Making nokshi kantha

Traditionally at least 5-7 saris were needed to make a full-length kantha. Today old saris are being replaced by new cotton material. As this material is thicker than the material of fine old saris, two layers of cloth are sufficient, one for the top, one for the bottom. Full-size kanthas, generally 5 feet by 6 feet, necessitate that pieces of cloth be joined to give the required width. In the Rajshahi lohori kanthas, one often finds a narrow red or blue border running down the length of the kantha, testifying to the kapas that have been joined to make the kantha.

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Fig.5.1.102 stitching kantha

After the cloth has been joined to give a sufficient width, the layers of cloth are spread on the ground, one on top of the other. This process is the work of several women. The cloth must be smoothed out so that there are no folds or creases either on the surface layers or the lower ones. Weights are placed on the edges to keep the cloth down while the kantha is at this stage. Mohammad Sayeedur notes that thorns from date trees are used to pin the four corners down. In traditional kanthas—which were not meant to be framed as wall-pieces—the edges would then be carefully folded in and stitched. During all this time the kantha must be kept flat on the ground to prevent the layers of cloth being displaced or wrinkled. After the four edges have been stitched, two or three rows of large stitches are taking down the length of the kantha to keep the kantha together. It is also probable that these lengths of stitches acted as guide lines for motifs and decorative borders especially in kanthas where the whole field of the kantha seems to be divided into panels. Once the kantha has been put together in this fashion, it can be folded and kept away to be stitched at leisure, alone or together with other women folk.

While it is a matter of conjecture how women traditionally embroidered kanthas, one may assume that when designs were not drawn on to the cloth, the needlewoman would tend to embroider certain focal points first and then the filling motifs. When the predominant feature of the kantha was the central motif, this would be done first. Corner motifs would follow and then other motifs around these focal points. This is why in most kanthas, despite the seeming haphazard nature of the motifs, there is a sense of order and harmony. The stitches used to fill motifs in older kanthas were variations of the running stitch. Thus the kaitya, the chatai, the kantha stitch, or the darning stitch picked out the motif from the rippled white background. The darning stitch could also take a variety of shapes. Thus it could be in miniscule stitches, creating a pointillistic effect of dots ; it could be an interwoven stitch to flatly cover the entire

motifs; or it could be a thick pattern of close ribs. The background stitching would go round and round the motifs before moving out and merging. The effect of this manner of working the kantha tended to almost mould the motifs and cause them to stand out in relief against the background. In newer kanthas, however, the background stitching tends to move lengthways and breadthways without regard to the motifs. Also, where the kantha maker is not careful to pierce through the layers of material, the rippled effect is lost. The motifs themselves in many newer kanthas specially those worked commercially tend to lack the variety of stitches displayed in the older kanthas.

While generally most kanthas have used the kantha phor or kantha stitch for background stitching—thus creating the characteristic ripples of the kantha—in the "kanthas" made at the Skill Development for Underprivileged Women the background stitching has been the darning stitch proper. The reason for this change was to create a smooth surface, rather than a rippled one. (Writers who, following Kramrisch, still speak of the kantha stitch as being the darning stitch should examine the effect of the two different types of stitching. The darning stitch creates a smooth surface, whereas the kantha stitch, if worked closely enough, will always produce ripples.)

Originally, kantha makers did not draw motifs or scenes onto the quilt. Whatever they wished to embroider was first outlined with needle and thread. Occasionally, not satisfied just with an outline, the kantha maker started to fill in a design. Some very primitive effects are created by this manner of working. For example, the scene of a rider on a horse or an elephant often depicts a transparent rider. One understands that the needlewoman first outlined the horse or the elephant and filled it in, and then embroidered the rider. Modern kanthas occasionally replicate this effect deliberately.

Many bostanis or baytons wrappers for clothes or other precious articles—are, apart from a central motif, composed entirely of border patterns based on sari borders. One imagines that the outer edge would serve as a guide for the borders which run parallel to the outer border. When the needlewoman continued to work these borders and then came to the central motif, the kantha tended to get bunched up in the middle. Some otherwise very fine kanthas may be seen with this characteristic puckering. However, when the needlewoman seems to have embroidered the central motif before proceeding all the way to the centre, the kantha surface is smooth.

In the Rajshahi lohori quilts, the outer edge served as a guideline for the design, with the kantha maker using her needle and thread to work the outline of the wave or diamond motifs that predominate in this type of kantha. There was also a very simple lohori where the stitches fell into parallel ridges so that the entire surface of the kantha is marked out in alternating lines of red, white and black/blue ridges. In the lohori, work would necessarily proceed from one end of the kantha. In the "carpet," sujni, and Hk kanthas, however, needle and thread alone are not sufficient. In the "carpet" and Hk kanthas, a wooden block with parallel lines would be used to mark out the material with squares. Cross stitch in the case of "carpet" kanthas and Hk designs in the case of Hk kanthas would then be worked. In the sujni as well, wooden blocks were used to print the central design, overall motifs and border patterns before the embroidery could begin. These wooden blocks are being replaced today by patterns drawn in tracing paper. The designs are pricked out and the designs “printed” on the cloth with laundry blue that have been lique field with kerosene oil.

Batuas and gilafs, small purses and cases for the Quran, were made from square kanthas. After the kantha was stitched, three corners were brought together in envelope fashion and the edges joined. To the corner left unstitched a long tassel was attached which served to bind the batua or gilaf.

Traditional kanthas tend to be somewhat uneven in shape. The needlewoman did not use a frame to stretch the kantha. Hence the manner of working, as well as the puckering effect of the kantha phor, tended to "shrink" the kantha. Occasionally the centers of square kanthas suffered the most, bunching up in the middle. To counteract this unevenness and bunching effect, some organizations today are using embroidery frames to stretch the kantha while it is being worked. Particularly at SDUW, where a smooth effect is desired, all work is done in frames. Most other organizations, however, allow the women to work freely, in traditional fashion. At the SDUW after the "kantha" is completed, a further smoothening and evenness is achieved by stretching the "kantha" while wet on a wooden frame.

Most writers on the kantha speak of old thread used for kantha work, but it should be noted that where there was considerable use of thread, sari borders did not always prove sufficient. Hence new yarn was also used. In Jessore and Rajshahi, for instance, yarn—called pheti in Jessore and pheri in Rajshahi—was used. A number of strands were used at a time. In Jessore the strands were left as they were, but in Rajshahi the strands—usually about five in number—were twisted into one thick thread by means of a taika. The taika has a groove through which the strands pass. The taika is then twisted, and the thicker thread collected at its rounded end. The thick thread and the close stitching in the lohori kanthas produce the characteristic ridge-like texture. In the thinner Jessore-type kanthas, the fine stitches produce a ripple effect in the texture of the cloth. The stitches, however, are small, and one is not aware of the thread at first glance. (Zaman, 1993)