Kantha: embroidered quilts

Among the many things to miss about India for a lifetime of not being there are her textiles. 


Below are examples of of kantha.  These are  embroidered quilts called ‘nakshi kantha’.

All are in the holdings of the Philadelphia Art Museum.




from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum




Kantha (thought by some to derive from the Sanskrit word for ‘rags’) is a traditional embroidery hand craft primarily of Bangladesh and of Bengali areas of India and of neighbouring areas.

It is a form of quilting, made by women to repurpose the cotton from worn out fabric, usually saris.





from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum





How old this craft may be is not known beyond that the word seems to have been written for the first time a half millennium ago.







Old fraying cotton fabric, laid one on top of each other, is sown together with a tiny running stitch used both as embroidery and as basting.





from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum



The thread for sowing was itself pulled from the old fabric.  These would most frequently be coloured thread from the borders of saris.

Colours would be fast since the original fabrics would have been washed too many times for further colour leakage to occur.



from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum




The growing of cotton and its treament – by hand – to make fabric is embedded in the culture (agriculture) of these communities and almost as old as they are.

This process itself carries its own vast weight in symbolic and functional importance.










So painstaking and time-consuming a craft form inevitably evolved aesthetic and ritual functions.





Krishna and his Beloved Radha Surrounded by Animals, Birds and Mythical Aquatic Creatures, 1875-1925. India, West Bengal; or Bangladesh.  Philadelphia Art Museum





Kantha is an expression of individual and group creativity.  Subjects portrayed are taken from religion and folklore and from the natural world.  Abstract patterns with symbolic value are also used.









Kantha is used to wrap and protect precious objects, to wrap and protect babies; a gift from mother to daughter on the occasion of the latter’s marriage. 

Kantha was also used to cover the dead.










Today the word kantha has become a commercial  term for a style of sewing used for textile goods in which two fabrics have been sewn together with running stitch




Old silk saris sown together with running stitch.  Jaipur, Rajasthan, 2010. Often called ‘kantha’


 Hand-blocked and tie-and-dyed cotton sewn together with running stitch to form a scarf.  2019. Often called ‘kantha’



to make a quilt, a wall hanging, a scarf; even whole pieces of clothing.   Beautiful as these pieces often are and firmly as this rubric has taken hold of this kind of work,  they are not, strictly speaking, kantha



















Kantha, cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery, late 1800s.  Bangladesh (Panjia, Jessore district) or India (West Bengal).  Philadelphia Museum of Art






Kantha is a term for a skilled craft by women to recreate and preserve material for uses which stretch beyond the functional.  A craft and the object itself.


The primary stitch, running stitch is very short. Other stiches include darning, buttonhole and satin stitch.


The base running stitching creates a slightly raised ridging across the fabric whose touch provides an interest to the fingertips – as with any quilted material – both comforting and faintly stimulating.










Kantha are the magnificent, heavily worked pieces interspersed through this text.

These come from West Bengal and Bangladesh and date from approximately 1880 to 1950.










from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum


















Kantha, cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery, and detail.

Late 1800s.  Panjia in Jessore district, Bangladesh.  Or West Bengal, India.   Philadelphia Museum of Art.









from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum




from the website of the Philadelphia Art Museum








11 thoughts on “Kantha: embroidered quilts

  1. So lovely. Thank you for the research, choises and sharing. Susannah

  2. Well I knew about the modern take on kantha, but the antique originals are marvellous. Such wit stitched into these lovely creations.

    1. Tish, marvellous is the word.

      And the extent of the creativity moving because so much has been done with so little. The V&A in London has a colletion, of course, of kantha and I recall an exhibition there perhaps 10 or 12 years ago. Seeing kantha, even better touching a piece is an experience.

      Which reminds me to encourage you to piece in all your bits and bobs of old Indian embroidery into existing or new apparel because – needless to say – I am convinced that this work, created with skill and so much pleasure, is good for the contact of our skin, the gladdening of everyone’s eye and the comfort of our souls, if such exist! Sarah

      1. Thanks for the reminder to seek out my Indian pieces. I have at least remembered where they are. House is in turmoil due to shower-room re-fit.

  3. J’aime beaucoup ton article, les tissus sont magnifiques ! Merci de me faire rêver 🙏🏻

    1. I am glad you liked this. I think that fabric is the fabric of our lives and the more beautiful the better for us! Sarah

  4. Vivid and wonderful with such a helpful and erudite commentary. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! And to think this is merely one of their embellishment techniques and not, probably, the most complicated! Sarah

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