by Suzanne Labry
Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
As one of the major exporters of garments in the world (second only to China), Bangladesh has become known in modern times for its textile industry—not always in a good way, as happened with the 2013 garment factory building collapse that killed almost 1000 workers.
Clothing exports aren’t Bangladesh’s only association with textiles, however. The people of Bangladesh treasure a quilting tradition that is centuries old. The quilts of Bangladesh are known as kanthas, a term that derives from the Sanskrit word meaning “rags.”
The name refers to the fact that kanthas are made by repurposing worn-out clothing, typically the sari (or saree), a woman’s draped garment made from lengths of soft cotton or silk ranging from five to nine yards long by two to four feet wide.
Men’s clothing—sarongs known as dhotis and lungis, which are also formed from linear fabric yardage—is sometimes used as well. Unlike the ralli quilts of neighboring Pakistan and India, Bangladeshi kanthas are not pieced patchwork; instead, they are wholecloth quilts.
To form a kantha, the used garment fabric layers are spread out on the ground and trimmed to the desired size. From three to seven saris might be used, depending on whether the quilt is intended for warm season or cool season use.
The layers are smoothed and weighted at the edges, and then basted together. At this point, the kantha can be folded and put away to be worked on during the monsoon season, when there is more leisure time.
The kantha is finished by quilting the layers together with a simple running stitch, which typically produces a rippled effect. It may then be embellished with embroidered designs. The top and bottom layers of a kantha are usually a light color, so that the embroidery stitches are visible from both sides.
Only women make kanthas, but everyone uses them. According to UBINIG, a non-governmental organization based in Bangladesh, “Within each kantha, there is a touch of love and affection from the very nearest female family member. She can be the mother, sister, or wife. …A man living abroad takes the kantha made by his wife; a son takes the kantha made by his mother and remembers her. The boatman is found to have a kantha in his boat, a bullock cartpuller has one on the cart, even a truck driver keeps a kantha for sleeping. All these kanthas are considered to be very precious belongings.”
Tradition and cultural significance are inherent in the making and giving of kanthas. UBINIG states that, “A newborn baby boy must have a kantha made by the used lungi of the maternal uncle and a newborn baby girl must have a kantha made by the used saris of her aunts. A newly married daughter must be given a kantha made by her mother when she is going to her in-laws; similarly, a daughter-in-law brought into the house is given a kantha made with the used sari of the mother in-law. All these are not just rituals or customs; these are strong family bonds and strengthen the relationships among women and among different family members.”
Like quiltmaking in other parts of the world, making kanthas is often a group activity and an opportunity for socialization. Women of all ages sit under trees together working on their kanthas; they use the time to discuss news, share family happenings, voice concerns, laugh, sing, tell stories, and generally support one another.
No two kanthas are alike. Kantha designs are free form, often figurative, and do not follow any particular pattern, but the stitches used to embellish the quilted kantha are passed down from mother to daughter and have descriptive names such as eye stitch, snail stitch, seed stitch, thorn of the flower, creeper stitch, fly stitch, wave stitch, and so on.
Kanthas are so integral to Bangladeshi life that although they are made primarily by poor people, even those who can afford to buy blankets still keep a kantha underneath the blanket, because otherwise it is said that they would not be able to sleep.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world today do quilts have such widespread emotional and cultural currency, further proof that quilts provide comfort and depth of meaning that go far beyond that of a simple cover.