Chikankari Embroidery – an art form from traditional times that remains popular even today

by parineeti lal

What is chikankari?

Chikankari is very similar to Shadow work, a white embroidery work that uses herringbone stitches on the back of the fabric to fill designs, resulting in a fine shadow on the face of the fabric.

What is the difference between shadow work and Chikankari?

Where shadow work uses mostly herringbone stitch interspersed with some other stitches, Chikan work is a combination of many different embroidery stitches, flat, raised and knot stitches. In chikan work some of the designs are worked from the back of the fabric and others from the front.

Where is this technique used?

Delicately worked chikankari designs were embroidered on the finest of cotton mulmul (muslin) fabrics during the Mughal period, and it had value and worth for its aesthetics. It had been encouraged very much during that time to make it one of the most popular embroidery techniques of India and which has remained so till date. This embroidery technique is popularly used to adorn beautiful kurtas and sarees and even home decor items.

What are the stitches employed in Chikankari?

Chikankari has flourished owing to its variety in stitches and designs. There are 10 principal stitches made from raw skeins of thread and employed. There are another 26 or so more, making it about 36 different stitches that adorn fabrics with Chikankari.

  • Herringbone stitch
  • Double back stitch
  • Running stitch, the most common stitch that is worked on the right side of the fabric
  • Stem stitch
  • Couched running stitch
  • Combination of buttonhole stitch and satin stitch
  • Chain stitch– used to design the outline of leaves and petals especially when they are connected within their pattern.
  • Detached chain stitch
  • Satin stitch
  • Fish bone stitch
  • Pulled thread work
  • Romanian Stitch
  • Detached eyelet stitch – used to design the heart of the flower.
  • Different knot stitches used to make vines of flowers and grapes
  • Shadow stitch – Here the thread work is done on the back side in order for its outline and tint of color to be seen on the front side of the fabric.

What fabrics are suitable for chikankari work to be done on them?

Chikankari produces stunning effects on sheer fabrics for the shadowy effect that it gives. But Chikankari is not restricted. You can do chikan work on any kind of fabric but mostly sheer fabric is preferred for the shadow effect they give. They are mostly done on Malmal cotton, Cambric, muslin, voile, organza, silk, crepe, organdy chiffon, and tassar. When this work is done on net it gives a lace like look which is absolutely stunning.

How does one get to be skilled in the art of chikankari work and how long does it to achieve reasonable skill?

A chikankar or one who gets skilled in chikankari, trains for about 10 years to learn the intricate art and after training takes about 15 days  to  finish his work on an ensemble.

Where did chikankari originate?

Believed to be more than four centuries old, it seems to find its roots in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India.  Whether or not it originated during the Mughal rule, one can definitely find its encouragement and flourishing during that period for embellishing all nature of fabrics. The fabrics during the Mughal period were generally the soft malmal and muslin cotton and Chikankari was used to adorn them with exquisite floral designs. Special mention is made by historians that Noorjehan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, was instrumental in creating the environment for the propagation of this art during the emperor’s reign.

In which part of India can we find Chikanakari today?

Chikankari has its base in Lucknow and hence practiced there. However it has also spread as an art in decorating fabrics across India in places like Delhi, Jaipur, West Bengal and Hyderabad.

Is Chikankari restricted to fabrics like Malmal and fine muslin cotton and done only in white color?

Chikankari was definitely practiced on fabrics like muslin, silk etc. initially only in white thread. As time went by, coloured threads were also introduced and done on other fabrics like chiffon, georgette and art silks as well.

What is the special theme on chikankari fabrics?

There are hardly any garments with Lucknow Chikan work that doesn’t have floral patterns or motifs. It is a strong influence of Persian aesthetics on this craft that has led to floral adornment on fabrics.

How is Chikankari done?

The Lucknow Chikankari technique is easily broken down in to 2 parts; the pre and post preparation stages. The stitching is done in the embroidery phase.

What are the steps in the Chikankari process?

There are but three steps in the completion of the Chikankari on the fabric.

  • Block Printing – The initial phase where the design is made on the cloth of choice. The cloth is cut according to the garment it will form and using multiple wooden block stamps, designs are imprinted in blue ink on to the fabric.

  • Embroidery – This fabric is tightly fixed within a small frame called ‘Adda’, part by part. The needle work is done on the outline of the patterns. The skilled craftsman chooses his stitch based upon the region, the type and size of motifs.

  • Washing – Once the embroidery work is complete, the fabric is soaked in water to remove the pattern outlines. After this it is starched to obtain the right stiffness depending on the fabric.

Note: Usually there is a combination of different Lucknow Chikankari stitches used within one whole pattern.

Maintenance

Lucknow Chikan embroidery should ideally be dry cleaned, though this depends more on the fabric than the work. Some fabrics, such as silk, need to be dry cleaned but others, like cotton, can be hand washed.

Chikankari Trivia

  • Lucknow Chikan embroidery is highly time consuming and skilled work for which artisans can be trained for up to 20 years.
  • Depending on the pattern intricacy and size of the piece, the embroidery process alone can take up to 10 days to complete.
  • Ustad Faiyaaz Khanand Hasan Mirza Saheb are two of the most renowned Chikan artisans of Lucknow and have mentored many students under them.
  • The Geographical Indication Registry accorded Lucknow Chikan the GI status in December 2008.

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