Addictive Kantha

One Stitch at a Time
I’m an addict. Our living room is home to several stacks of them - gorgeous, colourful cotton blankets - Kantha quilts as they are more commonly called. The kids love sitting on the stacks and wrapping themselves into one of the soft blankets. They really are addictive, these quilts, so much that I started making everything out of them. Cushion covers, curtains, planters, bags, placemats, jackets - you name it. 
 
Kantha stitching is a very old tradition of Bengal origin. Until today, women in rural areas of West Bengal, India, and bordering Bangladesh use this technique to recycle saris, dhotis and other fabric remnants into practical blankets that can serve as rugs to work on or covers to keep warm. Discarded fabrics are carefully layered - a Kantha quilt can be made of as many as ten layers - and then painstakingly stitched together by hand with a simple, running “Kantha” stitch, row by row. Depending on stitching size, this can take an eternity, at least in our Western perception of time. 
 
So what really got me hooked on these blankets? The texture - slightly wrinkly or wavy due to the stitching technique, a bit like seersucker. The endless combinations of colors into sometimes veritable pieces of art, here a patch, there a mend. The feel of each Kantha quilt - sometimes soft and worn, like your favourite, washed-out shirt, sometimes stiff and rug-like. The stitching - different on each quilt, at times tiny and refined, or clumsy and irregular, sometimes artfully patterned, like the handwriting of its maker. The admiration for the women who stitch these blankets - their seemingly eternal patience, which I myself lack so much. The respect for their ability to go so creatively about giving their textiles a second life. 
 
Working with Kantha cloth can be a challenge, though: Over time, I discovered that Kantha quilts can be used for many things, but not for everything. They have a life cycle of their own. Upholstering my chairs was perhaps not such a great idea. When Kantha quilts are exposed to a lot of friction, their layers of fabric will start peeling away much like skin after a sunburn. Sometimes, this results in great mosaics of colours and patterns, sometimes it just looks like a desolate rag. 
 
The two-sidedness of Kantha blankets inspired me to design items that are reversible: bags, jackets and plant cozies. After all it is sort of a waste to have two perfectly lovely sides on a quilt and then hide one away on the inside of a cushion cover. 
 
I’d almost say that what I make out of these blankets is secondary - the Kantha quilts themselves are often enough of a statement, and turning them into different home and fashion accessories is pure fun. I consider my work a way of honouring the women who have stitched these blankets and their way of life, from which we, in our Western consumerist bubble, could perhaps learn a lot: frugality, thriftiness, creativity, mindfulness. Taking life one stitch at a time and making the best out of the (sometimes scant) scraps of happiness in life. 
 
Valerie Ley Alter is a confessing Kantha addict and creates recycled accessories out of anything old and used she can get her hands on. See her work at www.fairlyworn.etsy.com and www.fairlyworn.com
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