What is a kantha?

What is a kantha quilt

We talk about kantha a lot: kantha quilts, kantha blankets, kantha throws and now even kantha stockings, make up one of the most important ranges in our collection and symbolise what Decorator’s Notebook is all about.

But what does ‘kantha’ actually mean and what makes these textiles so special?

Kantha quilts from Decorator's Notebook

Well, the word ‘kantha’ translates as ‘patched cloth’ and refers to a stitching technique that has been used for centuries in Bandgladesh and West Bengal. This form of embroidery grew from a very functional need: to create warm bedding from discarded cloth. Although they are made with more refinement, our kantha quilts continue to honour this age-old tradition of turning colourful vintage saris into items of beauty, using close rows of running stitch.

kantha stitching blanket Basha Decorator's Notebook

“Kantha quilts are a humble item of day-to-day life here,” explains Robin Seyfert, who runs the social enterprise that creates Decorator’s Notebook kanthas. “Bangladeshis use them to wrap newborns, to cover a bed, to provide warmth in the winter, and so many other uses.  Most Bangladeshis are surprised by the broad appeal internationally,” she says.

Basha kantha bedspread in Bangladesh

Our kantha quilts are not only beautiful to look at, they tell a beautiful story too. They are made by Basha, a social enterprise in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that offers life-changing jobs to survivors of trafficking and sex work. The women are given paid training and counselling to allow them to break away from their former lives and, when they’re ready, offered a stable job making quilts. “We realised kantha was a good product for our employees to make as it is familiar to them, even though they probably hadn’t made them to our standards and specifications before,” says Robin.  “The picture of something beautiful being created from something previously discarded also symbolises the change we see in women’s lives so perfectly.”

making kantha blankets by hand at Basha Decorator's NotebookBasha has grown from employing 15 women in 2011 to supporting more than 50 today. Basha – which means ‘house of hope’ – is more than just a workplace for the women. A nursery is provided for the children while their mothers work, there are paid breaks during the day for language classes and subsidised healthcare for the women and their families.

mother and child at BashaDespite the humble origins of kantha quilts, their unique beauty has made them popular with homelovers all over the world. So, with all the choice around, what should you look for when choosing a kantha?

First of all, it’s worth investing in one that’s the real deal. You might think that cheap quilts made from new cloth look like a bargain, but you’ll find they just don’t have the character of a genuine kantha blanket. The vintage saris used to make Decorator’s Notebook kantha quilts are sourced from clothing merchants in Dhaka, who visit wealthy households and exchange old saris for cooking pots and utensils. Although passed on by their original owners, the life of these saris has only just begun, as supple, time-worn cotton makes the softest kantha. Also, by buying a vintage kantha quilt you know that yours is truly unique. They really are future heirlooms to treasure forever and lots of customers buy them as thoughful wedding or anniversary gifts.

Vintage sari kantha quilts from Decorator's Notebook shop uk

Secondly, it’s really important to know that the kantha quilt you choose has been ethically produced by fairly-paid employees that enjoy healthy working conditions. Sadly, mass-produced kantha quilts could be made in factories no better than those that make cheap clothing for the high street. Instead, buy from a shop that can tell you exactly where, how and by whom their quilts have been made. By choosing one from Decorator’s Notebook, you can go one step further and help support Basha in improving the lives of vulnerable women and their families. Each of our kantha quilts is proudly signed by the woman who made it and you can even read her story in her own words by following the link on the label.

Embroidered name labels on Decorator's Notebook kantha quilts

Lastly, a real vintage kantha quilt should be reassuringly expensive. A good quality quilt should have some weight to it without being bulky (ours are made from six layers of cloth) and be covered all over with neat rows of handstitching. A two metre square quilt will take a women around 47 hours to make by hand, and the price of a fair trade kantha blanket will reflect that. If you’d like to see some beautiful examples of vintage sari kantha quilts, we are really proud of our collection, which includes large kantha bedspreads for £165 or medium kantha quilts for £95. Click here to browse Decorator’s Notebook’s vintage kantha quilts.

And for Christmas, don’t forget you can help Basha support more brave and beautiful women next year by treating yourself or your loved ones to a beautiful handmade kantha stocking too!

Kantha christmas stockings Decorator's Notebook shop UK

[Photographs: 1 Bowerhouse | 2 Decorator’s Notebook | 3-6 Basha | 7-8 Decorator’s Notebook]

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