When Needle is the Paint Brush

From aari and zardozi to kantha, Indian hand embroidery adds a dash of splendor to the creations of foreign designers.


India, a nation of myriad colors, fabrics, textiles and craftsmanship, has always been known for its mastery in hand embroidery. The intricacy with which many communities of India have been threading stories of their culture through centuries has drawn droves of foreign designers, who are now giving them a perky twist in their own creations.

Whether it is the colorful hand embroidery from Kutch and Rajasthan, or the elegant kantha work from West Bengal, designers from all across the world are not shy to apply them in their pret lines, accessories or home decor creations.

Bryony Webster, a designer who owns the label Furbelow, is based in Johannesburg in South Africa. She fell in love with Indian handicraft and embroidery when she saw them in movies and pictures years ago.

When Webster was doing up her house, she realized how little the market offered when it came to bohemian fashion. She made up her mind to capitalize on this gap in the market. “I realized that it was very difficult to find bohemian decor in South Africa,” she tells Little India, talking about how she was specifically looking for Kilim cushions and India torans and found very few choices. “I decided to look for these pieces and sell them in South Africa.” It was during this process that she fell in love with hand-embroidered pieces from India and made them an intrinsic part of her inventory.

Bryony Webster at her house-cum-showroom in in Johannesburg.

For Austrian designer Vera Fritsch, who owns the Delhi-based label Monsoon and Beyond, collaborating with artisans from various regions and ethnic backgrounds in India has been a wonderful experience. It helped her not only think out of the box and churn out unique designs, but also interact with the artisans’ community.

“My label is all about exquisite craftsmanship and unique designs,” she says. “It makes me proud to be able to say that all our products are handmade. They are created with incredible love for detail and care by artisans across India.”

Monsoon and Beyond, located at Rani Janshi Road in New Delhi, was launched in 2013 by Fritsch, and sells clothes, accessories and home decor. The label is an extension of her love for Indian handicrafts, especially hand embroidery. It was after she took up a job in New Delhi in 2007 that she really discovered the vivid world of Indian hand embroidery. She has been in love with it ever since.

“India triggered the urge to really translate my passion for design into a profession,” she elaborates. “Fascinated by my everyday adventures in India, I wanted to bring the country’s beauty and cultural heritage to everyone’s home around the world.  That was the main reason why I started Monsoon and Beyond.”

Clutch with cutdana beadwork from Vera Fritsch’s label Monsoon and Beyond


French designer Olivia Dar’s women’s accessory and lifestyle label was born in 2011. Her showroom and boutique in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat houses delicately crafted pieces created by her team of 25 artisans. “I was living in Delhi and came across beautiful hand embroidered pieces. All the pieces I design are handcrafted and hand embroidered,” she says.

Webster, on the other hand, sources the hand-embroidered pieces from an Indian family in South Africa who also import the fabrics and textiles for her. She plans to visit India and meet artisans who specialize in hand embroidery this year. Her sprawling house doubles up as her boutique and showroom and most of her creations are exhibited in her living room and other areas of the house. Her rugs, throws and table runners showcase the handiwork of different artists from the Kutch region in Gujarat and Rajasthan — a unique spread offered by few in her country.

Indian embroidery is going places and even the Geographically Tagged Toda embroidery has made it in the “must have” list of many designers who source it from the small pastoral Toda community tucked away in the Nilgiris in Ooty, Tamil Nadu.

The Toda embroidery has transcended the borders of its small village, feels B Nawab, the project manager of Shalom — a society working with the tribal community. A number of foreign designers now place orders with them, he adds, and the community is, in fact, flooded with orders from within and outside the country.

“We take orders from buyers or designers from different nationalities for the artisans,” he says. “Accessories like bags, potlis and pouches, table runners are ordered in bulk.” Foreign designers and buyers also spot them in different exhibitions and later place orders for bed spreads, throws and cushion covers worth Rs 25,000 or more at one go.

The high skill set of the craftsmen and the availability of rich textiles of India coupled with the stunning details of hand embroidery bring multiple layers of appeal to the creations of these designers. With a plethora of Indian embroideries to choose from, designers are spoilt for choice.

Fritsch’s label has a generous blend of different forms of Indian embroidery with contemporary designs. While her collection of clutches features the intricate cutdana beadwork and sequins embroidery, the Modern Tribal collection portrays the detailed beadwork done by tribal women in Gujarat that is a part of their bridal trousseau. Her collection in the home decor section is a mixed bag of colors and is embellished with the ancient craft of the aari embroidery.

French designer Olivia Dar in an outfit designed by her using aari embroidery.

Dar is another designer who dotes on aari embroidery, and most of her garments are embellished with the stunning work. “My collection has a mix of aari, zardozi and beadwork,” she says. “While zardozi adds glamor to my accessories, the garments come alive with the intricate aari embroidery,” she adds.

The details and colors of the pieces that Webster sources from India inspires her to fuse traditional crafts with contemporary designs. “My inventory boasts of antique bohemian pieces from all over the world and Indian hand embroidery features in almost of them,” she says. “The details in Indian hand embroidered pieces create an amazing texture and add to the decor of a space.”

Webster’s clientele ranges from Non-Resident Indians as well as people of other nationalities who appreciate art and have a bohemian taste.

Fritsch, on the other hand, says that even though her label has attracted many Indians in the past years, her main market is Europe, United States and Australia. “We retail through our web shop as well as high-end stores in Austria, Australia, Germany, India, Italy, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, United States and through online portals worldwide,” she adds. Monsoon and Beyond has recently entered the U.S. market too.

The fusion of traditional and modern aesthetics has given many of these niche techniques a new lease of life. Kantha embroidery, which is common across West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh is now being given a unique twist to enhance the home decor collections of some designers. Tia Pakhi, a label owned by French designer Anais Basu, is a quirky example of how traditional hand embroidery can be applied to contemporary designs.

Iman Ali, a kantha craftsman who lives in a village near Barasat in West Bengal, caters to many foreign designers like the French designer Basu. “The trend has changed,” he says. “The usual items like saris and stoles are classics, but now I get a lot of orders for bolster covers, cushion covers, and table runners among others.”

Ali usually makes 100 to 200 pieces per month and sometimes even more. “Sometimes, I am completely booked and then I pass on work to other craftsmen in the village,” he says.

A beadwork creation by French designer Olivia Dar.

For some of these designers, interacting and working with the artisans is integral to understanding the aesthetics of their art form.

Fritsch likes to develop a bond with the artisans she is working with. “I share a good rapport with all my artisans and work closely with them when I create a new collection. I truly value their talent since it is the backbone of my creations.”

She expressed her appreciation for the tribal women working for her by naming some of her designs after them. “For the collection Modern Tribal, I named the designs after the female artisans who made them,” she says. “It is my way of showing my appreciation for their incredible craftsmanship and dedication.”

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