Embroidery is the embellishment of an existing fabric with accessory threads and sometimes with other materials. Most embroideries are freely drawn or worked by counting threads and are applied with a needle or occasionally with a hook. The thread used could be silk, cotton, wool, gold or silver.
The primary function of embroidery was to decorate, to embellish textiles already created to meet man’s basic needs. Most of the patterns and motifs were derived from various religious beliefs and trade requirements. Some embroideries were also patronized by royal families and the motifs were influenced by royalty.
Embroidery also served as a means of identification. From a woman’s dress, an informed observer can find out the village that she comes from; colour and placement of motifs announce her status as a young girl, married woman or widow. Embroidered articles also form an important part of various phases of life. Embroideries are an important part of girl’s trousseau and marriage dress. Apart from dresses, embroideries are often used for articles of household use and decoration like bed covers, quilts, carpets, wall hangings, cradle cloth, Chausad (dice-game) etc.
Embroidery tradition of India is one of the most richly diverse and masterly in the world. Indian embroidery, both domestic and professional is regional. Some embroidery stitches have their foundation in early textiles, basketry, mat making and weaving; others developed from early sewing, where stitches were used for joining pieces of fabrics.
India lies along the ancient trade routes across Asia. This has resulted in the introduction of many cultural and religious influences from other countries. India has very extensive coastline, which has enabled trade to flourish with many countries like Portugal, Holland, France and Britain. These became invaders rather than trading partners, with obvious effects on cultures and crafts of India.
The major influence on Indian textiles was the Persian taste and tradition which prevailed during Mughal empire. Other significant influences came from Europeans specially Britishers. India has assimilated and made its own many of the ideas introduced by these people and throughout history, has been renowned for the diversity, quality and richness of its textiles.
HISTORY AND ORIGIN
Most of the embroideries were produced in North-west- the River Indus plain and Thar Desert area. The cotton plant grew in surrounding areas. Illustrations in materials like stone, which survive the ravages of time better than fabrics, give some idea of the appearance of textiles which disappeared long ago. A fragment of madder dyed fabric and thin bronze needles have been found from site of Mohen-jo-daro. Written accounts inform that, as early as 300 B.C., the wealthy people wore richly embroidered clothes, and this coincides with the development of related skills and the use of similar products at this time in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Syria and Babylon. In 10th Century AD, slippers embroidered in gold and silver were exported from Sind to Baghdad. Marco Polo referred to exquisite embroideries of Gujarat as ‘depicting birds and beasts in silver thread sewn very subtly on leather’.
Various ethnic groups make up the population of India today. This is the result of centuries of invasion by different people who settled and brought with them different religions, languages and skills. There was a lot of Muslim influence on embroidery and so was the influence from British trade. Though stitches are common, due to religious influences, different styles of embroideries have been developed. The religion had a major influence on motifs and colours.
All the traditional skills and designs have by no means been lost, but the materials used may have changed, many man-made fabrics and threads are been used. Each region has its own dominant patterns, cultural traditions and market requirements.
In India, textiles are everywhere; on clothes, adorning animals, in temples, homes and other buildings. These articles form part of traditional way of life. Embroideries have been produced for many uses but the finest examples were produced for courts and temples.
Stitches used have been determined by the fabric available and the weave structure of fabric, the design to be worked on. Design could be worked directly from the memory or sometimes an outline is produced by block printing, by tracing with wooden pen or pencil or stenciled on cloth using prick and pounce method.
Embroideries can be worked in the hand or using frame if the embroidery has to be worked on tight fabric. Wide variety of needle and threads are used. Fabrics were mainly cotton, wool, silk i.e. natural fabrics. Colours were varied. The brightest and most dominant colours were used in arid and desert region. The women wearing these brightly colored garments have been called ‘the flowers of the desert’. Some embroideries use only one stitch like Kantha but the design variation is created by innovative use of fabric, thread and stitch.
Over a period of time new stitches and designs have been added to those traditionally used, and these have also been adapted and changed. Stitches and designs are often passed on from parents to children. In this way, some of the techniques and designs have remained largely the same, with gradual changes occurring with an embroiderer either improvising or adding an individual touch.
REVIVALDue to changes happening in world and society, many techniques have died out, some are no longer used for their original purpose and others have virtually disappeared. Some areas have seen a recent revival of their traditional embroidery. Co-operatives, development projects and workshops have been set up to help centralize production and create marketing strategy for their embroideries.