A Little Indian Hand Embroidery


Among the things to miss about India in a lifetime of not being there are the many ways in which fabric is embellished there. 

It is not only fabric that is embellished, of course.  There is barely a surface that does not seem to present itself for decoration in India.


An elephant painted.  A young buffalo with its horns painted with the colours of India.  The famous mehindi.  Ahmedabad, 2010

Below are a few of the techniques used to embellish and embroider fabric. 

Most of these labour-intensive techniques survive the introduction of mechanical means of embroidery.

One of the most heartening aspects of this survival is that many of these techniques are used by people of all socio-economic groups for their own clothing and household décor; as well as for sale. 


is, of course, a foundational technique and in India there as many styles of weaving as there are anything else.

Here is a little about two:  khadi and jamdani. 

Mahatma Ghandi it was whose focus was to make homespun woven cloth, khadi, one of the mainstays of India’s economy.  In this he may have failed but there remains a lively khadi industry and people devoted to wearing and using it and organizations who are Ghandian in that they have adopted Ghandi’s values. 

One such organization is the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).  Established in Ahmedabad, Gujerat, as a union in the 1970s by Ela Bhatt and attached to the Textile Workers Union, co-founded by Ghandi in the 1920’s,  SEWA has enabled thousands of women to earn a gainful living.  It is their members who hand embroidered many of the works shown below.  They sell their work in a shop called Hansiba in New Delhi and in Ahmedabad.

There have been voices raised against Ghandi:  that he did not get rid of the caste system; that his treatment of his nieces was selfish and unbecoming etc. 

For these people, the liberation of India is not enough.


Sabarmati Ashram007

Ghandi in khadi.  Earl Mountbatten in the togs of empire.  1940s.


Ghandi, who, with his wife Kasturba, were Gujerati, established a commune in Ahmedabad on the Sabarmati river whence he launched the Salt March in March 1930. 


The commune has been preserved and to this day, spinning is taught.  Opposite the commune is a shop piled high with the subtlest shades and patterns of khadi. 



Carded and spun Indian cotton.  Hansiba, a shop displaying the embroidered clothing and home goods made by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), in Ahmedabad





When you hold up a fabric woven using jamdani (Persian for fine, figured (cotton) muslin; a specialty of Bengal) there appears to be a pattern caught in the fabric, dancing across the fabric.  Inside.


Inserting designs into a woven cloth still on a loom.  Photo taken from the net


This effect is produced by the insertion of a secondary, non-structural weft in the form of a design. The secondary weft, usually of a heavier cotton, is introduced by hand and tied to the warp in a designated pattern, design element by design element.  The results are astonishing.






Length of fabric for clothing, Mughal period (1526-1858), 18th century; metal-wrapped thread, silk, twill weave, brocaded.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




Other embellishment techniques

Painted cloth


Man’s robe, silk, painted with applied gold leaf, 17th century.  Deccan, India.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



Cut velvet silk, painted.  Mughal period, c. 1635, thought to have been made for a tent of Raja Jai Singh I, 1611-1673.  Winterthur, Delaware



A painted panel, Ahmedabad, 2010



Cotton plain weave, hand-painted, mordant and resist dyed.  Gujarat, 17th century. Winterthur, Delaware



Hand-painted cotton dyed with indigo.  Coromandel Coast, 1750-1800.  Winterthur, Delaware




Detail of royal Karappur sari, 1700s – 1800s, Karuppur, Tamil Nadu, India.  Painted and printed, resist-dyed cotton plain weave with intermittently wrapped metallic supplementary wefts.  Philadelphia Art Museum



Cotton painted with pen and ink, Ahmedabad, 2010



A floor-to-ceiling kalamkari with Zorastrian symbols in the house of a Parsee (Zoroastrian) friend in Ahmedabad. 2010



Batik (wax-resist dyeing)




Hand block printing




Gujerati handblock, 2010 







Yellow silk has been cut away to reveal pale green silk with purple chain stitch highlight




 Organdy applique on an organdy weave of the Tree of Life.  Made in 2010 by members of the Self-Help Women’s Association, Ahmedabad


Reverse Applique (Cut Work)

Reverse applique 7

A piece of bleached cotton is cut with a repeating pattern.  It is laid down on a piece of unbleached cotton.  The edges of the cut pattern are sowed under and into the unbleached cotton


Cut work for sari edging further embellished with little coloured appliqued squares of cotton


Cut work at the edge of a silk kurta made by the members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Ahmedabad, 2010

Tie and Dye


In a shop in Ahmedabad, 2010.  The fabric shades vary each from each other by just a smidgeon.  On purpose.


Two women passing in the market


Fresh tie and dye being carted away by a camel cart for drying.  Sanganer, Rajasthan, 2010

Embroidery applied with needle and thread

Tambour work

is done using an awl with the thread held by the hand and fed from below the material which is always held taut. The resultant stitch looks like a tiny chain stitch.



Vintage, very fine tambour work with applique and blanket stitch on cotton.





Shrine hanging honoring Krishna, around 1850, silk satin with silk embroidery done in tambour work.  Kutch, Gujerat, India



A master embroiderer in Ahmedabad in 2010 discussed the steps of tambour work.  This same transfer method is used to transfer the designs for all kinds of embroidery.

The pattern is pierced onto a piece of plastic paper.  A non-toxic solution is rubbed into the design lying on a piece of fabric transfers the design.

The fabric is made taut in a hoop or on a frame.

An awl is pierced through the fabric at every point indicated by the piercing.  The thread is held below the fabric and fed to the head of the awl pierced through the cloth from above the fabric.

  The stitch produced is a very fine chain stitch.








Embroidery styles vary by cultural and geographical areas. 

In both simple and compound stitches, the number of stitches used is large. This includes  running, chain, square chain, reverse chain, inverted chain, stem, Romanian, knot, satin, double running, lazy daisy, herringbone, hemming, buttonhole, couching, counted thread work using tiny cross stitches

Metal thread, beads, sequins and mirrors are incorporated sometimes in the design.



A bed cover of cotton embroidery on golden muga silk. 1600s, north-eastern India.  Winterthur, Delaware






Vintage metal thread work on silk



Vintage metal thread work on silk




Self-Employed Women’s Association embroidery, Ahmedabad, 2010,  for the British designer, Graham Hollick



Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



A festival top made by members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



A design of running and stem stitches of silk on silk to construct a little garden. Jaipur, Rajasthan, 2010



Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



In a shop in Ahmedabad, 2010





Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010





Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



Embroidery at the ankle end of the salwar of a friend, Ahmedabad, 2010




Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, 2010



Clothes for sale in Hansiba, the shop in which the Self-Employed Women’s Association sells its products in Ahmedabad and New Delhi.  2010





Two Gujerati women wearing skirts covered with complex traditional embroidery.  On the way to the temple of Lord Krishna on Bet Dworka off the coast of Gujerat, 2010

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