Embroidery is an ancient craft, with surviving pieces of ancient origin found from Egypt to China. Traditional embroidery techniques and designs are found in every part of the world, and in India they reflect the region’s history of invasion and migration, from Persia and Central Asia in particular.
Till independence from Britain in 1947, India was a group of princely states, each with its distinctive culture – cuisine, arts and crafts, language etc. These individual features remain integral to the Indian states of today, providing a rich variety of experiences for those of us lucky enough to visit.
The embroidery of the city of Lucknow, on the plain of the Ganges in north India, is highly prized within India. The style called “chikankari” is done by women, in cotton or silk thread using a small frame. It is typically done in white thread on sheer fabric, using predominantly shadow stitch. Work in metal threads, or with beads, is done by men.
Garments other than saris are most often cut and partly stitched before the embroidery is started. The first step in the embroidery process is the selection of the motifs to be used, for the body of the fabric and the borders. Hand-carved wooden blocks are dipped in ink and used to print the design onto the fabric.
There are tiny shops in the bazaar whose business it is to do only this. A shop with a large variety of well-made blocks will have plenty of business. However, at our workshop we do a good deal of printing ourselves.
The embroidery work itself is done at home whenever the worker has time available. In rural areas women will usually have a full day’s farm labouring to do, as well as their normal household duties. Their labour is not considered valuable, and they are often paid very little for highly skilled embroidery work.
In urban areas, women may go to work at a “centre”, where working conditions are more formal, though pay can still be very low, despite the high price paid for the completed work by the customer. Women’s cooperatives, aided by non-profit organisations, have emerged as a way to direct the full value of the embroidery to the workers themselves.
The worker stretches the fabric tight and secures it with the frame, so that the embroidery stitches can be done neatly over the printed motifs. A heavily embroidered top will take a month to six weeks to work.
With the embroidery done, the piece is sent to the dhobis, the riverside washermen. The printing dye and accumulated grime are scrubbed out, the piece is dried and returned to the workshop, where the remaining seams and hems are finished.