IN WHICH WE BUY EMBROIDERIES – PART I

Just back from a five-day Diwali break trip to Agra and Delhi.  In Agra we toured the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Ram Bagh (a magnificent Mughal era garden), and Chini Ka Rauza (mausoleum of Shah Jehan’s prime minister Afzal Khan Aalmi, himself a noted poet).  In Delhi, we did a hilarious, whirlwind auto-rickshaw tour of Government center area, including the India Gate, houses of Parliament, and the embassy area; then a day in the National Museum, the Crafts Museum (a must-see if you are a weaving or textiles fan), the Red Fort, and at the end – a shopping trip to Dilli Haat.  If you are ever in Delhi, insist on going to Dilli Haat.  Your driver may try to steer you to a different crafts or souvenir store, but stand firm.  You’ll find better quality goods at much lower prices, and without the “foreigner tax” so often encountered elsewhere.

The week was unforgettable, and I’m sure I’ll be posting some select tourist pix over the coming week.  But folk here are reading for needlework content, so I’ll lead with that.

I wanted to bring home examples of Indian needlecraft that are a bit more interesting than the usual items sold to tourists – the hastily stitched pieces of sketchy construction in lurid colors.  I had wanted to find examples of Kasuthi, of course, but so far, I haven’t.  Perhaps when we go a bit south in Maharashtra later in the spring I’ll find some.  But other than the iconic piece at the National Museum, pictured on the cover of my Kasuthi book, I haven’t seen a single example.  Nor did I find quality shisha (mirror) work, although I did see a couple of pieces locally here in Pune that I may go back to buy.  In crafts, like in all other areas of economic opportunity, bad drives out good.  It’s hard to find honest quality pieces when less well executed items command the same price.  But I did look hard, and we did buy several items, almost all from government designated regional or ethnic artisanal cooperatives in fair trade markets or sponsored cooperative stores.  Here is the first selection:

My dodo curtain.  Now anyone can find elephants or peacocks,even tigers, on cloth here.  They’re everywhere.  But this cotton curtain (about the size of a king size bedspread) is totally covered with roundels inhabited by dodos.  Why dodos, I haven’t a clue.  But in addition to the pudgy charm of the off-beat motifs, it was the best stitched and best composed of the large pieces I saw.  My big disappointment is that I didn’t get a provenance on it, but I suspect Uttar Pradesh from the style:

Dodo-1dodosDodo-2

The pictures above look rather pinkish, but the actual background color is more dun than salmon or orchid. The dodos are worked in tambour-worked chain stitch in gold and brick, olive and mustard perle cotton on a double-thick cotton ground, then heavily washed.  The sequins are affixed along the lines of the gold stitching.  That along with the treatment of threads on the back clinches the working method for me.

I hope to mount this as a room divider curtain on a brass rod between our living room and dining room.  Long ago there was just such a brass rod in that wide opening, and now I have something worthy of replacing it.

Long live the dodo!

5 responses

  1. Beautiful embroidery, indeed. Are you sure the dodos aren’t the Uttar Pradesh sacred vultures? Would fit with the hooked beak and large wings.

    1. Good observation. I willkeep an open mind on this. It’s certainly possible, although they seem fat bodied, short-tailed, and short-necked for vultures. I’ll consult with friends better versed in Indian mythology and iconography than I. But even if these images turn out to be the Garuda Bird himself, I’ll still smile and think “dodo” whenever I see them.

  2. Beautiful!
    I went to the Met in NYC this weekend and saw Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800. Some of the pieces had incredibly small chain stitch – I had to pull out a magnifying glass to see. Could it be tambour stitch? Any idea how old Tambour stitch is?

    1. Perhaps, but it’s not possible to classify without close examination.

      There are several methods of producing stitches with a chain like appearance. While I’ve seen some incredible tiny-stitch tambour pieces here in India, worked with fine silks and teeny hooks; another method more widespread in Europe for fine chain-like pieces would have been split stitch.

      Split stitch is done quite differently from chain although both use a threaded needle, but the surface appearance of the two can be very similar. Split stitch was often used (and continues to be used) for finely shaded detail like the faces and hands of figures in church embroideries.

      Tambour was well known in China, India and other parts of Asia for a long time before the method spread to Europe (and by extension – North America). The dissemination of the tools and method didn’t happen until the early 1700s, and the practice didn’t really take off until the mid/late 1700s, at first for whitework. Some individual finished items probably make it back from Asia through trade, before the round, hoop style frame and pointy hook did.

      BTW – that hoop frame we know so well today is what gave tambour its name, because of the resemblance of the stretched fabric on the hoop to a drum head.

  3. Split stitch makes alot of sense. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures and the catalogue doesn’t have alot of closeups. Thanks!

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