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The World of Hand Embroidery

By Sanhati Banerjee

Hand embroidery is an age-old technique involving master craftsmanship, dainty details and the perfectly lovely look. We explore its past as well as current offerings.

Hand embroidery, as the name explains is done by hand as opposed to machine. It means the art of creating designs with hand needlework. The hand needlework can be done with the help of small frames or big frames where the fabric is stretched and multiple people can work on the same fabric to create elaborate patterns, tells fashion designer Priyanka Rajiv. Fashion designer Jaspreet Gulati of Expressionist explains “It is the art or process of forming decorative designs with hand using a needle. This is the traditional method of embroidery that has been used since ages.” 
The Personal Touch
As a little girl, if you have ever taken to sewing by your hands and etching adorable patterns on the table cloth or sofa covers you would know that there is something palpably ‘me’ about designs created by one’s hands. The effect might have been a little irregular but the spontaneity behind the designs were visible; similarly with hand embroidery there’s this very ‘me’ stamp etched on the patterns. Machine work is definitely faster, what would be done by machine in an hour’s time, it might take a month’s time to do it by hand. But, it’s this patience that pays off, the uniqueness of this individual artistic production that lends it a true crafts-like quality that resonates with the aesthetics and passions of the creative mind. Machine work will yield a very factory/industry finish and supreme smoothness but the very absence of factory-feel renders hand embroidery as unique. It will never give you the feeling of market-purchase or one among many products displayed on the rack. Hand embroidery will always give a fuller look, with no sense of mimicking market designs and also a very personal touch. As fashion designer Shruti Sancheti says “Hand embrpoidery is a craft, it is an exquisite form of embellishment. It’s a skilful manipulation of stitches to painstakingly produce a piece of design. It’s a tedious process producing intricate results and is the most sought after form of surface ornamentation. Hand embroidery dates back to antiquity and is practiced in every culture with various threads like silk, wool, cotton and leather.”
Stitch Time
For hand embroidery, a must is a skilled craftsman in order to maintain uniformity in stitches. Ravanjit Sra, owner of the label, Tijnavar says “Unlike machine embroidery, hand embroidery uses a wide variety of stitches and material to get the unique desired effect. This is an art that is very laborious, time consuming and inherited by individuals from their ancestors.”
She further says “There are a wide variety of types of materials and techniques used to create ethnic hand embroidery. Sometimes the stitches used are basic but the material is what enhances the finished piece. For instance, you can do a chain stitch with resham (silk thread) and the same stitch with ribbon. The stitch is the same but the finished effect is totally different. Materials such as stones, beads and sequins are used as fillers to give a more elaborate look to the embroidery.”
Speaking about stitches, there is the straight stitch family with the most basic ones like straight stitch; fern stitch – which is made of a series of three straight stitches; fan stitch or ray stitch which uses eight straight stitches to form a fan like pattern and rice stitch which is just a chaos of single straight stitches used to fill patterns and unlike the seed stitch, it does not follow any straight line or pattern, rather its speciality lies in it not having a pattern among others. Then there is the running family stitch which consists of running stitch which is done by running the needle and thread up and down the cloth at a regular distance; looped running stitch, laced running stitch which gives a wavy effect to the pattern; interlaced running stitch which incorporates laced running stitch, taken both ways along the running stitch, to give it a final ‘chain’ look and whipped stitch which gives a twisted effect among others.
Diverse Traditions
Traditionally in India there are various kinds of embroideries prevalent like kutchwork from Gujarat, kashida from Kashmir, kantha from Bengal, chikankari and zardozi from Lucknow, and kasuti from Tamil Nadu. These are prevalent among ethnic clothing options. Speaking on the variety of embroideries Saurab Manglani from Kalpana Sarees says “The ethnic wear segment has seen a decade of heavy weight and gaudy embroideries. More tasteful and subtle embroideries are becoming increasingly popular amongst ethnic wear seekers. To name a few nakshi kantha, appliqué work, kasuti, phulkari and chikankari are generating a tremendous demand.”
To take a deeper look into each tradition, let’s get a fair idea of which technique/tradition represents what:
Kutchwork from Gujarat: It uses interlaced herringbone stitch.
Kashida from Kashmir: Kashida uses motifs from nature which often uses satin stitch, stem stitch and stem stitch, occasionally the darning and herringbone stitches. This embroidery best suits wool, silk and cotton.
Kantha from Bengal: The kantha embroidery is predominantly the most popular form of embroidery practiced by the rural women. The traditional form of kantha embroidery was done on the soft dhotis and sarees. The thread for this craft was drawn out of the borders of the used cloth. It is a simple running stitch made on the edges. When five to six layers of the cloth were embroidered together it formed a quilt.
Chikankari & Zardozi from Lucknow: Chikankari is an ancient from of white floral embroidery, intricately worked with needle and raw thread. Its delicacy is mesmerising. For centuries, this fine white tracery on transparent white fabric has delighted the heart of craft lovers and patrons alike.
Zardozi is a heavy and more elaborate embroidery work which uses varieties of gold threads, spangles, beads, seed pearls, wire and gota. It is used to embellish wedding outfits.
Kasuti from Tamil Nadu: This embroidery is done mainly on handloom irkal saris.The motifs here range from architectural designs to a cradle and from an elephant to a squirrel. The main motifs are religious and are found to be larger near the pall; as they move downwards in a saree the motifs get smaller and smaller. Vertical, horizontal and diagonal stitches are used.
Apart from this, phulkari from Punjab, rumal from Himachal Pradesh, mochis from Rajasthan and Gujarat, mirror work or sheesha embroidery, appliqué, petit point (convent) and gara work practiced by Parsis are widely used motifs in ethnic wear.
Most of the embroideries are adapted to a contemporary way of life and designs. The variations of all the embroideries exist today with the addition of newer kind of materials like beads, Swarovski, stones etc. As Shruti Sancheti says “Nowadays garments have global appeal with a cultural soul, thus embroideries of various forms are used in confluence for the modern woman who loves craft and heritage. All the ancient crafts are revived with contemporary twist and used. Kantha, zardozi, gara, aari and mirror work etc are widely used today to turn a garment into a fashion statement.”
Embroidering Weddings
Indian wedding outfits rely extensively on hand embroidery and it’s a timeless trend. Zardozi from the Mughal courts is a massive hit when it comes to Indian brides. Other forms of exquisite hand embroidery like aari, kasab work, pitta embroidery in shades of gold, copper, antique bronze and burnt silver combined with delicate thread work in bright colours are also extensively used in bridal wear as pointed out by Shruti Sancheti. She also says that her brand focuses a lot on hand embroidery and also tries to revive different crafts like carpet embroidery, sindhi tanka, lamadi and banjara embroidery etc but makes it contemporary and stylish keeping the modern woman in mind, who loves craft and heritage and wears her culture on her sleeves.
In the wedding wear segment, there is an underlying demand for lehengas and sarees to become lighter in weight. Zardosi, Chikankari, gotapatti work are in vogue quickly replacing stone-work and other bulky forms, tells Saurab Manglani.
Looking Ahead
Newer looks are being ushered in with differently worked out forms of hand embroidery these days to suit a more evolved clientele. As Saurab Manglani says “Nakshi-kantha has had a cult following till last year. An entirely new outlook has been churned out of adapting newer design families - geometrical and abstract. This new outlook has attracted more audiences while captivating the veterans and the demand only seems to grow.”
Ravanjit Sra expresses her desire to do some designs in phulkari in future. This work is from the north in Punjab and she laments the fact that it is now almost a dying art. It is done by using a darn stitch on the wrong side of the fabric with coloured silk thread. Phulkari work was done by women for themselves and not sold in the market. Phulkari work was passed on from mothers to their daughters to create pieces for their weddings. She would love to incorporate phulkari work into some of her upcoming designs.
The future looks bright as the present is dotted with multiple variations and inspirations. Jaspreet Gulati signs off by saying “The passion for embroidery in India has led to great experimentation in the field, with several styles, creating dazzling effects such as the ‘stained glass’ look, the long cross stitch, rice stitch, textured panels and much more. One can see embroidery on wall hangings, sarees, textiles and garments, incorporating unique motifs and patterns.”

