Learning About Kawandi Quilts

I love colors and folk art that comes straight from the heart. My very first introduction into quilting came from books on Amish quilts. Later, I enjoyed the quilts of Gee Bend quilters, as well as Chinese Ge Ba. When I came across pictures of  Margaret Fabrizio’s colorful kawandi quilts in a magazine, I loved those as well. Margaret’s work prompted me to learn more about Kawandi. Someone recommended San Francisco artist Sujata Shah’s classes, and so, last spring, I found myself taking a live online workshop with her.

What Are Kawandi Quilts?

“Kawandi” is how people of African decent in Western India (Siddis) call their quilts. It means just that: quilt. Saying “Kawadi Quilts” is actually a redundancy, but the phrase is widely used nonetheless.

The Siddis

Africans arrived in India in mostly three “waves.” The earliest migration was as far back as the second or third centuries CE, when African merchants and sailors arrived in India . The second occurred in the fourteenth century. Then, under the rule of Arabs and Mughals, more Africans arrived as soldiers, administrators and sailors. Some of these rose to prominent positions. The third wave happened in the sixteenth century, when Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, British and French) began bringing African slaves to India. Over time, some of the decedents of these slaves escaped, moving inland to remote, inaccessible areas. There, they created free African Diaspora communities. (For more details click here).

Over the centuries, these African migrants to India adopted some local customs, religions and languages, while also retaining and adapting some of their original culture. Despite their assimilation, Indian people still consider Siddis as “aliens” or “outsiders,” even though that their ancestors have been living in India for more then 800 years.

The Quilts

Quilt-making within Siddi communities is mostly done by elderly women who can no longer work in the fields. Most women make bed quits for their families, although some create them for friends in exchange for goods or money. Sometimes women choose to work on a quilt in groups. Usually, women work on quilts in-between other household chores.

Since the Siddi communities are very poor, women make quilts out of worn-out clothing that can no longer be worn. They collect clothes from family and friends, and when they have enough fabric for a quilt they find saris for the backing in the market. Then, they tear or cut the clothing into strips, and start sewing them onto the sari backing from the outside edges inwards, often in a counter-clockwise direction. They usually start in one corner, and work their way around, adding rows of strips as they go. The strips are sewn directly onto the backing (with no batting in between) with a simple running stitch.

At each of the four corners of the quilt, Siddi women attach a fabric triangle (phula or “flower”). This triangle is for decorative purposes only, and a quilt is not considered “dressed” without it. Quilters also use a special piece of fabric or a decorative element (sometimes a religious symbol) for the center piece (“belly”) of the quilt. Often, they put a few grains of rice right at the center. This is a symbolic blessing, wishing that the future users of the quilt will always have full stomachs. 

My Own Little Kawandi Quilt

The quilt I made at the workshop was a Western adaptation of the real thing. I didn’t attempt to make a bed quilt, for example. Although something to aspire to in the future, that was more than I could tackle in a three-hour workshop. Instead, I opted for a small, 12″ square sample. I didn’t use worn clothing, either, as I didn’t have anything suitable. Instead, I used what I had at hand, which was mostly scraps from previous projects. I didn’t have a sari for the baking, so I used a larger piece of cotton, and I did add a layer of batting because it made the whole quiltlet a bit more structured.

I enjoyed sitting in front of my laptop, stitching pieces of fabric by hand while listening to Sujata talk.

Like the Siddis, I started at the edges of the quilt and progressed inwards. I didn’t pay attention to the direction I was going at. Being right handed, I think I stitched clock wise and not the traditional counter clock wise.

Unlike the Siddis, I didn’t use a white cotton thread. I preferred to use a variegated 12wt hand-quilting thread in colors matching my fabrics.

But I did make sure to attach phulas when I reached the corners. I didn’t want my Kawandi to look naked.

I’m not sure whether the Siddis use pins as they work, but I couldn’t help myself. They made the stitching a bit easier by keeping the strips in place.

Despite the minute size of my quilt, by the time I reached the center my hands started hurting. I was wondering what the Siddis do to prevent pain when stitching much larger pieces…

Adding grains of rice to the core of the quilt truly made me happy. Hoping to Keep loved ones’ bellies full felt like a basic, primal, and very universal wish!

I was quite happy with how my small Kawandi quilt turned out. Likewise, I enjoyed the process of making it, as I find hand stitching peaceful and meditative. Maybe one day I will attempt a bigger Kawandi.

Not being Siddi myself, my quilt is probably not a “real” Kawandi, in the same way that my boro patchwork pieces are probably not “real” boro. In both cases they might look similar, but lack the historical and cultural background that go into the authentic art. Still, learning from other cultures is valuable. We all influence each other, after all, and have done so all along, throughout the millennia of human history. By learning, adapting and improving we create new things and push things forward.

If you want to learn more about Kawandi quilts, Siddis, and a non-profit organization that helps them (or if you want to purchase an authentic Kawandi), check out https://www.africanquiltsofindia.com/

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