Colour & Light: Embroidery from India and Pakistan

By Dale Carolyn Gluckman, 2007

South Asia has long been famed for the beauty and diversity of its decoratively stitched cloth. Whether produced in male-dominated urban workshops or in the home by rural women and girls for personal and family use, embroidery served - and to a large extent still serves - multiple functions in daily and religious life. Embellished textiles are components of clothing; they decorate tents, homes, palaces, mosques and temples; cover animals, and; serve as articles of daily use. They are required for many festivals and rituals, and are often essential for betrothal and marriage.

Historically, embroidered textiles reflected the wealth and influence of rulers, courtiers, and favoured courtesans. Among South Asia's many peoples, these textiles frequently identified family origins, personal status or religious affiliation. With the increasing availability of imported and machine-made goods, urbanization and changes in patterns of traditional life, some types of embroidery have all but disappeared; others survive, albeit in new forms, or have been revived to keep handwork alive.

Diverse Expressions

The objects in this exhibition come from the modern countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh - a vast, contiguous geographical area that shares a common history and culture, yet is ethnically and environmentally diverse; thus, embroidery from this region shows remarkable variation in materials, stitches and patterns.

Wool is found in the sheep-herding desert regions of western India and the province of Sindh, Pakistan, as well as the mountainous areas of Kashmir and Chitral in the north and the Nilgiri Hills in southern India. Cotton and silk are more widespread, both as ground fabric and as thread. The most common foundation for embroidery is plain-weave cotton - ranging from coarse weaves for counted-thread styles to sheer muslins for whitework. Other textiles upon which embroidery is done include silks of various kinds, velvet and pashmina (fine Himalayan goat's hair).

Floss silk is the most widely used embroidery thread; others are a variety of metal threads, wool yarns and, in Kashmir, a blend of pashmina and silk. Dozens of stitches are used, some of which are exclusive to particular communities, while others are common to many traditions. For example, hurmitch, a complex interlace stitch, is used only in Sindh, Pakistan and across the border in Kutch, India, while other stitches such as buttonhole, chain, cross and satin are common to many traditions [Fig.1]. Additional embellishments include cowrie shells, glass mirror pieces, beetle-wing casings, and an assortment of beads, buttons and metal ornaments. Extraordinary stylistic diversity is apparent in the wide range of colours, patterns and imagery on the pieces in this exhibition.

Court and Commerce

Many royal courts had some form of state-owned workshop to satisfy their need for luxury goods - from fine garments to rich furnishings for palaces and tents. These court workshops (kharkhana) employed master craftsmen in all media, including painters, weavers and embroiderers. The last imperial dynasty, the Mughals (1542-1857), established their own artistic “signature:” a fusion of Hindu Indian, Islamic Iranian and Central Asian styles that influenced many minor courts throughout the region and came to be known as Mughal style. Some of those courts established their own workshops, or, if they required specialized embroidery skills, the courts patronized distant production centres to acquire them. At the breakup of the Mughal Empire, artists and craftsmen fled to these regional courts where they further infused the local style with that of the Mughals.

In contrast to the exclusive kharkhana, urban workshops produced professional quality embroidery for local, regional and international markets. Workshops as widely separated geographically as Hyderabad in Pakistan and Madras (now Chennai) in India, have long produced a variety of styles of gold and silver embroidery for local patrons and an export market. An example of embroidery for local use is the Chamba rumal. In the small kingdoms of the Himalayan foothills, court artists and professional embroiderers once produced these ceremonial cloths used to cover offering trays [Fig.2]. In the 19th century, Dhaka (Bangladesh), Calcutta (Bengal) and Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) made fine whitework (white-on-white embroidery) called chikan-kari on the sheerest muslins for royal consumption [Fig.3]. Although men still run most workshops, passing their skills from father to son as dictated by time-honoured practice, women have also been professional embroiderers, working side-by-side with their fathers and other male relatives or doing piecework in their homes.

India has been exporting its fine textiles for over 2,000 years. As early as the first centuries of the Common Era, there are written references to the textile trade between India and the Mediterranean, although there is no specific mention of embroidery. Bone needles have been found at Mohenjo-Daro (2600-1700 BC) in modern Pakistan. But it is unknown if they were used only for sewing the seams of clothing or to indicate embroidered embellishment. When the Europeans arrived in the late 15th century they were astonished by the quality of South Asian textiles, embroidery in particular, and began commissioning pieces for Europe. By the 18th century, dress and furnishing fabrics embroidered in coloured silks and Europeanized “exotic” designs had become quite fashionable in England and on in Europe. In the early 19th century the craze for Kashmir shawls began and lasted for more than 60 years, only to be revived again in the 1990s. The fashion continues to this day.

