As an expression of a local culture, embroidery in West Bengal has three distinct styles: kantha with folk motifs; chikan; zari and kashida from the Islamic tradition; and modern. Of these, kantha is the most typical and also the most creative.
Kanthas are traditionally worked by village women on old cloth, mainly soft, discarded dhotis and Sarees. Layers of old white dhotis used by men or faded coloured Sarees are held together in running stitches along the edges, using thread drawn out of the faded borders of the discarded Sarees. These borders are generally torn off and preserved carefully for the purpose by kantha makers.
The number of layers of cloth are used depends on the use for which the kantha is meant. If it is to be a quilt for use in the mild winters of Bengal, five or six layers of soft, fine cloth are used. The top and bottom layers of a kantha are always white or of a very light colour, so that embroidery with faded threads drawn from the Saree borders is not lost. The muted colours lend a charming, soft, pastel effect to the completed kantha.
Kanthas meant for use as quilts are called lep-kanthas, and those designed as counterpanes are called sujani kanthas. Kanthas also serve as covers for boxes and mirrors, as pillow cases, stoles for women and shawls for men; they are very popular as diapers for babies too.
The main characteristic of a kantha is the patterned running stitches in white tread with which the kantha-maker covers the whole surface of the piece. The stitches secure the layers together and the surface, the kantha-maker works in her embroidery, an expression of her love and affection, her thoughts and dreams.
Kanthas are, therefore expressions of an individual women's artistic spirit and are never repeated. The traditional kantha is not made for sale. It used to be invariably made either for a near relative or friend as a token of love or regard, or just for its own sake-as one might write a poem or compose a song. However, there seem to be some changes with new market demand.