Thursday, 21 April 2016

Personal Threads: An American Kantha - Guest Post, Marty Jonas

Thread can be used in an infinite number of ways and has the ability to convey messages, alter meanings and transform the ordinary. The tactile qualities of fiber and thread, combined with surface design techniques, provide me with the opportunity to speak visually, expressing that which I cannot express in words. My goal is to create works that are complex enough to provide the viewer with interest when viewed from a distance as well as up close.  I try to use the medium to its maximum, pushing beyond tradition in the hope of sparking the viewer’s imagination, thoughts, and memories.
Fiber is an extension of my voice.
I am 72 years old and the youngest of three girls and live near San Francisco, CA. USA.  My mother taught me to knit, crochet, cook and sew and my father taught me to hammer, saw, solder and drill.  I cannot remember a time when I was not doing something creative, using thread or cloth. My father also taught me that when you do something and it turns out to be easier than you thought, then it was a waste of time and you should strive to do something better and harder. I was never allowed to sit and do nothing.  As a result, I am never at rest and work on my art for 8 to 12 hours a day.

In 1986, I bought an exercise gym so I could sell aerobic clothing that I started making for myself and friends.   When I was not making the clothing, I found myself at the gym all day and night as the only full time “employee.”  I started making pillows, using needlepoint kits to keep myself busy.  I quickly got bored with the kits and began to design for a store in the neighboring city of Napa, CA.  During this time, I came upon a stitched exhibition at Mills College in Oakland, CA.   I saw so many wonderful and new techniques using thread and picked up every available brochure. This led me to take a five-day class by the English textile tutor, Jan Beaney.  The class was held in a sewing machine store.  The facility had one sink, a toilet, and a hot plate to cook on.  We all slept on the floor and in the morning, we hid our sleeping bags, so the store did not look like a homeless shelter.   If I needed any supplies, then I would reach out and pluck it off the shelves. 
Thereafter, I enrolled in City and Guilds of London because I was interested in embroidery and in the USA, the emphasis was mainly in quilting and surface design.  I completed the course in embroidery, Part I and Part II with Julia Caprara and continued with additional courses in Embroidery from Middlesex College.
Discovering Kantha
I first heard of the word Kantha, in 1994, when I was required to make one for a class assignment. I could not find very much on the subject.  I did find the book, “The Art of Kantha Embroidery” by Niaz Zaman, which was available via mail from a bookstore in India.  It is a first edition from 1981 and I cherish it.  I have since bought an updated edition but I love the original with its yellowed pages and faded book cover. 

Personal Kantha, 1994, 8" x 8" (20cm x 20cm) Cotton Fabric, Silk Threads, Hand Embroidered
According to my assignment, I was to make a Kantha relating to my life.  I chose silk sewing threads in red, blue and yellow.  As you can see from the photograph, I followed the traditional format with the borders, tree of life, with a lotus motif in the centre along with Lakshmi’s footprints.  In order to personalize it and also inspired by the way the women of Bengal always brought in elements of their daily living, I added an easel and some paint brushes, which represent my husband’s love for painting. In this Kantha you can also see our dog Queenie as well as our daughter’s cat Skitzy.  I also included our 38’ sailboat.  This Kantha is one of my prize possessions, not only because it is a part of my past but because I stitched on it while sitting with my mom while she was recovering from a heart attack.   The Kantha consists of two pieces of thin cotton fabric that I painstakingly stitched so it could be viewed from either side.
A Personal Kantha, back-side view

