|Detail of a sujuni featuring applique and Kantha embroidery.|
From July 21 until July 25, 2014, I renewed my long-dormant acquaintance with embroidery in a class led by Canadian artist Dorothy Caldwell, as part of the Quilting-by-the-Lake program sponsored by the Schweinfurth Art Center in upstate New York. In the 5-day workshop, entitled "The Expressive Stitch," our cohort of eighteen women learned about an embroidery tradition of India, called Kantha, and used this form as a point of departure for our own explorations in narrative stitchery.
|Our classroom, in the campus athletic center.|
The workshops - which range in duration from two to five day - are held on the campus of Onandaga Community College, about 20 minutes by car outside of Syracuse, New York. Participants stay in dorms and eat surprisingly tasty meals (the food at my alma mater was terrible) in the cafeteria.
After introductions, Dorothy began by explaining Kantha and discussing the samples she acquired during her travels to India with her colleague Dr. Skye Morrison. Dr. Morrison, textile researcher and scholar, supports the efforts of rural Indian women to find new markets for their traditional crafts. She presented a paper on her work for the Textile Society of America in 2006, and, with Dorothy, organized an exhibit, Stitching Women's Lives, at the Textile Museum of Canada, in 1999.
The artifacts which Dorothy shared with us are called sujuni in the north-east Indian region of Bihar, in which they were made, but kantha-style embroidery is found in other regions of India, so I will refer to both object and technique as kantha. Originally kantha embroideries were made from old white saris and dhotis (men's loincloth-type garments) and the fabrics were stacked in layers, with no "batting". The layers were heavily stitched, in effect recycling old cloth to construct new textiles, which were then used for bedding or table coverings. These creations were traditionally not sold but made for lifecycle events such as marriages and childbirth, and given as gifts. After a period of decline, the craft was revived in the 1970's and an NGO established to help the women adapt their products to generate income.
|Kantha embroidery, detail.|
The embroideries are narrative textiles, representing events in the women's lives, such as the impact of AIDS on their communities, the economic impact of the dowry tradition in the lives of young brides, and environmental problems, too. One young artist, Archana Kumari, travelled to New York City in 1999 and Dr. Morrison commissioned a kantha embroidery to commemorate her trip. As you can see below, the Statue of Liberty, beautifully stylized and stitched, made a big impression.
|New York City kantha, designer Archana Kumari, detail.|
We focused primarily on the stitched, as opposed to the applique, techniques. To oversimplify the embroidery process: representational motifs - people, animals, birds - are draw on cloth, outlined in chain or back-stitch, and then the background is infilled with many, many running stitches. The large kantha are a group effort, with one woman drawing the design and up to as many as four women working together to stitch one piece.
|Kantha can be stitched in black on white....|
|...Or white on black.|
For our kantha-inspired work, Dorothy suggested white thread on black, as most satisfying for beginners. We stitched through two layers; a color 8 1/4" square of fabric beneath a black layer that was 8" square, so that just the merest edging of color peeked out. I had inappropriate supplies, since I brought Kona cotton solids and my sashiko needles. While it is loosely woven, as per the instructions on the class hand-out, Kona cotton is just too thick for fine stitching, and the sashiko needles too blunt. As I said, it's been a while since I'd done any embroidery. Fortunately my table-mate Jan, a master embroiderer, gave me some chenille needles, which worked very well, and the Kona cotton, while not ideal, worked well enough for a simplified version of the technique.
|Dorothy pinning up our work in progress on an improvised pin-up wall.|
Throughout the week, Dorothy pinned our efforts up on a design wall; it was fascinating to see everyone's work in progress. Stitching our 8" squares took hours; this is indeed "Slow Fiber" - the moniker, styled after the "slow food" movement, given to an outlook which celebrates the craft of handwork and the thoughtful, almost meditative quality, of time-intensive techniques.
|Our first exercises, underway.|
Even when working primarily in black and white, there is a lot of variation available depending on how many strands of the 6-stranded DMC or other brand embroidery floss the artist chooses to employ, the length and separation of stitches, and whether the stitches are "stacked" or staggered. Below is a sort of sampler made by Jan, demonstrating some of the possibilities.
|Single strand at the bottom; multiple strands at top of sampler.|
As part of the curriculum we also did some interesting stitching exercises. In one we sewed a line - any kind of line - on a rectangle of organza, a lightweight, stiff fabric, using all six strands of red floss. By putting our individual efforts end to end, we created a "continuous" line of red thread. Traditionally in India red is a color representing power, love and energy, and it was indeed energizing to see our linked threads create a humble but effective work celebrating both our individuality and the fact that we were "all in this together".
|Our red thread stitching.|
In addition to these activities, participants shared both examples of their own work as well as textiles - perhaps family heirlooms or travel souvenirs - which demonstrated the beauty of both utilitarian stitches and of ornamental work. One shared highlight was the patchwork blanket below, purchased in India, pieced and over-stitched with many, many running stitches.
|Participant sharing her Indian bed covering.|
|Detail, Indian blanket with stitching.|
We also learned about traditional border designs used in conjunction with kantha, as illustrated in the pouch, below, and in samplers created by Indian girls as part of a program to give young women marketable skills and to sustain the needlework traditions.
|Kantha-stitched pouch with border design.|
|Indian student sampler.|
|Detail, student sampler.|
As I said, it's been a while since I had done any embroidery other than Japanese sashiko stitching, so I am glad I toted along my iPad mini, so I could quickly look up tutorials on chain stitch. (My classmates, a generous group of women, offered assistance too.) A number of the stitchers in the group were quite skilled, including Nancy from Ontario, Canada, who shared her stitched journal with us one day. Nancy takes a few minutes each day to record, in stitches and pen-and-ink, something notable, whether it be a wedding or simply a peak of autumn color. Lovely!
|Nancy's stitched and dyed journal, unscrolled to share.|
A good warm-up for those of us whose embroidery skills are a bit rusty might be one of the pre-printed samplers from Rebecca Ringquist, sold on etsy under the store name dropcloth. (Thanks to classmate Mary for this suggestion.)
Finally, the class also included a wonderful Powerpoint presentation from Dorothy, all about her work, her travels and textile adventures with Australian India Flint, and a quick survey of other textile artists working in a contemporary cloth idiom. A week filled with a lot of food for thought.
|Detail, Wandering Time, Dorothy Caldwell.|