Threads can talk and create stories. They can weave their way through centuries and be reborn in various avatars. Such has been the evolution of the kantha stitch - the fine art of embroidery from Bengal initially done on quilts - which has taken the contemporary fashion and furnishing sectors by storm with buyers in the US, Britain and Japan lapping it up.
Kantha was a form of recycling, practised by the rural women of Bengal to make quilts and babies' wrappers (kantha) by tucking in layers (usually 3) of sarees and discarded cloth and embroidered with intricate motifs - folk, birds, animals and village art, using the simplest of stitches - the run stitch.
The thread used for embroidery was derived from the border of old sarees.
However, the variety and techniques of run stitches that were used to outline and fill in the motifs imparted the kantha its exclusivity and thereon the kantha stitch became a fine art.
"It is not kantha without the intricate fine stitching work," Ruby Pal Choudhuri, 82, executive director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal, told IANS.
The kantha stitch, which was earlier restricted to folk and village motifs on quilts and wrappers, has spread its horizons.
Shedding light on current trends, designer Sharbari Datta said: "I incorporate a lot of cave and folk art, Egyptian murals, calligraphy of West and East Asia, still life, pop art and Picasso, miniatures and Hindu Mythology in my designs."
Datta has taken the fine art to contemporary menswear, be it dhotis or the classic kurta, with new-age asymmetrical patterns in kantha or ties with kantha or the exquisite kantha-stitched wedding trousseau for the groom.
Similarly, Darshan Shah and her team of the 20-year-old Weaver's Studio, an exclusive design studio catering to both sexes in south Kolkata's Ballygunge, are big time into mixing and matching kantha stich with block prints, batik technique as well as Lucknow chikankari and other such techniques in their weaves.
"We also incorporate a lot of geometric patterns as well as traditional alpana (ritualistic floor drawings) patterns," Shah said.
Pioneering kantha trends from the studio are the 'reverse-kantha' (background, not the motifs, is filled in kantha stitch) and 'colour feel' (resembles patchwork) embellished scarves, stoles and shawls and kurtas.
Choudhuri begs to differ on the improvisations: "Kantha has lost its integrity. We have so much to be inspired from, so much to absorb from our own culture, why go for foreign designs?"
Another change she feels has taken away from its character is the use of a single layer of cloth instead of the traditional three layers.
"We at Crafts Council are one of the few who do the original three layers and we also are responsible for bringing back the old techniques of kantha stitch," Choudhuri told IANS.
Maya Dutta of the Nari Seva Sangha, an NGO working for women, also swears by the three-layered wraps and quilts made there and which are in huge demand, especially in the mild and brief Kolkata winter.
"The kantha wraps or quilts are sufficient to keep one warm," she affirmed.
But she also said the kantha stitch should not be restricted to wraps or quilts.
"It looks good on drapes, tablecloths, cushion covers and other furnishings. Why should its reach be limited?," says the social worker.
Kantha has certainly widened its reach.
"We have buyers in the UK and Japan," Shah said.
A lot of patrons of the Nari Seva Sangha are from abroad.
"They absolutely love it," Datta said.
But Choudhuri, who regularly takes her team to the US for exhibitions, does not approve of kantha as a mass production item.
"The same designs are produced on a large scale," she lamented.
"This understates its individuality since each piece of kantha should be different as they are tailored by different hands," Choudhuri added.
On the upside, the popularity of kantha stitch has generated much demand and NGOs such as the Nari Seva Sangha train and employ destitute women in the art.
Weavers Studio also helps out women in need by training them in kantha work.
A form of art, a common village woman's thrifty idea to recycle, a designer's tool, a celebrity's pride or a woman in need of a stitch in time: Call it what you will, the beauty of the kantha stitch is a joy forever.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)