India: the Embroideries and Embellishments of a Thousand Years


Among the things to miss about the Indian subcontinent in a lifetime of not being there are the many ways in which she embellishes fabric.



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




An elephant painted.  Elephants are kept at the Jagurna Temple, Ahmedabad. A young buffalo with its horns painted with the colours of India.    Ahmedabad, 2010




The ceiling of the archway which leads through the bastion walls into the town of Patan, Gujerat.  Painted fresco covering brick.

There is no particular reason to look up.  But if you do, there is this delight.


Below is a non-exhaustive review of the techniques used to embellish and embroider fabric.  The ways and means of techniques from one state, from one city to the next are extensive.




As with all textiles,  words and image come nowhere near the experience of the fabric itself:  the feel, weight, colour;  the patterns in the eye; the variations of light and shade through and around and on them;  the stimulation to and comfort against the skin.  Their contrast one with another. 

Their many symbolic uses.

The well-being and comfort that a beautifully worked or embellished fabric imparts right and left and all around. 








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


Here is a little about two: khadi and jamdani. 

Patola is a third and most complex form of weaving and is covered elsewhere.


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.





Tambour work on khadi cotton.

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




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. 

 Among the means of their self-support is the sale of embroidered clothing and household goods. The embroidery and embellishment techniques are traditional.



Clothing made and embellished by members of SEWA for sale in Hansiba, New Delhi in 2010

It is their members who hand embroidered many of the works shown below.  They sell their work in a shop called Hansiba (the first of their embroiderers) in New Delhi and in Ahmedabad.



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Ghandi in khadi.  Earl Mountbatten of Burma in the togs of empire.  1940s. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art


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


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Mahatma Ghandi’s house, a room in the house where he sat; an internal courtyard; and the Sabermati River from the back of the house.  Ahmedabad, Gujerat. 2010





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



Woven silk



Banyan, silk, British, 18th C.

A version of a garment, worn at home as a dressing gown in Britain, named for a T-shaped garment associated with Gujarati merchants.




Jamdani; inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013



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  dancing across the fabric.  Inside.




Photos from an article by Sharon Tang-de Lyster in The Textile Arts



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 using a bone tool (kandul) and tied to the warp in a designated pattern, design element by design element.

The result is a very fine, figured weave.

It is difficult to photograph jamdani when only one colour is used because, held to the light, that you have a secondary weft becomes all but but invisible. 








Length of furnishing or clothing fabric, silk, metal-wrapped thread, plain weave, brocaded, c. 1628-58, Mughal (1526-1858), India. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




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





Kalamkari is drawing by pen (from Persian root words).  Sometimes the whole drawing is done by pen and sometimes hand block prints are filled in by pen or made with vegetable dyes.

The subjects, usually from the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, tell the stories of the lives and deeds and journeys of the deities of the Hindu pantheon.  The art was most often associated with shrines and religious festivals. Kalamkari scrolls were used by itinerant storytellers.


Vegetable dyes are still almost exclusively used.  On cotton.

The artisans who made the kalamkari shown here live and work in Ahmedabad, Gujerat.   The paintings shown here are very large and  the large ones take a minimum of six weeks to create. 

The process is an exercise in devotion. 










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Father and son master artisans, with a grandson.  Ahmedabad , 2010

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A second son of the family created the peacock below, a secular design. Ahmedabad, 2010

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Batik (wax-resist dyeing)









Hand block printing






Vintage hand block on cotton



The front interior of the Anokhi store in Ahmedabad in the winter of 2010. 

Makers and purveyors of textile and textile goods handblocked by artisans working in and around Jaipur



Anokhi curtains 2010-2

Parrot handblock in two blues on muslin made by Anokhi in 2010











Tent panel, 1700-1800; cotton plain weave with block printing, resist dyeing, and painted mordants and dyes. 

Philadelphia Art Museum





In a shop in Jaipur, 2010



A kurta of one pattern and and dupatta (shawl) of another in the same colour scheme.  Ahmedabad 2008















Cotton hand blocked and hand dyed by Pitchuka Srinavas  and his extended clan in the village of Pedana, Andra Pradesh for the proprietor of Les Indiennes, Hudson, New York.  2015



Les Indiennes, Hudson NY, July 2014-15

Cotton hand blocked and hand dyed Pitchuka Srinavas of the village of Pedana, Andra Pradesh for the proprietor of Les Indiennes, Hudson, New York.  2015




Hand blocked fabric embroidered with mirrors by members of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad






A kurta made by members of the Self Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad.  Handblock has been edged with chain and mirror embroidery, 2008




Cotton hand block overembroidered with mirrors and chain stitch.  Self Employed Women’s Association, Ahmedabad, 2010




Handblock on silk with the dried bark of pomegranate which was used to dye the pale yellow










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



Orange applique on crimson cotton and crimson reverse applique on orange cotton.  Bedspread made by members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Ahmedabad, 2010




Reverse Applique (Cut Work)




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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. Rajastani bed coverings.




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 not more than a smidgeon.  


In a shop in Ahmedabad, 2010

In a market in Ahmedabad, Gujerat, 2010


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




Embroidery applied with needle or awl, and thread




Kantha (treated elsewhere)



Kantha is a form of quilting whose the cotton from old fabric, usually saris. 

A form of embroidery and embellishment more than a half millenium old with its roots in Bengal and Bangladesh, it uses running stitch as both embroidery and basting.  But not only running stitch.





Tambour work (‘ari’)




is done using an awl with the thread held by the hand and fed from below the material which is held taut.

The resulting 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. 

Philadelphia Art Museum




Textile panel, early 17th century, Bengal, India. Tussar silk. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




Hunting Scene, 1780-1840, Himachal Pradesh; cotton plain weave with silk embroidery.  A cloth of a type often used to cover food. 

Philadelphia Art Museum








Asif Shaikh, a master embroiderer in Ahmedabad, an autodidact without formal education in the art and craft, discussed the steps of tambour work in 2010.  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.  This transfers the design.

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

An awl is punched 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  as it pierced through the cloth from above it.

The stitch produced is a very fine chain stitch.






















Embroidery styles vary, of course, by geographic location. In both simple and compound stitches, the number of stitch types is large.

These include 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 kurta 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


Shirred work on a silk kurta. 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





Phulkari, a traditional embroidery of the Punjab, silk, wool or cotton on cotton weave and using a variety of stitches.  These pieces in the Philadelphia Art Museum date from before 1947










Gujerati embroidery worn by the women who made the embroidery



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










5 thoughts on “India: the Embroideries and Embellishments of a Thousand Years

    1. So great a natural and cultural diversity, David, that sometimes I think this is why the re-incarnation of souls! One lifetime is not enough to experience the wealth of every natural phenomenon and cultural artifact of the subcontinent.


  1. Wah, wah! Magnificent! Set me drooling and salivating. Hard work to put all the visuals and info together. Congratulations.

    1. This is just, of course, the tip of the iceberg. For lack of photos. I was not able to show the chikan – white on white – embroidery from Lucknow or the traditional embroideries of the Parsees or the silk made from banana skins in and around Agra. And that is before descending to Chennai, to Tamil Nadu and on and on. An immense civilization! Thanks for reading! Sarah

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