Learn about the history and technique behind traditional kantha embroidery in our interview with Helen Barnes.
What is kantha embroidery? What’s the history of kantha? Where does it originate from? What fabrics, threads and needles are best for working kantha? This blog answers all those questions and more as we talk to Helen Barnes, a British textile artist who has taught and exhibited embroidery for many years. Much of her teaching focuses on traditional techniques from abroad, so we spoke to her about her take on kantha.
Enjoy this fascinating read, along with examples of Helen’s gorgeous work!
Focus on... traditional kantha
Hello Helen! What can you tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Yorkshire in a home full of gorgeous fabrics and threads and surrounded by beautiful countryside full of historic interest. I soon developed a keen awareness of the patterns and textures in my environment and translated these into art and textiles.
After becoming an art and design teacher, I completed the City and Guilds Part One and Two Embroidery on weekends with my sister, Sarah – something we enjoyed enormously. I then took a year out of teaching to complete an MA at the University of Leeds in art and design. This helped me develop my painting and design skills, which I now combine with hand embroidery and quilting to create contemporary textile artwork.
I enjoy travel and walking in the Yorkshire Dales with my family, as well as visiting museums and exhibitions. I use my sketchbooks for inspiration and to develop research and ideas.
We’re particularly interested in your experience with Indian kantha. Can you tell us some history on the technique and style?
Kantha is a cloth made up of layers of old fabric, patched and sewn together with small running stitches. It’s mostly associated with the Bengal region in India and Bangladesh. The kantha style evolved with embroidered motifs, making rags often worn as saris into beautiful creations of linear and coloured designs.
The Hindu kantha style is alive with imagery and storytelling, whereas the Muslim kantha style is made up of complex geometric patterns. Often in the centre of the kantha is a mandala design, usually a stylised lotus flower. The lotus flower represents the power of life that water and the sun have to offer.
On a Hindu kantha, elephants, peacocks, trees, animals and folk scenes are embroidered on in tiny coloured stitches. Then, the remaining groundwork is covered in close running stitches using thread taken from the edge of the fabric, thus making the cloth more durable for future use. Finally, a border design is sewn. Mats, bed coverings and bags are some of the items that would be made with kantha designs. These pieces may be for special occasions such as weddings, births and religious ceremonies, to bring wealth and happiness to the household or child.
On a Muslim kantha, ‘pattern darning’ is used to create intricate designs using geometric shapes, along with floral motifs and scrollwork typical of Islamic art. Prayer rugs and communal eating mats are historically sewn in the Muslim household.
In both Hindu and Muslim kanthas, red, yellow and blue-black, with some green on a neutral background, are the traditional colours used.
What a vibrant history! Is this why you decided to travel to West Bengal?
I’d researched Indian embroidery and was fascinated by the colours and designs of the kantha work and when I saw a trip was being run to West Bengal, I knew I just had to go and discover for myself the ladies sewing kantha. It was a privilege to work with ladies in villages sewing kantha cloth and discovering the wealth of designs from different villages. The museums offered a view of exquisite historical kanthas and I came back with a sketchbook full of ideas.
What an amazing experience. Why do you enjoy using kantha techniques in your textile art?
I enjoy the rhythmic, relaxing sewing of the running stitches and creating the colourful Bengal imagery. Using kantha, you can play with textures, colour and stitch to create a new piece of fabric in a new unique way. I like the fact that we are keeping this type of work alive and the designs can be passed down to the next generation, as well as showing in exhibitions a cultural history from Bengal. It’s a privilege to feel connected to girls sewing around the world and this forms a central part of my work.
Embroidery can often be an incredible force for connection. Can you tell us more about your personal take on kantha?
From the patterns and designs of kantha work, I’ve used the different techniques and, in some cases, added applique to the work which is not traditional. In one piece I have the central lotus flower surrounded by scattered appliqued animals with a structured kantha border design. In another I’ve drawn out a collage of figurative images and then stitched them in tiny coloured stitches.
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So what fabrics, threads and needles are best for working kantha?
I’d recommend lightweight cotton fabrics layered with muslin or a very thin wadding. Used fabrics are ideal, as they are soft and pliable and easier to stitch, as well as being sustainable and in the tradition of kantha.
I use a variety of threads and needles, depending on the desired effect. Sometimes I’ll use colourful Perle cotton to show off a pattern using an embroidery needle, whereas at other times I’ll use hand quilting cotton and a quilting needle on the background for a subtle finish. I think it is good to remember that in a village in Bengal they will use what they can find and if we enjoy the technique – we can be just as creative in the way we stitch.
That’s a very good point! So, finally, do you have any hints or tips for readers who want to try working kantha themselves?
Look at the tradition and history of the kantha and take this as a starting point to create your own textile work, in keeping with the ethos of recycling to create something unique and beautiful.
Find out more about Helen’s amazing work and book into one her workshops at www.helenbarnestextiles.co.uk.
Now that you’ve delved into the wonderful world of traditional kantha embroidery, explore more exquisite embroidery techniques and see just what’s possible with needle and thread! Or if you’re new to the world of stitching, check out our hand embroidery guide for beginners.