IndiaNear the middle of the 20th century, India was an enormous conglomeration of hereditary kingdoms and British outposts. When the Imperial government withdrew after World War II, the territories were officially split into primarily Hindu India and primarily Muslim Pakistan. A bloody upheaval accompanied Partition, as those displaced by the religious division sought to settle in locales where they would be safe and welcome. This migration, like those before it, mixed and mingled the aesthetic sensibilities of residents across the subcontinent.
The heritage of this region, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, extends as far back as the dawn of civilization, and archaeological expeditions have uncovered a wealth of artifacts from early societies. Place names and ancient structures memorialize waves of cultures that overflowed the territory: Alexander the Great, Mughal emperors from Persia, and eventually European traders from England, the Netherlands and Portugal. Each conquering army found itself assimilating, rather than eradicating, characteristics of the established culture, resulting in one of the richest and most complex aesthetic traditions in the world.
One quintessentially Indian decorative art is the application of tiny mirrors that capture and reflect light. This technique, called shisha work (from the Persian word for glass), probably originated in 13th century Persia, but is now commonly associated with the Indian subcontinent. Mirrors are applied not only to textile items, but to architectural details and decorative items as well. The Shish Mahal, in what is now Lahore, Pakistan, features walls and a ceiling completely covered in bits of mirrored glass. A single candle at the center of the room is reflected again and again to create an awe-inspiring display of thousands of sparkling lights.
Unlike sequins and beads, shisha mirrors don't have holes through which thread can pass to attach the glass to fabric backings. In traditional shisha embroidery, a framework of stitches is constructed by hand to overlap the mirror edges, holding the shiny glass in place within the design.
In the beginning, shisha work probably incorporated mica flakes rather than glass mirrors. Shisha mirrors are available today through craft and sewing retailers and, unlike their antecedents, are consistent in shape and size.
Alternatives to glass mirrors for recreating sparkly folk embroidery designs are shiny Textiva (Angelina film) and Mylar, a polyester film that’s washable and can be stitched through, as well as lightweight craft metal sheets. These materials can be used in a wide variety of designs as appliqués, or as a topper that lies between the embroidery stitches and fabric. Other options for adding glassy sparkles to embroidery are crystals and rhinestones applied with heat or washable adhesives.
Colors & Threads
Dyestuffs, even when rare and highly prized in Europe, have always been available in India. A wide range of colors available in both fabrics and threads contributed to the familiar Indian palette of many colors used in cheerful juxtaposition, where miscellaneous colors are piled one on top of another.
Both cotton threads and sumptuous silks have a place in traditional Indian textiles. Silk fabrics often feature jeweltoned backgrounds with designs worked in a single contrasting color or a multicolored thread palette. The most expensive fabrics are embellished with the most detailed and subtle patterns. Cotton threads are associated with coarser fabrics and a less refined finish, but are often used to work especially charming, rustic designs.
Metal threads are frequently used in Indian textiles. While expensive threads of pure gold or silver were and are used in weaving and adorning the finest and most expensive fabrics, metallic embroidery threads can be used to add sparkle to designs on a smaller budget.
Specially digitized designs are essential for re-creating shisha work using real mirrors in machine embroidery. They incorporate openings created in machine-embroidered cutwork, where the top fabric is cut away within the mirror openings and the edges finished with satin stitches. The mirror is then sandwiched between the embroidered fabric and a backing. Stitching through the backing and embroidered material traps the mirror securely behind the stitched opening.
Another possibility for machineembroidered mirror work is to create small doughnut-shaped pieces of freestanding stitchery as frames for the mirrors. In this technique, the base fabric is left whole, with the mirrors sandwiched between the embroidered cloth and the stitched doughnuts. The doughnut edges are then sewn or glued to the embroidered cloth, securing the shisha glass.
With either technique, ensure that the securing stitches don’t strike the mirror. Remove the presser foot or use a small embroidery or darning foot, lower the feed dogs, and circle the mirror with free-motion stitches. If machine stitching so close to the mirrors is disconcerting, stitch around them by hand instead. In either case, use the same thread as the embroidered stitches for nearly invisible attachment.
Another option is to secure the backing fabric or stitched frame with glue. Use permanent, washable glue, or choose fusible interfacing or fabric backed with fusible web. Secure the mirror between the backing and embroidery, or between the embroidered fabric and frame, and allow the glue to dry or use heat to fuse the layers. Glass mirrors are unaffected by heat.
The featured Indian-inspired bag is sewn from a mediumweight twill fabric for durability. To use lighter weight fabrics, fuse interfacing to the fabric wrong side before cutting the pieces to give the fabric body. The embroidery designs are stitched with cotton threads in traditional colors,
and sparkle is added with touches of silver embroidery thread.
While the bag design is functional and modern, its silhouette is reminiscent of saddlebags used by camel drivers on the Grand Trunk Road.
The flap and the front pocket provide the canvas for embroidered embellishment, with decorative machine stitches used to augment the embroidered border and to decorate the box pleat between the embroidered pocket halves.
Studio Kat Designs
Rebecca Kemp Brent is a freelance author, educator and designer who enjoys travel and exploring the rich visual heritage of societies around the globe. She is the author of Fill in the Blanks with Machine Embroidery and co-author of Machine Embroidery Wild & Wacky.
Bag designs: Shisha Mirrors Collection, Leaenda's Sew
Additional stitches created on the Brother Innovis 4000D,
www.brother-usa.com, (877) 276-8437
Coats & Clark provided the metallic thread:
www.coatsandclark.com, (800) 648-1479.
DMC provided the cotton threads: www.dmc-usa.com,
Leaenda's Sew Biz provided the shisha mirrors:
Studio Kat Designs provided the Gadabout pattern and magnetic closure:www.studiokatdesigns.com (866) 409-8634.
A Flap embroidery design with deleted circled portion.
B Shisha on each side deleted on pocket embroidery.
C Attach mirrors with fusible interfacing.
D Add decorative stitches to augment flap motif.
E Create contrasting fabric using decorative stitches.
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