Spotlight on Anchal: A Modern Take on Kantha Quilting with Women Artisans in Ajmer, India

Spotlight on Anchal

The History of Kantha

The roots of Kantha (pronounced KAHN-taa) can be traced to Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian states, West Bengal and Odisha. This area is referred to as the Bengal region, and so Kantha can be defined as a Bengali art form.

This ancient embroidery technique has rich cultural roots — the art form has been passed down generation after generation, from mother to daughter, for over five hundred years.

Anchal handcrafted goods

The origin of the word Kantha comes from “kontha” which means “rags” in sanskrit. Over five hundred years ago, poor Bengali women would take discarded saris and sew them together with a running stitch to create quilts. The original purpose of these quilts was for a simple necessity — to keep warm during the cold winters. Women would also stitch more intricate, elaborate Kantha quilts to give as gifts to their family.

By piling and stitching layers of old saris together, Kantha is an art that has been sustainable since the very beginning!

Kantha also took on a deeper meaning to many women over time. Women would pass down the same Kantha quilt from mother to daughter to granddaughter and would even stitch in either their name or relation to the woman they were passing the quilt down to.

As the art form developed, women incorporated colorful thread for their embroidery and used more complex stitches, such as border stitches and the herringbone stitch. Kantha pieces also became a form of self-expression, artisans stitched motifs that told legends and personal stories of love, pain, and everything else in between. The embroidered quilts were even used as a way for women who were illiterate to tell stories.

anchal project hand stitched textiles

Over time, the ancient Bengali embroidery tradition gained cultural significance and religious meaning and Kantha was used to celebrate special occasions, such as weddings.

Kantha Today

Today, Kantha is used and worn around the world. The culturally rich, beautiful art form can be found in the form of quilts, throws, bedspreads, duvet covers, scarves, table cloths, pillow covers, and even furniture covers.

These vibrant Kantha pieces are a beautiful way to brighten up your space and can provide a way to help keep this ancient heritage craft alive. 

Meet Anchal Project

“Didi” means sister in Hindi and around the Anchal office it reads “love your didi.” Sisters, Colleen and Maggie Clines, live this mantra as they co-lead Anchal Project, a non-profit committed to empowering marginalized Indian women through the creation of sustainable textile products.

Focused on employment and education for women sex workers, Anchal Project offers alternative opportunity through the creation of the ancient art form, Kantha quilting. Anchal firmly believes that investing in these women — especially those with children — can transform the trajectory of entire families and communities.

Since 2010, Anchal has trained over 150 women sex workers in Ajmer, India offering careers in textiles including Kantha quilting, machine tailoring, and hand dyeing.

By layering vintage saris and joining them with a simple running stitch these handmade textiles are sustainable, minimalistic, and individual as each tag has a hand-stitched signature by its artisan. For many women in Ajmer this is their first legal job but Anchal is committed to supporting their artisans through entrepreneurial workshops so that it is not their last.

Anchal’s story began when co-leader and founder Colleen Clines visited India during graduate school and learned about void of options that women sex workers as well as the economic opportunity that the region’s textiles offered. This realization spurred Colleen and her classmates to take action and create Anchal. Anchal began with a humble fundraiser of $400 affording them a sewing machine, sewing instructions, and a stipend for artisans. Now, Anchal employs 77 artisans with 70% serving as the breadwinner of their family 90% now able to afford health insurance.

Anchal project co-founder and CEO

“We felt compelled to take the project beyond the classroom with the conviction that our design training in collaboration with local leadership could address seemingly intractable social and environmental systems. The women we met became our sisters, sisters we had to fight for.” — Colleen Clines, Co-Founder & CEO

Anchal has created opportunities in the United States as well with their dyeScape project in Louisville, Kentucky. An unprecedented idea, dyeScape offers an eco friendly job opportunity in the textile industry. By training and hiring exploited women to grow, harvest, and dye their fabrics Anchal is directly fighting the statistics that fast fashion has created. The textile/fashion industry is one of the most polluting and one of the most exploitative. Through both local and global initiatives, we are proud to carry a company that has such strong ideals as Anchal, not even mentioning their incredible quality and design!

In Hindi “anchal” means the decorative edge of a sari used to provide comfort and protection to loved ones. It also means shelter. Simple and straightforward, Anchal is changing lives, sustaining tradition, and creating high-quality textiles that benefit not only you but the planet too.

Anchal’s Impact

Anchal Project artisan makers

Anchal currently employs 77 artisans and five project assistants, and has trained and employed over 150 women since the organization was founded in 2010.

Anchal goes far beyond employment, though to ensure the women they work with have healthy, fulfilling, and financially independent lives. Their programs take a holistic approach, considering both qualitative and quantitative measures across five facets to measure success. The five facets they actively track are economic, intellectual, physical and emotional health, confidence, and community.

Economic: Not only do artisans earn anywhere from 25% to 100% more working with Anchal than they did previously, but now 70% of the women artisans are the main income earners in their family and are able to control their household’s income. Additionally, 88% of Anchal’s artisans have invested in new homes, made expansions or additions, or invested in furniture and appliances.

Intellectual/Education: Anchal provides educational workshops in subjects such as financial planning, communication, and goal setting that artisans can take advantage of. Additionally, each and every one of the artisans that works with Anchal is investing in their children’s education.

Health: Working with Anchal provides an avenue for artisans and their families to have access to what they need to lead healthy, happy lives. Ninety-eight percent of Anchal’s artisans are able to afford healthy food options and 90% can afford health care for themselves and their families.

Community: Anchal Project’s office gives the artisans an opportunity to connect with each other that they would not have otherwise. The women work together, sing, laugh, share stories, and even cry together. The women have been able to develop strong friendships and support systems with each other.

Anchal artisan makers

Confidence: While difficult to measure quantitatively, it’s clear when reading what artisans working with Anchal have to say, that their confidence has surely grown out of their financial independence and connections built with their fellow artisans.

“We can spend more money on our families now. Whether we want to send our kids to private school, invest in property or buy groceries — we can do it. We can do anything now.” — Anita

“I liked the education workshops in communication. It helped me improve my life in every dimension.” — Durga

“My husband tries to tell me that I can’t go to work. But I make the money now. So I say no, I have to work. It’s my money & it’s my future.” — Narayani

“5 years ago I didn’t think I could be here. But I am here. And I am happy now.” — Kamla

“We have something to be proud of now. To leave the house, work, earn, and set an example for our children — it’s everything.” — Seema

“I have taught them to be hopeful. They have taught me to be hopeful. We can do it. We are in it together.” — Durga

“My sister borrows used books from the school and gives them to me. When my husband and my children are sleeping, I study. I will pass 11th class this year & 12th class next year. I didn’t know I could do that before.” — Mamta

Anchal + Made Trade

Made Trade is proud to carry and support Anchal Project’s home goods and fashion pieces on our online destination for ethically elevated goods. From pillows and duvet covers to scarves and clutches, there are many ways to incorporate Anchal’s stunning pieces into your home or wardrobe.  

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