Hand and Cloth is a social enterprising ministry in India that provides a living wage, school scholarships, and a loving community to young women at risk of prostitution and trafficking. Each young woman is paid per-piece to stitch kantha dorokha, a traditional two-sided blanket made from recycled sari material. Hand and Cloth provides school fees and tutors for the young women and also offers regular Bible studies. The young women live together in a community outside of the red light district, where they sew together, share meals together, study together and pray together.
The tradition of kantha begins with the thrift of the Bengali women. In Sanskrit, the word kantha simply means rags.
For centuries, poor Bengali women have taken their discarded cloth and sewn them together with a simple running stitch to create something new. The functional kantha dorokha ("two-sided quilt") was not a work of art, but simply what the poorest families used to keep warm. Kantha also had an aspect of intimacy. Old cloth in Bangladesh is said to keep the user safe from harm. Women stitched kantha for their loved ones--for their children, their husbands, their parents. The earliest known mention of the Bengali kantha is five hundred years old--in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, he refers to a kantha sent to him by his mother.
Even the most practical kantha is creative and spontaneous in nature. It is no easy task to create a functional quilt out of old, worn rags! Overtime, a more elaborate nakshi kantha tradition developed. Most kantha was made by illiterate women who would stitch stories into their quilts--which often would take years to complete. The same kantha is known to have been worked on by a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Many of the kantha motifs reflect the needlewoman’s desire for happiness, marriage, and fertility. These women would then "autograph" their pieces either with their name or by indicating their relationship with the person for whom the kantha is intended.
Finally, kantha builds community among women. As Jasleen Dhamija, from the Craft Council of India says, “Kantha has traditionally provided women with space and time of their own with which they created this extraordinary art-form. It is an exclusively woman’s activity where they can interact with other women and gain a sense of self"
It is our desire at Hand and Cloth to cultivate a strong pride in this tradition in each of the women we work with. All of our kantha throws are made from antique saris. Women gather together to stitch. Each woman carefully selects her thread color and will often add decorative patches to the blankets. We are always delighted to see what thread colors the women have chosen when the finished kantha arrive. Sometimes we are surprised by a bright shade of green that we wouldn’t have chosen ourselves.