Women in the villages of West Bengal upcycle several layers of old fabric - usually saris - using intricate stitches to create light coverlets, or kanthas, in a style of embroidery based on the running stitch. This transforms what were essentially considered rags into beautiful textile riches.
The Street Survivors India project, founded by Shabnam Ramaswamy, established a center in Murshidabad in 2004 with a view to provide employment to women living in the villages of West Bengal. What began as a livelihood program quickly developed into the label ‘Katna’s Kantha.’ Today, it represents the collective effort of 1500 women from across 50 villages in Murshidabad whose products are sold in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore and all over the world.
The fish logo of the label signifies the region they come from - namely, Bengal - but the deeper significance of the fish and the hook represents the way in which women are empowered to use their traditional embroidery to quite literally ‘needle’ structures of dominance. Starting out with only twelve women, Katna’s Kantha has grown into a network that unites women to one another and connects them to educational & training resources for both them and their children.
Interactions with designers have transformed the old sari-kanthas to new, marketable designs for urban homes. For the artisans, market-ready quality parameters had to be learnt; the traditional sari length that was commercially inviable was replaced by various sizes of fabrics which many artisans considered blasphemous. Since 90% of the population in Katna is Muslim, the designs produced for the label also reflect their aesthetic sensibilities with the absence of traditional motifs of figures and animals. Instead, they incorporate over a 150 geometric motifs which are passed on from one generation to the next. The skill of the artisans is evident in the stitching of the kantha itself; the women count each stitch as there is no drawing done prior to the stitching, practically weaving their products with every stitch based purely on their intuition and knowledge of the craft.
Katna’s kanthas are not just a great buy for the quality and craftsmanship of each piece - every purchase enhances the dignity and self-worth of women stepping out to earn independently.