The age-old tradition of quilting is having its moment in pop culture. A look at what’s making this craft popular once again
In January 2019, India will host its first festival of quilts. Yes, quilts – those light bedtoppers that you also crawl under to stay snug, and which you might better know as razai, kantha, koudi, godhadi, or as coverlets with repetitive blocks of flowers and birds that your grandmothers might have sewn. To be held in Chennai, the India Quilt Festival (IQF) will showcase, over three days, the best of quilt designs, techniques, accessories and makers from the country and abroad.
This has the members of Facebook group Desi Quilters (DQ) excited as they will finally have their time in the limelight. They are 2,600 of them, and are a mix of office-goers, entrepreneurs, new mothers, and women on a career-break, and grannies, who’ve learnt the skill of quilting themselves or from each other. Traditionally, quilt-making used to be a community activity, so even these ladies meet up offline to exchange tips and tricks on quilting – a technique of sewing three layers of fabric (a layer of patchwork or a whole cloth goes on top, a fabric of cotton, silk, or bamboo goes in the mid as batting, and a base holds them all).
Coming of age
Wonder what’s made this humble household item so pop among urban women? Thanks to the Internet and international travelling, Indians have discovered that quilts can be more than just items of utility, or gifts for weddings, baby showers and anniversaries. That, they can be pieces of art as fine as paintings and photographs, evidence of which can be found in America or Europe where people dedicate exhibitions, museums, movies and contests to quilts and quilt-makers.
So, quilts in India are now going up as ‘wall hangings’, and on T-shirts and tote bags too. If Westerners are drawing the characters of Star Wars with fabrics, Pune’s Kalindi Hambir has sewn the face of our current Prime Minister on a quilt, and is finishing a Holi scene for her next. In 2010, she won the World Quilt Festival in
appliqué -quilting the image of a mouse holding a bell. Called pictorial art quilting, this sub-genre is in, and these ladies are drawing scenes from The Lion
King, The Batman, Peppa Pig, Dr
Two, many want to revive the forgotten tradition.
Later, quilts acquired an emotional value as women started sewing them to mark important life events such as marriage (given away in dowry), the birth of a baby, or death in the family. So why did this family practise discontinue? Katwal, 46, says, “I call the women of our generation ‘the lost generation’ who in the race to study and do jobs forgot to pick up the skills of sewing and quilting. The tradition kind of stopped with our grandmums. So now when new mothers want to learn these skills, they need to look up online videos and blogs.”
That threw up a unique challenge. Indian quilts were completely hand-done – with thread, needle, and mostly scrap cloth, so the patterns were quite organic and inconsistent. It is said that by looking at the quilt patterns, you could gauge the mood of the quilter, and whether she was having a good day or not! Whereas, in Western or modern quilting, women use rulers,
rotary cutters, batting and freezing papers, and now heavy machines, so their patterns are uniform. Katwal explains, “So when we used to look up online tutorials, we were expected to have these tools, but where could we find them in India? Until two years ago, you could not even get a quilting ruler here. We used to get it from abroad for `3,000. Thankfully, we now get it here for `400. Yes, so, what we mostly do now is Western quilting on machines,” she adds.
Cuts are cool
Things are changing, thanks to the rising interest in arts & crafts, and home decor (
Then there are the likes of siblings Ayesha, 40, and
The duo ships out 75-150 orders a month, of which memory and personalised quilts form the bulk. These are made from babywear, maternity overalls, college tops, sarees of moms, even boxers (underwear, no), to preserve the beautiful memories that clothes tend to acquire with time, even with stains and holes intact. They are passed down as gifts and heirlooms.
They say love is in the details, and Ayesha can testify to that: “Mothers save everything – from the gowns they delivered their babies in, to the clothes, socks, and boots their babies wore when they came home from hospital, on their first birthday, on Janamashthami, on Diwali, on the first day of school… till about the age of 10. They give us 25-45 pieces per quilt. A mother has asked us to make a quilt that carries moral messages!” Then, marathon T-shirts have been bound into sofa throws. “They become great conversation pieces.” Quilted cushions from dog clothes have been crafted, too.
The more, the better
Shirali started quilting when she was expecting in 2016. “I had a lot of time to kill, so I looked up online videos, bought a sewing machine and got cracking. I made two patchwork quilts before my son and my niece were born. But it was the memory quilt I made for my son later that became a hit, and I never went back to my IT job.”
Even Katwal left her business of motorcycles to sell textiles, knitting tools and quilting machines, and also makes quilts under her Facebook page, The Square Inch. She shares her journey, “I did a lot of hit and trial. I remember how I made my first quilt. I cut a fabric into pieces, flunk them in air, and then stitched them in whatever order they had fallen on the ground. I made more and passed them on to unsuspecting friends.”
Now, she is hooked to art quilts. “I am doing a funny interpretation of the nursery rhyme of Mary Had A Little Lamb on a quilt. Some time back, I did a portrait of my sister, with polka-dotted lips, yellow hair and Superman motifs. Believe me, Indian quilters have come quite far (Hambir once sold her work for `80,000), and that’s what the IQF will prove.” And, with that, she hopes she never has to answer this again: “Why do you bother cutting a fabric into pieces only to stitch them back?”