Stories in Stitches – Kawandi/Siddi quilts

One of the most enjoyable Zoom workshops I’ve been to was Stories in Stitches, led by Sujata Shah of The Root Connection.

Kawandi quilts are made by the African Diaspora/Siddi community of India. They are quilts which are designed to be used, and are often made from old clothes and other used textiles.

No fancy equipment is needed, just a needle and thread, and a pile of fabric. Traditionally, the fabric is torn into strips, although I have to say I found a pair of scissors very useful! It is a world away from precision cutting with rotary blades and rulers.

The fabric is folded and pressed with fingers before being stitched down – no pressing irons, pins or clips are used. Piecing begins from the outside edge, working towards the middle. Large quilts are sometimes made by a group of women sitting together. As each person finishes stitching the part in front of her, she hands the needle to her neighbour to continue the row. I love the idea of a quilt being truly a group activity.

All the fabric pieces are folded or covered with the next row of patches, so there are no edges to fray. Square or rectangular patches called ticklees are added as the rows are stitched, either to conceal an edge which isn’t quite covered by a patchwork piece (sometimes they move during stitching) or to add interest or a contrasting colour to a strip.

The little folded corner pieces are called Phulas and represent flowers. Sujata says that a Kawandi quilt has to have them to be properly finished. When I first saw them I didn’t like them at all and wasn’t going to include them on my quilt. I suppose they are so different to what I think of as a characteristic of a quilt. I did add them, and I’ve grown rather fond of them and love the way they fray with use as the quilt ages.

I’ve made two small quilts so far, and am planning a larger one. My first was with a selection of fabrics quite precious to me – Liberty prints, and some hand dyed fabric.

The second, I made with scraps of vintage sheets. These aren’t fabrics I would usually choose to make a quilt from, but love the way they look when they’re pieced together.

I also felt they were closer to the origins of Kawandi because they weren’t new, and some had been used. I washed the fabric pieces to make them even softer.

Making these quilts made me think about how privileged I am. In many ways, of course, but thinking particularly about quilting. I can afford to buy fabric and equipment to make quilting easier. I don’t have to wait until I can obtain a large enough piece of fabric for the back, before I can begin making a quilt.

I really enjoyed making quilts in a simpler way. It is a very peaceful, meditative process and has given me a great deal to think about.

If you’d like to find out more, here are a couple of links

African Quilts of India

Soulful Stitching exhibition curated by Henry John Drewal

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