Prof Anne Morrell is a textile artist, author, and former lecturer at The Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Born in Chennai, Morrell is an expert in the field of embroidery, historic and ethnic textiles, particularly of the Indian sub-continent. Bri
Exploring the wealth of Indian embroidery in a conversation with Prof. Anne Morrell
FROM BEING LIMITED TO HOMES, EMBROIDERIES HAVE NOW ENTERED THE REALM OF WORKSHOPS AND STUDIOS OF TEXTILE AND FASHION DESIGNERS.
Travelling across India and meeting textile artisans from different parts of the country, one comes across a wonderful spectrum of traditional Indian textile techniques. These are worked into different fabrics, in a variety of expressions. In recent years, Indian embroidery has been enjoying greater patronage, and is being sported by men, women and children on daily as well as festive wear, on Indian, Western and Indo-Western garments and on attires of different seasons. This indicates the immense potential of traditional Indian embroidery techniques, which are being explored by artisans and designers who practise it on a range of different apparel. THREADING GROUNDS Traditionally, most embroideries in India (with some exceptions like pashmina embroidery from Kashmir, ari from Gujarat and zardozi from Uttar Pradesh) have been created by women for non-commercial purposes. This is because these women experimented with stitching during their leisure hours, and exchanged techniques with other female family members and friends, creating beautiful styles of textile adornment.
Yet, in the past decades, with the increasing demand for embroidery to add embellishments on garments, more men have taken up embroidery. From being limited to homes, embroideries have now entered the realm of workshops and studios of textile and fashion designers. After a large demand, machine embroidery soon made an entry into the market, and quickly spread in popularity due to its relative affordability and faster speed compared to handmade embroidery.
A STITCH IN TIME
“Embroidery is the embellishment of fabric, enriching it with a needle and thread. Stitches are produced by needle and the thread being inserted and brought out of the fabric at specific intervals. This action, the repetition of actions, and grouping of threads, can produce an endless variety of surfaces and combinations of effects. This makes embroidery a resource that can be used by artisans and designers to create varied effects on apparel,” says Prof Anne Morrell, a textile artist, author, and former lecturer at The Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, who has written extensively on Indian embroideries for the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad.
“Embroidery can be used for decorative or symbolic meaning, for a practical purpose such as strengthening a fabric, or be used as a mark or surface in fine art work. Apart from the main surface decoration, embroidery stitches can be used on edges, seams, to join fabrics together when fabric is inserted or in patchwork, to apply fabrics as in appliqué, to hold layers together as seen in quilting which includes attire such as jackets, to pull the fabric into gathers and thus to reduce the surface area as seen in smocking that is generally worked on front panels in women’s and girl’s dresses, and to create eyelets in the fabric by pulling warp and weft together.” In this way, by studying stitches, its immense potential can be explored.
The sheer variety of stitches that one comes across in India makes embroidery a valuable resource for embellishing fabrics. Among the more prominent stitches are the running stitch, as seen on kantha embroidery; chain stitch as seen on Kutch and pashmina embroidery; herringbone stitch on the main face of the fabric as well as on the reverse as is ingeniously worked (from the reverse) to cast a shadow on the main face of the fabric in chikan work; and darning stitch as worked from the reverse of the fabric on phulkaris and baghs.
“Indian embroiderers use stitch, thread and fabric in inventive ways to create different effects. By changing any one of these three elements, the work also changes its look, and this attribute is used by artisans to create interesting embroidered fabrics. For instance, the stem stitch can be taken around a woven motif, and be used to reinforce the weave, to make trailing lines, lines to join shapes and to complete a design. The buttonhole stitch can be worked in lines on a fabric or on the edge of fabric, with various spacings of the stitch. It is also used in little groups of three to make a small spot. The herringbone stitch is a very versatile stitch. The stitches only have to be worked closer together, another row worked on top, or the row interlaced and the effect changes.”
Prof Morrell adds that not only are the stitches used in Indian embroidery recognised for their diversity, they are also valued for the varied shapes made by using them creatively, by the negative shapes achieved in the unworked areas of the fabric, by the size and spacing of the stitches, by the types of fabrics and threads used to create different effects, and by the combination of stitches used together in a particular piece.
HANGING BY A THREAD
By varying threads, needles and/or fabric, different looks can be created. For instance, by working white embroidery on white fabric, an ethereal look
ideal for summer garments is created. By working metallic thread on a fabric, a decorative look is created that is suited for formal and/or festive garments. By using ‘richer’ fabrics such as velvet or silk, the festive look is made regal. This is further enhanced by metal thread embroidery in many cases. By using an ari (a long needle with hook at one end), a very fine chain stitch can be worked to create practically any motif.
Morrell expounds, “Surface decoration of evenly woven netted fabrics can be worked with different stitches. Evenly woven fabrics lend themselves to counted thread work as seen in phulkari and
soof embroidery. Similarly, netted fabrics can be embellished by counted thread work or net embroidery. Surface decoration of other fabrics can be done by the addition of stitches by hand or machine stitches as well as through ari work. It can also be done by the addition of fabric such as appliqué, by the addition of metal threads, by the addition of beads, and by the addition of padding, which creates a raised surface, useful for embroidery or appliqué.”
STITCHES FOR EVERY SEASON
Embroidery, in terms of the choice of stitch and fabric it is worked on, can be designed/created for particular seasons as well as specific looks such as casual, casual chic, bohemian, festive and wedding. For instance, for summer wear, an artisan or designer can rely on chikan work. Designed with light, semi-transparent fabric, this technique lends itself to a spectrum of stitches that can be worked on the surface of the fabric, on the reverse of the fabric casting their effect on the main surface and also by manipulating the very threads of the fabric. Traditionally, chikan was done using white threads on white cotton, but it is now worked on different fabrics (chiffons and georgettes), using white as well as coloured threads on coloured fabrics, thus expanding the repertoire of the technique. The integration of mirrors and sequins has added further beauty to the expression.
Once the making of a stitch and its movement has been understood, a variety of effects can be achieved by it. Morrell concludes, “In my experience, I have observed that by practicing a stitch in both regular and irregular ways, with different threads and on different fabrics, an embroiderer can create a variety of effects. The running stitch, an apparently simple mark and movement, is one of the most versatile of stitches. It is developed into a long and short stitch by changing the length of the stitch; a French knot when a twist of the thread is made around the needle before entering the fabric; and it is used to apply beads and metal elements. By mastering the simple running stitch, one can work its many variations, namely, whipped running stitch, laced running stitch, interlaced running stitch, interlaced double running stitch, laced stepped double stitch, treble running stitch, darning stitch, line double running stitch, double running stitch, double running steps, dog-tooth edge, and battlement line stitch. The pattern potential of a stich is exciting to explore.”
With such a diversity of traditional as well as newer stitches in India, artisans and designers have an ocean of inspiration to draw from to create attractive, elegant and beautiful embroidered apparel.