Beautiful embroidery decorates many of our products. The elaborate art of stitching is of very high quality in India. Over the centuries, special techniques have developed: Aari, Zardosi, Chikankari, Kantha, Kasuthi, Kutch, Toda or Shisha – each region in India has its own embroidery style.

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Ostentatious decoration is especially found on saris, the traditional clothing of Indian women, but also on blouses, bags, cushions, wall hangings, shoes …

In recent years, embroidery as a textile design art is undergoing a remarkable rediscovery both in the Western fashion world and in India.Sujatha Vasant Rao, a training partner and teacher of Sita Crafts who offers embroidery courses in India for over 20 years, can confirm this development. Her online courses are being visited by significantly more Indian women than before. Even outside India women are accepting her offer – she has students in Denmark, Australia, Canada and the US.


Embroidery, meaning the decoration of a substrate with a thread, is considered to be the supreme discipline amongst all refinement technologies.

For embroidery is not only one of the oldest textile techniques, it is also the most durable application on fabric: it does not crumble, wash out or fade. This kind of work becomes even more valuable because the embroiderers need a lot of patience and practice for the usually very delicate fabric decorations. About five people can work for four months on a high-quality Sari, as Sabine Straube could witness. She is a Berlin textile designer who came back from a research trip to watch embroidery techniques in India in spring 2016: “However, the materials and efforts of the embroidery differ from piece to piece, and from one region to another”. Embroidery takes practice, but Sujatha Rao reassures: “After eight to ten course hours a beginner can already stitch a beautiful design”.

The most important tools for embroidery are:

  • the embroidery needle (varies in length and thickness, as well as in the size of the eye of the needle)

  • often an embroidery frame (can be round or square; “facilitates and speeds up the embroidery”, says Sujatha Rao)

  • The material consists of:

  • the thread (made of cotton, wool, linen, polyester, silk, human hair (China), metal – e. g. gold) and

  • the embroidery ground or substrate (any fabric like silk or tulle, but also leather or paper …)

And: Of course the colours of the thread and the embroidery ground influence the embroidery.


The delicate patterns and motives of Indian embroidery are popular all around the world. The elaborate needle paintings are playful and elegant at the same time. Indian embroideries are made of different types of stitches. “There are several hundred”, says Sujatha Rao. In her basic course, she teaches 42 stitches including the cross stitch, the lazy-daisy-stitch, the stem stitch and the chain stitch. As much as the stitching techniques vary, so do the motives.

Motives of Indian embroidery

The motives are mainly inspired by the respective nature in the region: climbing plants, leaves, flowers and blossoms in a variety of forms, including the lotus flower which is an important motive in Hinduism. Furthermore, Indian embroidery shows the “tree of life” and mangos – as a stylised version they seem to be a part of the famous Paisley pattern (an oval shape tapered at the end, which was spread in India by Persian moguls since the 17th century).

Animals are also popular: buffalos, camels, elephants, and especially birds like peacocks (the national bird of India), pigeons and parrots. In some regions, for example, the Toda people in Tamil Nadu, the motives are more abstract than in other regions. Religious motives such as temples and gods, for example, the monkey god Hanuman or the elephant god Ganesh, as well as all kinds of geometric patterns and ornaments can be found on embroidered Indian fabrics, too.

Embroidered history

Between the 16th and 19th century the moguls, Muslim rulers from Persia, forced embroidery in India. At their royal courts the finest robes were embroidered. But even before that in ancient China, Japan, Egypt, Greece and India geometric shapes and figures of people and animals have been embroidered on garments, carpets and wall hangings since the 3rd millennium BC. Unfortunately, none of these early embroideries have survived, Rosemary Crill states in “Indian Embroidery” published in 1999. Crill is a Senior Curator for Indian textiles at the Victoria-and-Albert-Museum of Art and Design in London.

Research on ancient embroidery is extremely difficult because textiles rot quickly.

In addition to the workshop work of the royal and urban manufactories, a rich tradition of domestic, mainly rural embroidery already existed. But because of the transience of these textiles, the embroidery work could only be documented since the 19th century, says Crill. While even men used to embroider in earlier times, these days this delicate, patience-demanding manual work is carried out mainly by women. For housewives in India embroidering offers the possibility of a sideline. “They can work at home and take their time when the kids are occupied”, says Sujatha Rao, the teacher from Karnataka. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of her students go into self-owned business after training with her and make a living through embroidery and other needlework. Independence and self-employment of women through manual work is a long-term goal of Sita Crafts.