A Trip to India
In October 2015, I took a 3-week textile tour to the Rajasthan area organized by ‘Creative Arts Safaris’ and focuses on textiles.    I highly recommend the tour and am planning to return with ‘Creative Arts Safaris’ in 2017 to the Bengal area of India to see more Kanthas. We started with a tour of the Craft Museum in New Delhi, and my heart fluttered at the sight of all the Kanthas.  We took an embroidery class on Zardozi Embroidery in Agra.  Zardozi means ‘sewing with gold’, it is an embossed metal embroidery which was once used to embellish the attire of kings and royals in the 17th century. Pearls and precious stones are also added for elegance.  We sat cross-legged on the floor in front of an adda or embroidery stand. Seeing the adeptness with which the craftsman sat, so effortlessly for hours, I realized that I should have learned to sit this way as a child.   The design was put onto our fabric using the ‘prick and pounce’ design technique.  We all made one flower using gold purl and several colors of embroidery thread. All of us grunted when we had to stand up after our session.
Detail of A Personal Kantha, 1994
As part of the tour we travelled to Jaipur and Udaipur where we learned mud resist block printing, badhini and also visited the the double Ikat weavers of Patan and a family of Mushru weavers.  I bought back a lot of textiles, including a beautiful Jain temple altarpiece, originally from Rajkot,  Dhurrie Rug from the Weavers of the Bishnoi people on route to Jodhpur and I also bought several Kanthas, bedspreads, and pillows.
My India Inspired Kantha
Upon arriving back to Benicia, CA., I immediately started working on a Swastika or Shorstir Chinho embroidery. This design is an abstract symbol which is quite popular in Jessore or Faridpur Kanthas. This piece, which I dyed using a clamp resist technique was stitched in November of 2015 and measures 10” x 10” (25cm x 25cm).

Outlined Kantha,  2016, 16" x 16" (40cm x 20cm)
    Silk Fabrics, Cotton Batting, Cotton Threads,  Hand Embroidered
While working on this, I found and ordered several books on the subject of Kanthas.I wanted to make a decorative Kantha using animals, and flowers.  I really liked a picture in the books and decided to try it as my test piece.   I altered the pattern and eliminated some designs and changed some others and enlarged the design to 16” and printed the design onto tissue paper. 
I sandwiched cotton batting in between a layer of raw silk and the mushru silk that I brought home from India.  I carefully turned in the edges and hand sewed the three pieces together.  Now this turned out to be my first mistake, as I realized that the pieces of fabric were too thick.  But because this was a test, and I was so anxious actually to get going, I said it will be fine and started up.  I tried to put a running stitch around the outside but found that the fabric was too thick to run my needle through and catch all three layers.  So I ended up using a ‘prick and poke’ technique which became much more time consuming.  I started on my first design and after a day decided that I did not like the fabric that I was using.  The fabric was too shiny and so I ripped out all the stitching, turned the fabric over and starting stitching on the reverse side.   
Half Finished Kantha, 2016, 16" x 16" (40cm x 20cm)
    Silk Fabrics, Cotton Batting, Cotton Threads,  Hand Embroidered
I normally use real silk thread but found that I either did not have enough colors in the right size or that it was too thin.  I also found that the silk thread knotted and twisted too much and I had to spend a lot of time, releasing knots.  I ended up working on piece using mercerized thread that I had purchased, to use on my knitting machine.  I had 24 different colors but added to the collection with other mercerized cotton threads.  
Next, I wanted to stitch the motifs using a running stitch but could not make them small enough because of the thickness of the fabrics.  I could have only stitched the top layer of the three fabrics and have maintained the tiny stitches but then the underside would be blank.  I chose to stitch the motifs using back stitch.

I had not taken into consideration that I would lose fabric width and length when I turned over the edges so now I had no room to incorporate a border design.  I took a black thread and outlined all the motifs using back stitch.  I planned to stitch the background with white silk thread after I completed all the motifs, but I needed instant gratification, so I played with the stitching as I went.  I used a thin silk thread, which is normally used to tie flies for fly fishing and only stitched the top layer of the Kantha.  I love the piece and am now ready to make a larger Kantha using a thinner material, using only two layers of fabric and not three. 
Finished Kantha, 2016, 16" x 16" (40cm x 20cm)
    Silk Fabrics, Cotton Batting, Cotton Threads,  Hand Embroidered

I started the background stitching before I had completed the motifs.   Besides the backstitch, I have used the kantha or running stitch, the Chatai or pattern darning stitch. When using the kantha or darning stitch, the surface of the material changes radically with the patterns flowing and swirling.

Marty Jonas is an embroidery enthusiast. I first saw her Kantha embroidery on a textile group on Facebook which prompted me to ask her to tell me more about her involvement with Kantha. At 72, she sews, travels the world and experiments with stitching. She lives and works in California USA.


  1. such a true story of learning through practice

    1. Yes, that is the only real way to learn isn't it? Thank you for reading.

  2. Son travail a beaucoup de charme...

  3. Thank you for sharing. I am intrigued with your art and appreciate your story sharing!!! SUch lovely work you do!