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Kantha: A catalyst for physical, emotional & spiritual change

Kantha is part of the four thousand year old living legacy of quilting in India. A timeless textile tradition, it dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization of the Bronze Age. It is a technique central to the Bengali area, spanning several Indian states and Bangladesh. There are a myriad of stitching styles, patterns and themes that vary based on region.

Kantha, from the early 20th-century, Bangladesh. Image via: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Origins

A utilitarian yet intimate practice, Kantha is sewn for loved ones to keep them safe from harm. Kantha, meaning “simple stitching” in Hindi, has a long and honored tradition. It is defined by the running stitch that bonds two or more sari fabrics together. The name kantha can refer to both the running stitch as well as to entire textile patchworks.

Image via Mieko Mintz

According to “Quilts of India: Timeless Textiles” by Patrick J Finn, kanthas were born out of ingenuity. They are “a work that gives wholeness to things that were of no use anymore, to fragments without any significance.” The repurposing of valuable leftover fabric scraps is part of deeply rooted socio-religious customs and ritualistic dynamics attached to the alteration of cloth.

Much of kantha’s history is not documented in writing, instead passed along as an oral tradition. The earliest believed depiction is carved into a sculpture from the Kushana period, created sometime between first century BCE and second century CE. Because kanthas have a long history, it is difficult to pinpoint their original intended use. It appears they were first used for utility and practicality; other ornamental styles came later in history.

In different regions, the patchwork style has its own connotations. Certain Indonesian and Indian patchwork is associated with the Buddhist vow of poverty, whereas patchwork coats worn by Javanese shaman are said to carry potent magical connections. Meanwhile, patchwork jackets worn by the sultans of the city Yogyakarta, Java, have been handed down from father to son since the early nineteenth century. The Javanese believe this jacket made from fragments of old, auspicious textiles harnesses supernatural protective powers. 


The Sadhu & the Magical Kantha

There is a tale about a sadhu, or holy man, who offered his carefully stitched kantha to a woman named Gitali and her child. Having lost her husband during a dreadful monsoon, Gitali is searching for refuge carrying only a lamp, two mangoes and her feverish son Viraj. Feeling helpless, she lights her lantern while they rest for the night and prays for her son. The sadhu appears before her, asking to share her light and in return offering the safety of his fire. 

After a night of mangoes, music from the sadhu and the warmth of his shared kantha, Viraj’s fever breaks and Gitali feels renewed hope. Though the sadhu is nowhere to be seen, his flute, water pot and kantha remain to confirm her mysterious visitor. The rest of her day is filled with small miracles: more fruit is found in her bag along with a new sari for her and later she discovers the kantha is lined with money. In honor of the sadhu’s assistance, Gitali uses white threads from her old sari to stitch images of the night the sadhu saved them onto the kantha he left behind.

Because of this tale, kanthas are often attributed with transformative properties. White threads became the traditional color of stitches in a kantha piece. Kantha making is seen as a ritual, an action intended to catalyze physical, emotional or spiritual change by interacting with the divine. 


Images via Mieko Mintz

The Transformation of Saris

Whether seen as a sophisticated art form rich with symbolism or a utilitarian device with innovative design, kanthas are made with technical expertise. The process of creating with worn-out saris is nothing short of transformative and filled with history. The kantha stitch provides a lifetime’s worth of love and stories that transcend generations.

“The language of quilts articulates a woman’s artistic expression that is relevant to her and her community. Her eclectic imagery not only draws upon a host of classic themes but also the objects and events of her everyday life. For generations quilts depicted village life and personal stories, however, the new markets enable women to assert their economic rights and create narratives of social import…In return, these women preserve the tradition and history of a family, village and community: in fact society and culture too.” Quilts of India: Timeless Textiles, by Patrick J Finn

Kantha stitching gives life to old textiles and creates work, a community and a voice for women. The creation of a kantha is not only transformative thanks to folklore and religious properties but also physically, by transforming other peoples’ belongings into an item with a continued history. Kanthas are a synthesis of many lives and an intimate reflection of the quilt maker.


Images via Mieko Mintz

Kantha at Santa Fe Dry Goods

Designer Mieko Mintz combines the rich textile traditions of India with modern Japanese aesthetics to create one of a kind kantha jackets. Mieko’s distinctly unique integration of saris and the Kimono tradition places her clothing into a new realm of international relevance. Because of her dedication to the art, Mieko is planning a foundation for promoting the continuation of kantha culture. Her plans include a museum to present kantha as an art form, not just material used for its commercial value.