What actually is kantha?
Kantha is a centuries-old tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from rags, which evolved from the thrift of rural women in the Bengali region of the sub-continent - today the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, and Bangladesh. One of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India, its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (prior to 1500 BCE).
Traditionally, old cotton saris, lungis and dhotis, which had turned incredibly soft through wear, were used to make kanthas, with the thread for the stitching drawn out from the fabric itself. Recycling at its best! Around five to seven fabrics would be layered together, with lighter coloured fabrics on the outside so the stitch and pattern was discernible. The stitch would cover the entire cloth to provide strength.
Women in almost every household in rural villages would be kantha experts, and spend whatever quiet time they had available - between looking after the house and children, tending to livestock and during the long days of the monsoon - on stitching the pieces. It could take months or even years to complete one kantha. The stitching could be handed down through generations, with grandmother, mother and daughter working on the same kantha.
If you travel in Bengal today, you will still find modern iterations of the traditional patchwork kantha quilts; airing in the sun on verandahs in Kolkata or laid out over paddy fields in the villages to dry. But the bulk of kantha production is made for commercial consumption - both domestically in India and Bangladesh, and for the export market. This, in theory, is a good thing - the rural women of Bengal, who are limited by economic, cultural, social and religious factors from finding gainful employment outside of their homes now find themselves in high demand to produce enough kantha for this market. In practice, however kantha artisans suffer the same exploitation as their brothers and sisters working in almost every handicraft sector in the region. In a study carried out for the Journal of Social Work and Social Development on kantha artisans, it was found that the majority of women were cheated on payments owed to them, suffered from irregular or late payments, and were socially immobile due to an absence of training and advance payments. It was found that the average annual income from kantha production was a meagre Rs.2,000-4,000 (USD 30 - 60) per artisan, which is far, far below anything which could be considered a living or fair wage, even in the context of kantha work being on a part-time basis. Happily, there are a growing number of designers becoming more conscious of the importance of applying fair trade principles to their work, and it's possible to find ethically produced kantha products, like those we make at Nest Factory.