The kantha cloths, typical of Bangladesh and West Bengal, are an ancient tradition of resourcefulness and fine stitchery. The word kantha itself derives from the Sanskrit for ‘rags’, a reminder of the humble materials from which each kantha is made.
Layers of old, discarded saris and dhotis form the kantha, held together through intricate rows of running stitch. Embroidered stitches unite the multiple layers of salvaged cotton to form an un-wadded quilt, and characterise the kantha with a pleasing regularity.
Well-worn fragments and scraps of fabric are favoured for their softness from wear, and show a thrifty approach to the women who first made the kantha. The richly textured, stitched surface has a comforting hand feel, while the bright and joyful colours of the fabrics lend the cloth spontaneous beauty.
For centuries, women in West Bengal and Bangladesh created kantha cloths of varying sizes to use in the home, a skill that would be passed down the family from generation to generation. The functional quilts were used to keep the family warm as bedcovers, for mats to pray on and to wrap precious items in the home such as books.
Ceremonial kanthas would be elaborately embroidered, with motifs of animals, flowers and birds, depicting scenes of everyday life. Sometimes, three generations would work on a kantha together at one time, stitching in motifs to represent desires and dreams.
The notion of using old and worn fabrics to create the cloths was not only a resourceful approach, it carried a sentimental value too. In Bangladesh, using old cloth is believed to keep one from harm.
Kantha’s in the home were precious objects to the family, and were stitched for loved ones as gifts of thanks and blessings. Women developed their own individual stitches, almost like a signature, as a unique form of expression, and a sense of individuality and creativity. With designs ranging from geometric to highly decorative, no two kanthas are ever alike, with each recalling the very hand of their maker.
The kantha gowns and quilts in the TOAST collection have been made by small groups of crafts-women in West Bengal, who are part of the fair trade cooperative Sasha. As is tradition, the crafts-women sit in circles as they work, selecting the recycled saris themselves and the colours they think match, and hand stitching each piece together. It is a laborious, time-consuming process and each crafts-women is responsible for a single cloth.
The women pass stories between one another while they sew, the older generations helping the younger with techniques and tips. They take great pride in their creations and the way in which certain, unplanned colour combinations suddenly sing. It is a privilege to have worked with the same group for over ten years, and to be able to help – in a small way – sustain this traditional technique.