Saima Kaur: Embroideries from Punjab

We were delighted to welcome Saima Kaur to Harrogate Creative Stitchers this Saturday for a talk about traditional Phulkari embroideries.  Phulkari is the folk embroidery of the Punjab, Northern India and includes flowers, motifs and geometrical shapes.
  Some of Saima’s collections are 70-100 years old.  She loves telling stories and she started with a tale as a young woman visiting her grandmother in India when she was about to get married.  Delighted with the good news, Saima's grandmother led her to a room in which sat a silver storage trunk containing her own mother’s treasured Phulkaris given to her as a wedding gift.  Traditionally handed down through the generations, the brightly decorated textiles were to become part of Saima’s own wedding ceremony.  One was draped as a canopy overhead and the other onto the ceremonial wedding seat.  These beautiful textiles hand stitched by her own great-grandmother hold such special meaning to Saima and contain the heritage in which her own embroidery style is rooted. 

So it was a sight to behold when Saima unveiled one of the Pulkaris she had spoken about.  The first, measuring 3m x 2.5m was a rich orange-red on a ground fabric of hand woven and madder dyed khadi cotton.  Saima explained that households would have spun the threads before passing to the village weaver.  Interestingly the cloth is not one continuous piece, owed to the limitation of the size of the loom.  The joins are rather coarse but this added to the cloth's exquisite imperfection.  Saima firstly held up the Phulkari back to front, as she wanted us to appreciate the fine work, hardly visible from the reverse side. Stitched in silk threads, the plain weave of the cloth even though quite fine, was used for a counted thread method to create the geometric floral pattern of this unique piece.  The beautiful repeat design, probably made in the 1940s, had a modernist, bold and abstract feel.

Saima and Sue demonstrating how a Phulkari is worn

Bright threads in gold, green and pink flowers (see first image) are stitched with untwisted silk giving the design a lustre.  Phulkaris are meant to be draped and viewed from eye level or above so as to appreciate the way the light catches the different directions of thread.  A darning stitch is used to create the pattern so as not to waste thread, which is why so little is visible from the back.  The colours used in the Phulkari are typical of the region of Punjab where Saima’s family originate.  The bright silk threads were coloured by natural dyes such as pomegranate (pink), marigold (gold) and various leaves.  The gold was commonly used in wedding Phulkaris.  It would have taken so much time and patience to create these beautiful embroideries, emphasising the importance of this tradition.

Saima holds up another Phulkari design

Saima explained that different families may have had their own patterns and designs passed down through the generations.  When a young bride married into a family of a new village, they might bring their learnt embroideries and incorporate into the Phulkari.  However the designs still kept within the repeat patterns, florals and motifs although an female elder might produce more figurative and playful pieces.  Richer families however would typically outsource the Phulkaris to be made by specialists.

Another Phulkari demonstrated by Maggie

Saima's second example of a Phulkari (above) had a different design of parallel rows of flowers and a thick border comprising seven different motifs and patterns. The border is important as it frames the face during the wedding ceremony.  In this example there are peacocks in the border, a common sight in an Indian village at that time.  In the middle of the row of flowers in the centre of the cloth, there is a purposeful imperfection.  The flaw, stitched in a purple thread, is meant to ward off the ‘evil eye’.

A purposeful flaw in the design

Next, Saima showed us a replica of a different style of Phulkari that is more figurative (see below).  The originals would have been made on Indigo dyed cloth and are very rare because collectors have bought them up over the years.  This replica, stitched with synthetic silk on an almost black background depicts a classic village scene in Punjab in 1800s.  Because the ground fabric is finer, it is harder to create straight lines.  This beautiful example, again in brightly coloured thread holds a social story of its time, containing animals, flowers, vegetables, spinners, holy people, two people churning butter, a couple having an argument and even a steam train!

A replica of a rare figurative Phulkari

Saima concluded her talk by describing how the tradition of making the Phulkari has disappeared because village life no longer exists.  The wealthy, having previously bought the embroideries to decorate their homes or use for bed throws, lost interest as the world changed and the Phulkaris lost status.  Nowadays in India, fabrics pre-printed with blocks are given to women for ‘piece work’ which is poorly paid and hard labour.  Saima finished by showing us some of her own embroidery pieces (see below) which have a clear link to her Punjab heritage but with a contemporary and playful twist some of which tell a story just like the figurative Phulkaris.  It was so interesting to learn about the tradition of the Phulkari and wonderful that Saima is keeping her heritage alive by sharing the examples she owns and bringing it back to life in her own work.


For more information about Saima's embriodery visit or find her on Instagram @sewsaima

Here are some more photographs from our lovely afternoon!  Until next time.....