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What Is Kantha?

K.C. Bruning
K.C. Bruning

Kantha is a form of embroidery most commonly practiced in West Bengal and Bangladesh, India. The intricate, detailed style typically consists of dense patterns of subjects from nature, such as animals and flowers, or the depiction of various scenes. It has been particularly popular among women in rural areas, partly because the fabric was traditionally re-purposed from used materials. The designs can be found on items such as clothing, quilts, and the fabric coverings of household items.

A decorative border of running stitches is one of the key characteristics of this embroidery style. The running stitch, also known as the kantha stitch, is used for most of the intricate patterns in the middle of the cloth as well. There are several other stitches used in the style, including kaitya, which is a bending stitch, and chatai, which is a pattern darning stitch.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

One of the prominent characteristics of traditional kantha is that both the material and thread are gathered from old clothing, particularly saris and dhotis. Several of these garments would be used to create one new piece. Modern practitioners of the embroidery have almost entirely abandoned this practice, usually using new cloth and essentially never re-purposing thread.

The most common items of clothing that are embroidered in the kantha style are traditional saris for women and dhotis for men. It is also often found in a versatile scarf known as the dupatta, which is typically used by women as a head or shoulder covering. Kantha can also be found in shawls, shirts, and pants.

A variety of household items are also embroidered in the kantha style. It is a common design for simple bedspreads and coverings or more elaborate quilts. The style is also used to embellish coverings for items such as pillow and boxes.

Kantha was traditionally practiced by village women when they were not otherwise occupied with daily tasks. It was a popular pastime during the rainy season, where women were often able to spend months creating a single piece. Some pieces could even take several years to be completed.

In modern times, kantha is both respected as an art form and also a thriving commercial business. Traditional works are often treasured family heirlooms. There have even been museum exhibits devoted to the celebration of the form. Items embellished with the embroidery are also popular among tourists and have been distributed for sale around the world.

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