Some of the finest traditions of white on white work come from the Indian subcontinent, whether the chikan embroidery work from Lucknow, or weaving with supplementary white wefts as in the jamdani of Undivided Bengal, now Bangladesh.
Indian chikan work (chikankari) relates to wider whitework embroidery styles such as Dresden and Ayrshire work but with its own repertoire of motifs and stitches. Although based on earlier embroidery traditions, it was refined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, under the patronage of the Awadh court. Worked in tiny stitches on the finest cotton or muslin, chikankari in its most refined form was integrated into Mughal court dress. Historically however, its quality declined, inferior machine-made work debased the craft and exploitative practices became common.
More recently, various initiatives have revived hand-made chikankari on a more ethical basis, projects that enable women – the majority of embroiderers - to support their families. One of these is Bhairvis Chikan, a co-operative founded by Mamta Varma, a native of Lucknow, in 1998. Bhairvis Chikan now employs and trains some 300 women artisans, as well as (mostly male) weavers, thappakars (block-makers), chhipi (printers) and dhobis (washermen), a traditional division of labour. To broaden the market for chikan, embroidery is now also worked on other Indian hand-woven fabrics besides muslin, but using traditional stitches in designs inspired by antique embroideries. These schemes perpetuate the traditions and skills of chikankari while giving women employment options and training, even if they are confined to the home.The appeal of white on white continues, the skills for making it have survived, thanks yet again to the vision and persistence of dedicated individuals.
Sonia Ashmore's full article on white-on-white embroidery is available to read on the Selvedge blog.
To follow the story of Bhairvis Chikan/Mamta Varma, please find them on social media here.