Pasture, Farm and Village

Domestic embroidery has always been the occupation of women, in contrast to professional embroidery workshops almost exclusively operated by men. Among semi-nomadic pastoralists like the Rabari, and migratory labourers such as the Banjara, women lavishly decorate garments, bags and animal trappings in their leisure time to create portable art suited to their peripatetic lifestyle. The wives and daughters of sedentary subsistence farmers, landowners and village dwellers also embroider, usually decorating household items including bedding covers and wall hangings as well as wedding garments.

Each group has its own distinctive style, which is the result of unique geographic and cultural influences. This is particularly evident in the so called “Embroidery Belt,” which spans the mountainous Northwest Frontier Province to the Thar Desert of southeastern Pakistan, and across the modern border into northern Gujarat and much of Rajasthan in India. The Embroidery Belt contains the greatest variety of embroidery styles on the subcontinent.

Embroidery and Identity

The styles and motifs of embroidered patterns are an essential indicator of group affiliation and personal identity. Not only do the embroidery styles, choice of motifs and colour combinations announce the location, community and religion of the maker, but to those attuned to such things, they also reveal the identity of the woman herself - much the way brush strokes are an artist's unique “signature.” This is particularly true for the Rabari, a semi-nomadic Hindu pastoral community in Kutch, Gujarat (India) and Sindh, Pakistan. They are probably the most prolific embroiderers on the subcontinent, considering it an essential expression of their group affiliation. Each of the Rabari subcultures has its subtle but unique variation on the Rabari “language” of embroidery, distinguishing Kacchi Rabari from Vaghadia Rabari and so on - yet all are unquestionably Rabari.

In all geographic areas represented in this exhibition, one mark of identity is universal - religious orientation. Through centuries of preference and custom, followers of Islam often confine their designs to pure geometry, bringing an unrivalled precision, sophistication and complexity to their embroidery. Hindu tradition, on the other hand, frequently favours representational motifs, whether naturalistic or highly stylized. A comparison of phulkari head covers from the Panjab made by Hindu and Muslim women is a case in point. Phulkari made by Muslim women in western Panjab show extraordinary geometric patterning based on counting the warp and weft threads (counted-thread embroidery) that cleverly manipulates the floss (untwisted) silk threads to reflect light. These phulkari are called bagh or “garden” and are for weddings and other ceremonies only [Fig.4]. Hindu women, on the other hand, create head covers called sainichi phulkari with lively and imaginative representations of village life such as animals, people, houses, trains and dowry jewellery [Fig.5].

Embellishing the Home

Embroidered textiles are frequently used to decorate living spaces, temporary or permanent, grand or humble. Colourful embroidered textiles, often displayed in conjunction with painted or stucco decoration, bring beauty and colour into mud-walled homes.Toran (valences to place over doors) and sankhia (L-shaped textiles that hang on either side of a door) are displayed for weddings in northwestern India to symbolically bid guests welcome and bring good luck to the household. Dharaniyo (quilt covers) are hung over piles of bedding when not in use; once again, to add a decorative touch to interiors, but also to keep off the dust. These may be appliquéd, embroidered or quilted, or any combination of the three depending on the decorative traditions of the needleworker's community [Fig.6]. Also in this exhibition are a variety of cushions and pillow covers from across the subcontinent - items essential for people who sit on the floor or on simple low furniture or beds, and another example of combining the beautiful with the practical.

World of Humans/Realm of the Gods

Naturalistic representation takes many forms and serves many functions in South Asia. Examples range from the refinement and discipline of court painterly traditions to the free-form exuberance of village women depicting the world around them. Embroideries with religious themes and functions often have pictorial imagery, especially in a Hindu context. These may include canopies draped over (and hangings behind) statues of deities, covers for temple offerings, and wall and door hangings displayed during marriage celebrations [Fig.7].

Embroidering the Future

South Asia has one of the richest and most varied crafts traditions in the world, and also one of the most endangered. Many of the embroidery traditions presented in this exhibition are no longer practiced, owing to increasing urbanization, the ease of obtaining cheap, machine-made textiles, and the encroachment of mainstream fashion. The beadwork of Saurashtra, the phulkari embroidery of the Panjab, and the fine needlework of Swat and Kohistan are no longer made [Fig.8].

