Kawandi traditional hand quilting patchwork

Kawandi. Patch-working the old to make a new, traditionally.

A story of quilting colours and a culture.

This article is written as a guest article by: Adrian Gupta of savesustainsurvive

Making Kawandi is about making chaos look gorgeous. It’s an art, coaxing the eyes to wander all over a vibrant spread of haphazard patches of prints and colour; the eyes gently guided by a rhythmic flow of hand stitches running around the entire space.

An authentic Kawandi is a hand-made patchwork quilt, crafted entirely of old clothing and material scraps. The makers even patch on parts of a garment as is, like a neckline of a child’s clothing and parts of a shirt with buttons and all!

Could there be anything more beautifully sustainable?

The quilters repair old, worn out, tattered quilts with additional patches. If a Kawandi is too battered to use as a blanket, it is recycled into a new quilt. Or used as a doormat, or for cleaning, or for anything that can squeeze maximum utility out of it, till the yarns themselves are too fragile to hold together. The work of art is then finally discarded.

Kawandi is also known as Siddi quilt, after its makers, the Siddi community of south-western India. Somehow, the community is pretty non-existent for most of the population of India. If not for its explosion on social media, a Kawandi quilt would actually be unknown today, even in its own country.

It’s women who craft Kawandi. They work their artistry during off-chore hours- their moments of creative expression, hand-making the quilt as a group, or solitarily.

Kawandi traditional hand quilting patchwork

True, its brilliant colour-burst characterizes a Kawandi, but its signature lies in the making; its authentic making. Unlike most patchwork quilts, a Kawandi is worked from the outside in, that is, its overlapping patches are hand stitched from the edges towards the quilt centre. \

a Kawandi is worked from the outside in

The beginning starts with a colourful heap of worn-out, not-fit-to-use clothes and fabrics; any and every scrap the maker can gather- her family’s of course, and also from friends and relatives. A Kawandi has a backing layer, and a main layer of colourful patches. Most often, the backing is an old cotton sari (a traditional Indian wrap-around drape of five and a half metres). The quilt can also have a batting or stuffing in between the two surfaces.

The maker chooses fabrics from her gathered lot, cutting or tearing them to the size and shape of patches she perceives for her creation. She begins from one corner of the sari affixing overlapping patches onto the backing with running back stitches, passing the needle through all layers together. While stitching, raw edges of patches are turned inwards for a clean finish, or at times left as is, rough and ravelled.

Variations making a Kawandi Quilt: hand work

Patches are usually worked counterclockwise, from the outer edges spiralling inwards towards the centre, or belly of the quilt. The entire quilt has hand stitches running through it, through all layers of a multitude of fabrics. Some stitches are worked closer, some apart at a finger spacing. They form a fluid pattern of dashes of thick white thread. A keen quilter smooths out each patch flat against the sari backing and the previous underlying patch layer, as the hand stitches play up bumps and pleats.

By overlapping patches minimally, the maker can create thinner quilts. Thicker Kawandi made for warmth are obviously heavily over-layered.

Corners of the Kawandi Quilt and the Tikeli

An essential and rather unusual element of a Siddi quilt is its corner. It’s mandatory to create phulas (flowers) to complete it. A phula is one or more square patches folded over into a triangle to create a sort of corner flower motif. This has no functional purpose other than being a signature aspect of the quilti.

Another fun detail is the tikeli. These are tiny patches in brilliant contrasts stitched over the larger ones to add more drama. Tikeli are optional choices for the quilter’s creative process; sprinkled all over, or clustered in a part of the quilt. These vibrant highlights are engaging for babies.

Basic must-haves of a Kawandi, like the phula, the technique, all run through every quilt created. There is no tampering with the making essentials. But the flow of stitches, colours and prints of patches used, their size and shape, and the patterns they are arranged in, are creative interpretations of an individual quilt artist. A Catholic Siddi quilter could incorporate crosses in her art piece, and a Muslim maker may sew a crescent on hers. Some quilters have rows of multiple stitches along the outer edge to finish and finally fuse together all layers of the quilt.

Meaning of the Kawandi

If you half close your eyes, you will see Kawandi as a family symbol, a representation, a documentation of a family’s history. All this, just by patches of worn out clothing discarded by the members. The colours, prints and quality of materials tell a faint yet fair story of the family’s choices and attitude, and their financial status. See with your heart’s eyes, and you will feel the family’s bond, strong together, as the one blanket made of diverse, sharply contrasting patches.

Kawandi is an artwork about family.

India is a cauldron of cultures. Some melded so beautifully, only certain nuances distinguish them. Others so acutely distinct, they connect by citizenship alone. The Siddi community falls in neither. Very few have heard of, or know of them, Indians included. Even though India has been home to the Siddis for more than eight hundred years, they are still tagged as outsiders.

The Siddis are African by origin.

They are descendants of enslaved Africans. Early sixteenth century, during their colonisation of India, the Portuguese imported slaves from East Africa (Bantus and Ethiopians) into Goa, to serve in homes of the rich and important. Over time, subsequent generations of the bonded broke free of servitude, seeking seclusive settlement in remote, nearly inaccessible parts of the Western Ghats in north Karnataka. They built an independent African community in the hills. Across various time periods and places, others enslaved under Hindu and Muslim rulers followed suit into Karnataka. Today there are about twenty thousand community members, living scattered in thick forests and high plains south of Goa.

African traditions still prevail strong in the Siddis even though their early customs are diluted now. Their arts express their root culture. It is in their songs and dances, especially in their drumming. And in their peculiar art of creating patchwork quilts.

Researching Kawandi took me all over the web space. Every source of information turned out to be an extract from the works of a couple, Dr. Henry Drewal and Dr.Sarah Khan. Understandably, so is all that I share here. The married couple has lived with, and experienced the lives and art of the Siddi people. In 2004, they set up the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative for the quilt artists, translating their skills into a livelihood. It has brought the Kawandi out of obscurity.

The couple saddens at the impersonal commercial demand for the quilts and quilters. Says Sarah, “We regularly receive letters of inquiry from artists, quilters, vacationers, photographers and film - makers asking us to facilitate an introduction or visit to a Siddi community. Unfortunately, their letters often reveal shallow research and understanding.

We’re both artists and know the fine line between inspiration and appropriation.”

Inspired by the storytelling aspect of the Kawandi and it's reuse of old clothes and forgotten textiles, we are re-imagining the Kawandi. With respect for its history and tradition, we created our own practices. It still holds the name 'Kawandi' to honour the tradition and inspiration it came from.

Kawandi quilting is a powerful way to introduce new students to the magic of Quilting, and it's healing, resting, and joyful aspect. Also, Kawandi is powerful to upcycle clothing in itself and to introduce students to the joy of adding personal touches to a garment or quilt by hand.

Please, contact us for questions or to learn the Kick Ass Kawandi yourself or for any questions or concerns

Kawandi reimagined sustainable quilting future for all


  • Have you ever made a Kawandi?
  • Do you think we can use traditional styles like the Kawandi, even if someone comes from a different background?

Here’s aspiring for a humane world. Possible?



- sarahkkhan.com

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