I wrote in June about Dorothy Caldwell, the internationally renowned fiber artist, who conducted workshops for my local fiber and textile art group. This time I’d like to focus on her use of the kantha stitch, aka running stitch, the most basic possible of hand stitches, the one we all learned when we first took up a needle in our hand. Dorothy joked that the reason she uses kantha so much in her own work is that she has never learned any more complicated stitches, but I’m not sure I believe her. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful mark-making tool.
She brought several kantha embroideries that had been made by a cooperative of women in northern India with whom Dorothy has worked for several years. They make large pieces to sell in an effort to improve their village, and among other things have been able to build a meeting house in which to work and to clean up a lake that can now be used for fishing.
One of the recurring motifs in the embroideries is a woman’s headdress that seems almost to be blowing away, billowing behind the figure. In fact, it shows a sari that is no longer draped over the woman’s face — as the women in this village used to dress when they were dependent and downtrodden — but is pushed back in freedom.
One or two of the women are in charge of drawing the cartoon onto the blank fabric, after which many women might work on the same piece. Popular compositions might be repeated many times but in different color schemes. Here’s a large scene that was executed twice, once in white on black and the other in black on white.
We didn’t have time in the two-day workshop to make any such elaborate embroideries, but we did spend enough time with the kantha stitch to see how it can be deployed in many different patterns and rhythms.
Here are my two kantha samplers, still in progress. I’ll definitely keep working with this stitch and learn more about how it works.