Extract from the current issue of Selvedge. By Sarah Jane Downing
The origins of chikankari are as elusive as the shadowy designs that gently wend their way across this fine muslin. The embroidery is thought to be derived from the Persian ‘chikeen’ meaning ‘coin’ or ‘delicately embroidered fabric’: the name ‘chikankari’ means ‘fine work’ on the Indian subcontinent.
The technique may have been introduced from Persia, but with origins shrouded in mystery, romantic speculation has taken over. Many interpret the ‘flowered muslin’ to be found in ‘Indian lands’ mentioned in a Greek text from the third century BCE, and white-clad figures depicted in the ancient Ajanta cave paintings, as evidence of chikankari’s ancient origins.
Embroidered in white cotton thread on the sheerest muslin, chikankari’s delicate form means no examples survive from before the early 19th century. Shadow work or bakhia embroidery creates remarkable effects by layering stitches on the reverse of the fabric, creating a spectre of the design which is then outlined in tiny running stitches on the right side.
Read more about the history and beauty of Chikankari in the current issue of Selvedge magazine.