Sunday, June 25, 2017

Kantha embroidery: a painterly solution for floss thrums

Have you ever saved bits and pieces of ____ (thread, fabric, paper... you fill in the blank) for an unknown reason because, in your heart of hearts, you knew their purpose would be revealed at some point in time?
Working from the thread bowl.
The time arrived for my collection of leftover embroidery floss. You know, the bird's nest of odd lengths of floss—sometimes 2, 3, or 4 four strands—and those random bits that are too short or not enough of a single color to use in a new piece? The solution to my collection of arbitrary embroidery floss has been revealed to me: kantha embroidery!
Kantha embroidery stitching.
Through a wonderful and inspiring Shakerag workshop called Human Marks: Drawing, Stitching, Batik, Bookmaking, with fiber artist and icon, the magical Dorothy Caldwell, I was recently exposed to the beauty and painterly qualities of kantha embroidery. Kantha is a hand stitching, mending process from India. It is kin to sashiko and boro. Kantha is used for the purpose of mending textiles to prolong their life and use, but it is also an expressive and decorative way of making marks and telling stories with thread and a running stitch.

Workshop attendees had the privilege of seeing several pieces of Dorothy's collection of kantha embroideries that she purchased during her time in India. The hand and energy of the maker is evident in the stitches.
The kantha running stitch shows the mark of the maker.
Dorothy explained that the women were very literal when choosing the designs that were drawn and then stitched on the pieces. The maker of the kantha quilt below depicted scenes from her visit to New York City. The twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Empire State building can be seen in her quilt.
The images in the quilts recount a visit to New York City. 
Similar to the American wholecloth quilts, the kantha embroideries in Dorothy's collection are done on large pieces of cloth—sometimes a white/natural color and sometimes black. Two pieces of cloth are stitched together. There is no batting or middle layer.
Kantha quilt.
The images are often outlined with a chain stitch for a bolder line. Small running stitches fill the shapes as well as the background. Small knots could be seen on the back (we had to ask about knots!) where the thread starts and stops occurred. The knots were neatly trimmed but makers did not seem concerned with them showing.
Knots and neatly clipped tails show on the back.
Dorothy demonstrated the chain stitch.
Dorothy Caldwell (right) demonstrates the hand stitches.
Workshop attendees displayed their kantha works-in-progress.
A board of kantha embroidery class projects.
We started with two strands of white embroidery floss to create the outlines of the shapes.
Running stitches: two strands of white embroidery floss on black cloth.
After I got into the rhythm of the running stitch, I began to add color—using single strands of floss. (This is when the lightbulb came on for me.)
Introducing colored floss to the kantha stitching.
I pulled strands from the floss bird's nest that resides in my sewing basket... or used the needles from the pin cushion that were already threaded with floss from previous projects. Threads of similar value but different hues began to fill the black canvas. The subtle color changes and the small stitches are reminiscent of brushstrokes of impressionist paintings.
Pre-threaded needles are a source for new stitching.
Now, I feed from a bowl of floss thrums that were accumulating in my sewing basket... and mix colors as if mixing paints on an artist's palette... a small amount of this color, a dab of that. The wait for a perfect stitching opportunity has ended. Kantha is the answer!
Stitching painterly marks with kantha embroidery.
Thank you, Dorothy Caldwell, for your inspiration, guidance and for graciously sharing your vast experience and knowledge with our class. And to my fellow classmates, thank you for sharing your amazing life stories and for the camaraderie and mutual encouragement.

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