colourful cotton sari that was six and a half yards long and folded it over so I had five equal layers (most people using old saris remove the heavier and bulkier sari ‘fall’ first). A quick bit of temporary pinning and then the next thing to do is to stitch the layers around the edges using an overlock stitch to stop the layers unraveling. Other people have also used sari edging to create a border around each side of the godhadi and use traditional stitching patterns to both decorate and hold it all together. Time to use your imagination tempered by your skill level!
Some people now create a temporary grid with large loops of running stitch to base the designs on (or to align patchwork squares), but I tried it just by eye, the way the people of old did it – for them, no scissors, no tape measures and just very simple tools. So now the fun begins – you get to choose the patterns you wish to create with the running stitch, pierced through every layer to create the quilting effect. I chose a mix of spiral patterns mixed with circles (how traditional!) just to make it more interesting by stretching myself. I used dinner plates to set up and position my circles and spirals but then just worked by eye. The pattern is normally stitched with ordinary white cotton (so that is what I used) but you may choose any colour that seems right to you.
Now, this the point where I should show you the quality of the two godhadis I hand stitched… but they never left Goa as they were given to admiring friends there, and I’ve just realised that I didn’t even take one photo of either!