Chikankari — Regal Vintage Needlework Art

Folklore and History Behind Chikankari

Chikankari is a delicate skill that has been passed on for generations and is well over 200 years since its origin in India. However, there has been reference of chikankari as early as the 3rd century BC. Megasthenes, a Greek traveler, has mentioned the use of flowered muslins. The origin of Chikankari has two stories. The first story is more of a popular folklore and goes like this, long long ago, many years ago a traveller was passing through a village in Lucknow. He was parched and in need of water so he stopped and requested a poor peasant for water. Delighted at the hospitality of the peasant, the traveller taught him the art of Chikankari, so that the skill would ensure that he would never go hungry in life. Another explanation credits Noor Jehan, the Persian wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, with the introduction of the Chikankari in India. The art form travelled to India when its artisans migrated from Persia in search of better patronage. It is believed that these artisans found a patroness in Mughal Empress Noor Jahan, and that she did a lot to promote and popularize this craft form. The word “Chikan” derives its meaning from the Persian word Chakin. This means, cloth wrought with needlework.

Chikankari apparels made from muslin, cotton and other lighter fabrics are used a lot in warm places because they leave you feeling cool and comfortable. There is use of chikankari in household linens too like cushion covers, table cloths and bedsheets.

The Technique Behind the Intricate Needlework

There are a few steps involved in bringing the elegant patterns of Chikankari to life. First, the fabric is chosen. Originally chikan work is done on white muslin using white thread, but now it is done on variety of textile fabric like cotton, silk, chiffon, organza, net, etc. which are not necessarily white and using coloured threads.

Once the fabric is chosen it is dyed to the needed colour after which the pattern which is to be embroidered is printed onto the fabric using one or more wooden blocks where the distinct patterns have been engraved. It is after all this that the chikan work is embroidered on the fabric. The traditional patterns are mostly inspired from Persian floral patterns. However, these days there is infusion of modern designs too apart from the paisley, fish and raw mango shapes.

Stiches Behind the Elegance

When it comes to the stitches used, there are more than 35 stitches used in chikankari to give a unique look to each design. The type of stitches and the thickness of the thread determine the patterns and effects created on the fabric. The stitches are mainly classified into 3 main types. Flat, embossed, and raised stitches. Flat stitches are subtle and lie close to the fabric. Embossed stitches provide a grainy appearance to the fabric. The raised stitch gives a raised effect to the fabric. The most popular chikan stitches are tepchi, phanda, murri, jaal, makaish and bhakia.

Some of these stitches are reserved for certain parts of a pattern for example the zanzeera, a small chain stitch is only used for the final outline of a leaf or a flower; the phanda and murri are a type of french knot used only to embroider the flowers in the pattern. There is a lot that comes into play based on the expertise of the artisans in bringing out the beauty for a pattern.

Timeless Craftsmanship and its Future

Initially chikankari was mostly practised by master craftsmen. In recent year it is practised by women and the art is passed down in the villages of Lucknow from mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, even between neighbours and friends. The Indian market faces a slight threat from the Chinese machine stitched chikan, but our delicate hand embroidered chikankari will prevail against all odds owing to its distinct beauty, adaptations to present day trends and efforts taken by the Indian Government and NGO’s in broadening the market for our chikankari.

PS: You can buy gorgeous handloom sarees at www.indianloom.com

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