Tales of textile meaning & making



Small Kantha stitches adorn Indian vintage fabrics on these Vintage Throws by Sally Campbell Handmade Textiles.

Photo by Sally Campbell

For centuries, the women of old Bengal have taken their time softened cloth and pieced them together with tiny stitches. Clothing and other fabric scraps are given fresh life as the layers of their Kantha quilts. Thousands of mostly red and blue running stitches dot and pimple the fabric, giving a beautiful feeling and texture to each finished piece. Famed for its fine white muslin, highly sought after by traders throughout history, women's clothing was often the same colour, providing a wonderful blank canvas for each silk thread.

Following long days of house and child caring, the women were free to choose the path of each stitch once the final chores were done. These pieces were not commissioned by rulers, they were crafted for home and family, so each maker had the freedom to slowly create their heirloom of choice.

Motifs or geometric patterns would emerge, sometimes taking years, formed by up to three generations of the family’s women. The simple running stitch could form a picture of daily life, with plants, animals and people moving across each piece's reach. Other times, religious motifs or personal wishes would favour.

Whatever the choice, each quilt, cushion and small dowry piece carried the hopes and feelings of their creator. Often the intention of protection could be foremost. Other times, the wishes might be closer to maker and represent a clear prayer for fertility, health and abundance.

Charming hand stitched quilts like this one are missing some of the hallmarks of its namesake.

Photo by Threadbound

These pieces differ significantly to the hand stitched quilts we have been seeing on our design screens in recent years. Internet research, and the plethora of online stores offering such beauties, tell an acutely different story to that in academic articles and well-researched hard covers. So how do the two styles - an ancient craft and a strikingly different modern counterpart - relate?

Sally Campbell, creator of 

Sally Campbell Handmade Textiles

, refers to the fashion process that took place during recent years to explain each style and make suggestions about what we should consider to keep the Kantha craft alive, while still catering to our contemporary taste.

Following a lengthy career as a film designer, which included time in the Indias film industry, Sally uses the traditional crafts famed in each area of India to create modern interpretaions of age old techniques. A self-confessed “textile junkie”, the step was a natural progression from decades spent trawling antique stores and working with a host of artisans to create designs for a plethora of genres.

She travels to India multiple times each year to work with the top artisans of each hand made trade, including embroidery, block printing, tie and dye, shibori, traditional weaving, natural dye and stunning hand-stitching.

True Kantha, like this dowry quilt, are rare.

Photo by Sally Campbell

Her description of Kantha helps draw a line between what is known of the tradition and what we now see available everywhere.“The dowry pieces of Kantha are either geometric, or they have animals on them. They are very endearing and charming, like folk art," she says."Firstly, these dowry pieces are almost extinct, it is hard to get good pieces because it is a dying craft. Secondly, people here don’t want that kind of thing in their home, so to keep the Kantha trade alive, you have got to do something modern.”

“I spent the start of my career interpreting the Kantha stitch into something that was modern, and that is how I have been able to sell my quilts, but I would never call them Kantha, because Kantha is something that is something that is done on all of those beautiful dowry pieces and the stitches are so tiny… I could call my pieces from Bangladesh Kantha, because they are like works of art, but I put Kantha on a really high level, because of where the term comes from.”

Sally went on to explain the process she uses for making her hand stitched and double sided throws, which have adopted the multitudes of simple Kantha stitches. Every day, “her man in Bengal” sets off on his bicycle in search of vintage fabrics. These soft cottons are laundered to within an inch of their life, both in India and Australia, before being patched together and then slowly stitched. The beginning of each quilt takes place in a concrete Bengali bunker, where the finds have been stored. It takes three days to sort through a few months of finds, in temperatures of more than fifty degrees, all the while being watched by hundreds of curious dark eyes.

In the sanctuary of her accommodation, Sally then takes three days to match and order each cloth, before stacking them together with a selection of colours for the featured and non featured thread that each maker will use. The process is time consuming, and therefore costly, and gets repeated a few times per year.

A constant process of sourcing, sorting, laundering, matching and designing takes place before these minute stitches are slowly added.

Photo by Sally Campbell

Of the process, Sally says “When I first started in the business, the quality of the quilts was excellent, and then they [Indian manufacturers] started to churn them out. That was when I decided to do my own. An enormous amount of work goes into it to keep a very good standard.”

“The size of the stitch is driven by cost, because it is a very time consuming process, plus the stitching quality is always different with each person. However, I try and keep the stitches pretty small. On my most expensive quilts, the stitches are really tiny, so the price is obviously much higher.”

Sally has also created a range of hand-woven quilts, mostly white with bold stripes. These pieces are also adorned with a Kantha stitch, however here she uses “a larger stitch to get a more modern look.”

These quilts sit apart from the roughly sewn, yet still often beautiful, quilts we are often offered as Kantha in our current market. Understanding these distinctions seems to beg the question about what choice we should make when selecting one for our home. Admitting that this decision is often dictated by price, Sally explains that sometimes our buying choices also erode a traditional craft, rather than preserve it.

“I think the term Kantha has been devalued in the west, just like the term pashmina. Real pashminas are crafted from such fine and soft yarn that they are exquisite… and they are very, very expensive because they are so rare and costly to make. Now, most people do not want the original, beautiful pashminas, they will choose something mixed with synthetic and call it a pashmina instead.”

Sally favours small stitches on her Vintage Throws, which she believes are beyond fashion, and in doing so goes a long way to preserving the craft.

Photo by Sally Campbell

“Most of the quilts on sale in the west are badly made, roughly textured and poorly stitched. Fashion has ruined the craft. I am still doing all of my quilts, because I am hoping they are beyond fashion,” she says.

In an ideal world, fashion might also start to integrate the Kantha technique of patching and sewing together our old clothing and fabric remnants. Certainly, home crafters could hark back to an ethos adopted in many sewing cultures of using what we have to create something beautiful and meaningful.

For those buying, Sally's perspective has enormous potential to make a well informed purchases. Kantha should be kept alive. Given that its original method of creation is now almost extinct, perhaps a healthy middle ground can be reached.

Our western tastes do often require a much simpler version of the “more bling the better” Indian palate, so the Kantha we are being offered could be a valuable way to keep parts of the technique alive. As the fashion now travels way past its peak, and the flood of hastily produced items are offloaded at lower and lower prices, perhaps we need to stop and take a good look at the quality of the simple little stitch and spare a thought for an ancient craft.

Hand stitched cushions by Sally Campbell Handmade Textiles sitting alongside my first Kantha stitch.

Photo (left) by Sally Campbell (right) by Threadbound

Sally Campbell

Sally Campbell

Yolanda Zarins

Yolanda Zarins