Great strides are being made in many regions by both governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address this situation. Through their continuing efforts, several embroidery traditions have been revived or brought back from the edge of extinction. By modifying motifs and adapting new formats, these textiles have become appealing to the contemporary urban Indian customer and the foreign consumer alike.

At the same time, embroidery has become a focal point for addressing issues surrounding the social as well as the economic needs of poor rural and urban women and their children. In the past three decades a major shift has taken place: women's embroidery has largely moved from being a family-based art to an income generating activity and a vehicle for improving women's lives in the areas of education, health and social equality.

Dale Carolyn Gluckman
Exhibition Curator


The author wishes to thank Dr. Vandana Bhandari, New Delhi; Dr. Steven Cohen, London; Rochelle Kessler, Pasadena; and Jeffery Hess, Toronto for their comments; Cristin McKnight, Austin, for assistance with research; Dr. Lynne Milgram and David Kaye, Toronto, for their generous hospitality; Arti and Pulin Chandaria, Toronto, for their enthusiasm, generosity and encouragement; and Jon Gluckman for editorial commentary.


Cushion cover (detail)
Pakistan, Sindh, Sukkur District or Umerkot District, first quarter 20th century
Maher or Palli community
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: couching, cross, interlaced, satin and square chain
Additional embellishment: silk thread tassel and Job's tears
From the Fitzgerald Collection
T04.24.19 Textile Museum of Canada

Ceremonial cover (rumal) (detail)
Northern India, Himachal Pradesh, possibly Chamba, late 18th or early 19th century
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: double darning
Gift of Lynn McMurray
T78.0023 Textile Museum of Canada

Shawl (detail)
Probably Bangladesh, (formerly East Bengal), Dacca, for the European market, 1820-30
Cotton embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: a variety of satin and stem stitches unique to chikan style embroidery
Additional embellishment: drawn-thread work
Lent by Titi Halle, Cora Ginsburg LLC

Woman's wedding/ceremonial head cover (bagh) (detail)
Pakistan, western Panjab, c.1920 or earlier
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: running and surface darning
From the Fitzgerald Collection
T00.45.45 Textile Museum of Canada

Woman's head cover (sainichi phulkari) (detail)
Northern India, eastern Panjab, early 20th century
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: stem, straight and surface darning
From the Fitzgerald Collection
T00.45.55 Textile Museum of Canada

Bedding cover (dharaniyo)
Northwestern India, Gujarat, possibly Kutch, 1980
Possibly Banni Muslim community
Synthetic floss silk on quilted plain-weave cotton
Stitches: running
Additional embellishment: appliqué
From the Fitzgerald Collection
T00.45.111 Textile Museum of Canada

Door hanging
Western India, Gujarat, Saurashtra (Kathiawar), 1960-70
Rabari community, possibly Machhukatha Rabari
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: herringbone, satin and stem
Gift of Sherry Shorthouse
T93.0135 Textile Museum of Canada

Woman's wedding dress (kurta)
Pakistan, Northwest Frontier Province, Swat Kohistan, 1930-50
Floss silk embroidery on plain-weave cotton
Stitches: cross, running and surface darning
Gift of the estate of Eloise Anderson
T92.0164 Textile Museum of Canada

About the Curator

Dale Carolyn Gluckman has over 20 years experience as a curator and department head in the Costume and Textile Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she specialized in Asian textiles and organized many exhibitions as well as co-authoring two major catalogues and winning several awards for excellence. She has degrees in art and costume history from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Dale has taught, published and lectured widely. She is currently an independent curator and museum consultant based in Los Angeles.


Avrom Isaacs
David Anderson
Dr. Howard Gorman
Dr. Jack Brandes
Dr. Peter Herschman
Eloise Anderson
Fred Braida
From the Fitzgerald Collection
From the Opekar/Webster Collection
Helen Jahnke in honour of J. Fyle Edberg and Paul Foote courtesy of the Council for Canadian-American Relations/American Friends of Canada
Janice Wybourn
John Anderson
Mary and James Ham
Sherry Shorthouse
Stephen Elson
Thomas Kalman
Victoria Henry


Arti and Pulin Chandaria
Collection of Uma and Gurdip Sethi
Don Bierlich
Dr. Iqbal Wagle
Patricia Stoddard
Titi Halle, Cora Ginsburg LLC
Village India Arts

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada