On learning the gentle art of Kantha with Dorothy Tucker

I knew it would be enjoyable to learn about this ancient form of stitching, but did not realise how much Kantha would fascinate and absorb me. Perhaps it is a combination of the softness of the cloth, the simpleness of the stitching, the slow and meditative nature of the work that is so attractive. I can’t pinpoint the appeal, but I do know that I am entranced and could easily spend my days working new patterns into old cloth

Two of the classes I did at the South African National Quilt Festival were with Dorothy Tucker, a renowned teacher and textile artist from the United Kingdom. The first class was an Introduction to Kantha and the second was titled Contrasts in Cloth. (Last week I wrote about my whirlwind fabric journal class with Sue Cameron.)

Dorothy generously and gently shared her knowledge of Kantha with us. She brought modern and ancient samples, including her own work, and wove information about the tradition into her instructions on how to actually stitch a Kantha cloth. In the first class we made a sampler.

If you look carefully between the stitching you will see an inner frame. This was where we started with our blank cloth of soft cotton. The basic stitch is a simple running stitch. This has three variations.

  1. Along the top edge I practised the method called “blocking”, where blocks of stitches are made by alternating triple rows of running stitch. The bottom border is an example of what can happen when one gets carried away.
  2. The side edges of the inner frame are examples of “stepping”, where the second row of running stitches is offset, or stepped, in the middle of the stitch in the previous row.
  3. The bottom edge (which runs through the bottom of the ‘tree trunks’) is where I practised “bricking”. Here the stitches and spaces are alternated, row by row.

One can also create patterns by (4.) weaving through the stitched lines. There are three examples of my trying this out on my sample. I will leave you to spot them.

Like a quilt, a Kantha cloth consists of layers. Traditionally old saris are used and the good parts of the cloth become the front and backing. The worn sections of the old sari are used as wadding between the bottom and top layers. The number of layers can vary. So, unlike a quilt, a Kantha does not have thick, purpose made batting as an inner filling.

Dorothy gave us very useful sheets that show the three basic stitches and the variations and patterns one can create using these four methods (including weaving). I have referred to her work sheets often in these days following the classes. For the record, I did not do all the stitching on the above sampler during the one day class. I continued to stitch in the evenings over tea with new friends and after the festival was over.

Dorothy Tucker explains how she designs a contemporary Kantha cloth

In the second class I could focus more on the design of my piece, given that I had learnt and practised the basic stitches. Dorothy Tucker gave us a list of five contrasts as prompts, and practical advice on how to start working on the cloth, which was to draw the design onto the cloth, then stitch around the outline of each shape, then to fold in the edges and stitch the design around the cloth’s border. After this, you go back and fill in each of the shapes or pictures. I chose the contrast of “old and new”, and used a worn white linen napkin for the background and new hand dyed plum perle thread for the stitching.

My Kantha cloth in the initial stages, with the shapes outlined, the edges hemmed and tacked, and the beginning of the stitching on the central motif of a lotus. It measure 40 x 40 cm

Dorothy explained that traditionally a lotus flower is placed in the centre and is surrounded by appropriate symbols. Kanthas were often made to celebrate a marriage, for example. She gave a list of the meanings of the various symbols and I chose to use the lotus (for its representation of cosmic energy and harmony) and a combination of wheels (symbols of order) and whorls (as cosmic forces of energy which bring good luck) in my design. The actual stitching or filling in of the shapes has taken on a life of its own. This is how far I have gone with it:

It is going to be a long time in the finishing. Dorothy did warn me that I was tackling an ambitious project when she saw the size of the old napkin I decided to use. But, like a good book, I think I will be sorry when I put the final stitch into this piece. I am thoroughly enjoying the quiet time I am spending with it and my threaded needle.

I am taking the liberty of copying part of Dorothy Tucker’s Artist’s Statement, which appears on the Textile Study Group Website :

My choice to stitch by hand and the way I build a contemporary stitched textile continues to be inspired by kantha. Kantha is a Bengali word for cloth and stitching an embroidered quilt. These quilts are made from the good parts of old worn saris, layered and held together with lines of running stitch. I am intrigued by the free style qualities evident in the drawing of kantha designs, the mix of non-representational images and decorative motifs, and the individuality of each kantha.
As I became more informed about making kantha I began to reference the woven saris borders and coloured stripes sometimes sandwiched between layers of folded cloth work by including layers of coloured fabrics in my work.

— Dorothy Tucker

For images of her work, follow this link: https://textilestudygroup.co.uk/members/dorothy-tucker/

I wanted to learn more about the history and tradition of Kantha and so visited the Grahamstown-Makana public library and also checked the online catalogue of the university library. Neither have any books on the subject. So I resorted to the internet, with not much success because I became overwhelmed (and am old fashioned enough to prefer researching in books). I did find a succinct summary of the art form and images of beautiful examples of Kantha in the V&A collection. The link is https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/kantha-a-south-asian-quilting-tradition

Dorothy provided a reading list of books on Kantha, which I will hunt down. Meanwhile, I continue to happily stitch on my Westernised version of the lotus.

21 thoughts on “On learning the gentle art of Kantha with Dorothy Tucker

  1. Your work is evolving so nicely. I love your Kantha. Thanks for the links to the interesting explanations and illustrations. I am fascinated.

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  2. Hi Mariss, reminds me of Sachiko mending, I recently tried it for patching torn jeans, but there are many uses, and largely this ancient skill emanates from Kimono preservation especially in resource poor communities. Nowadays I would say its catching on because of upcycling, recycling and green or hipster swag.

    I was sitting at an airport recently picking away at my stitching a new piece when a fellow traveller told me that it is really worth the while to invest in the Sachiko yarns and needles (kits from Japan, apparently inexpensive) because they slip through cloth easily – western needles and coats yarns apparently are a bit sticky (search for examples, but I bought the book https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/551308/make-and-mend-by-jessica-marquez/9780399579431). I notice tons on the internet, including the odd youtube tutorial which i will not have time to view now.

    As far as the meditative effect goes: I did my first on holiday at a cottage in Quebec’s Laurentians near a lake, and the mere thought of my experience rocks me back to a happy mood.

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    1. Lovely to hear your voice, Heloise, and to know that you are also stitching. Thanks for the information on the book Make and Mend. Sashiko and Kantha are, I think, similar but originated in Japan and Bengal respectively. I agree that the quality of the needles and thread make a big difference to the experience of stitching.

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  3. I like the thought of handstitching without killing one’s eyes doing traditional embroydery!
    Reminds me of Sashiko stitching – except ‘different’.
    Your piece radiates peace even in its incompleteness. I’m sure you’ll be enjoying this project for awhile.

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    1. Thanks for faithfully reading my posts, Laura. You are quite right that Kantha (and Sashiko) stitching is kind on the eyes. It is also kind on the fingers because the cloth is so soft.
      I am moved to read that you saw peace radiating from the work.

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  4. A meditation that’s blossoming into something beautiful. Thanks for generously sharing both the experience and the technique. You’ve given me new respect for the ‘gudris’ (Indian quilts) of my childhood.

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  5. Very interesting Mariss. I enjoyed the links, especially seeing the samples in the V&A collection. I can see how this sewing can be meditative and why you call this a gentle art – hand sewing is totally different to sitting at a machine.

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  6. Your cloth is beautiful, Mariss. It’s as if your design conveys, in looking at it, the same peace and calm put into making it. I really like the design (and am fascinated that all those stitches are what holds the cloths together!). Thanks for sharing this. I have learned something new. 🙂

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