On Kawandi-style stitching

At a workshop with Elaine Barnard titled Kawandi and Godhari Quilting, I learnt something of this ancient utilitarian form as I assembled and stitched a small sampler of bright scraps, held down by white running stitch. This was one of the six classes I took during the South African National Quilt Festival in early October.

My godhari sampler, finished after the class. It measures 50 x 50 cm. I took along a box of my own scraps (labelled “Enticements”) but also used the shiny borders and sequined designs from saris that were available for our use.

Elaine Barnard is not only an inspiring textile art teacher, but also a world traveller who has visited India many times. During the workshop she shared her knowledge of Indian customs through stories of her travels as generously as she shared the fabric from saris, which we used to add authenticity to our samplers. We were a large class of enthusiastic quilters learning a new form of stitching, and she patiently showed us the way. It was not easy to change tack and use thick crochet cotton, threaded through a very long needle, and to work from the outer edge inwards. It was also not easy to coax small pieces of sometimes slippery sari fabrics to lie flat and be stitched down with turned-under edges.

But it was fun and inspiring. It was also humbling to realise that what we were doing for fun is done out of necessity by extremely poor women who use every scrap of old and found cloth to make whole cloths, or godharis. During the class I also became more aware of how ancient this form of stitching is.

The following background information comes from the stories Elaine told during the class and from her useful information booklet:

The term godhari refers to the quilt itself, while kawandi is the method used to make it. A kawandi style quilt differs from other godhari quilts. The quilts are stitched by a group of women, usually one woman at each corner. The threaded needle is handed from one woman to the next as they stitch around the cloth, from the outer edge inward.

First they lay out the backing, then they add old saris and bits of old cloth as batting. Then they stitch down the surface patches, each with the edges folded in, using a long length of thread and a long, thin needle. Their only tools are a needle, thread, fabric and a cutting implement — sometimes they don’t have pairs of scissors and use blades to cut the fabric, or simply just tear it. Imagine making a quilt with no thimble, no pins, no design, no sewing machine, no rulers, no iron, no frames. The Sidi people who make kawandi quilts possess none of these tools.

The construction is the opposite of that used for traditional quilts.

“Where we plan and construct every move, kawandi quilts are made intuitively and without any preconceived ideas. It’s just the women and a heap of fabric and the magic of creating something beautiful by pulling the next fabric from the heap and sewing it into the quilt.”

— Elaine Barnard

The makers of kawandi quilts are the Sidi people of Karnataka, India. They are descendents of slaves from south east Africa. They arrived in India in 628 AD and are mostly Muslim. Some of them escaped slavery and established communities in forested areas. They are separated from mainstream society and live in poverty in isolated areas, small villages, or at the edge of larger towns. Many work as day labourers or seasonal migrant workers. Some women remain at home to make quilts that provide comfort and warmth to their families.

And so we set about emulating this method during the workshop. A kawandi-style godhari traditionally has a folded cotton tassel, called a phula (flower) at each corner. Once we had prepared the backing cloth by folding in the edge, we placed these at each corner, and then began stitching down the patches, each with their edges folded back.

Above are in-process photographs. This was as far as I got during the one-day workshop. The close-up on the right is to show the effect of the stitching. I spent a happy, slow week finishing the sampler. It struck me that I have made a kind of a collage. It started with that beautiful sequined design that resembles a roof. The house (or small temple) shape then emerged as I stitched.

While quietly stitching I had the idea to collate all the examples I made at the various workshops I did during the Quilt Festival and construct a small book as a memento of the lovely time I had. So, I have started a smaller kawandi-style quilt, which will better fit into the proposed book.

This is in its early stages of construction, but gives a nice graphic portrayal of the process of making a kawandi-style quiltlet. It is 9 inches square. Note the folded triangles at the corners to make the flowers. I stitched down the folded-in edge of the backing to make it easier to handle. How do the Sidi women manage without pins? I certainly couldn’t.

To end off, here is one of my favourite quilts that was on show during the National Quilt Festival. The maker is Elaine Barnard and it won first prize in the Wall Quilts: Art Pictorial (Masters) section.

When you see 8 crows together by Elaine Barnard. 115 x 146 cm. (Photograph from the Prize Winners catalogue)

19 thoughts on “On Kawandi-style stitching

  1. How interesting to learn about this old traditional godhari style & kawandi stitching!
    Thanks for sharing Mazzie.
    Love your sampler โค๏ธ๐Ÿงก๐Ÿ’›๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’œ

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    1. Glad to know you also enjoyed learning about this traditional craft. Thanks for the lots and lots of โค๏ธ๐Ÿ’œ๐Ÿงก๐Ÿ’›๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ’™ to show that you really do love my sampler. ๐Ÿ˜Š

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  2. I really enjoyed reading about the wonderful Elaine Barnard class you took at Festival! Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. Yes it is astonishing how the makers of this traditional technique do their beautiful work! I have also tried this relaxing and calming method.

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  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the story of Kawandi and Godhari quilting- very interesting! I really like your little piece – very cheerful and homey ๐Ÿ˜Š. Iโ€™m keeping my eyes open for a class on the technique.

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  4. I also found this most interesting and the technique must be most challenging when working without pins! It always interests me the relationship between technique, materials and design and how they inform each other (and not only in a quilting context and I am not a quilter!). Sometimes inherent limitations become a form of inspiration!

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  5. It fascinates me, thinking of how we put so much emphasis on getting things done quickly, yet these women share one needle and thread, handing it off to one another. The patience that might require, but also the quiet meditativeness of that process. I am always impressed with how you continue to explore the process, making something in addition to what you made in the class.

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