You can check out these following stores for excellent collections:
Know the brand: Tijnavar is a design house that focuses on traditional handwork embroidery aimed at saving the dying saree. The materials used in the making of each design are untainted and pure. Each piece aims at amalgamating the dying old world of hand embroidery with modern sophistication.
USP: Tijnavar is a brand launched on the principles of sustainable development. Made 100 percent by hand by the forgotten craftsmen of Uttar Pradesh, it is couture with a heart.
Product Range & Pricing: 100% pure chiffon hand embroidered sarees with crystallised stones, kundan and dabka work and with contrast blouses come at a price of Rs 29,250 and onwards; self print crepe material hand embroidered sarees with nakshi, resham and dabka work and contrast blouse in pure crepe de chine with matching embroidery on both front and back come at a price of Rs. 29,700 and onwards. The range is full of more such options.
Contact: Tijnavar is now available at Buzzaria – a multi-brand retail store and a potpourri of fashion and designs; Bhram House F/343, Lado Sarai, Old M.B. Road, Mehrauli, Near Crescent, New Delhi; Tel: 011 45793261

Expressionist by Jaspreet Gulati
Know the brand: : Launched 12 years back, the brand today embodies the thought of each garment being an expression of a creative mind. Indo-fusion being his forte, Jaspreet brings to ethnic wear and sarees a twist that is unexpected, as it is individualistic and stunning.
USP: Indo-fusion - best of both the worlds for younger generation who wants to look traditional at their functions yet maintain their style and fashion sense.
Product Range & Pricing: Outfits for parties like reception, cocktails, engagements etc like cocktail gowns and a variety of suits with a range of hand embroidered designs. Price range: Rs.19,500 - Rs.69,500
Contact: A, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi; Tel: 011- 26968201; 29 A, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi; Tel: 011- 26521093

Pinnacle by Shruti Sancheti
Know the brand: : “Pinnacle – Shruti Sancheti” was launched in 2009 with a vision to establish not just a label but a brand that dictates fashion. Pinnacle has always believed in the rich tradition and craftsmanship of India. Every season the brand works with the unsurpassed legacy and heritage of Indian weaves, textiles and surface ornamentation.
USP: Pinnacle believes in wear-ability, femininity and comfort combined with elegance. it offers elegant and classic styles at competitive prices.
Product Range & Pricing: Apart from Indian ethnic wear, Pinnacle also produces Indo-western line. The brand has recently launched their bridal line as well. All these with a great variety of hand embroidery and at great prices.
Shruti Sancheti: 9370940999

Know the brand:  Kalpana is one of the few brands that realise that tradition is permanent in contrast to fashion fads that come and go. Since inception, it has been promoting and patronising the magic of Indian weaves.
USP: Kalpana has been able to provide a blend of traditional and contemporary through constantly changing colour palletes and design elements via a successful feedback chain between the customer and craftsmen.
Product Range & Pricing: A blend of traditional weaves and embroidery designs; the wedding collection offers something new every season be it with colours, design motifs or cuts producing a wide and complete range.
Contact: Kalpana, E-25A, South Extension, Part-II Market, ND; Tel: 011-64613738;
CP | Saket | Gurgaon | Noida |

Picture Courtesy Priyanka Rajiv

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