The Kashmiri embroidery is known as Kashida, a Persian word which, among others, means embroidery as well as drawing.
The Kashmiri hand embroidery work uses simple stitches such as the satin, stem, chain and long and short stitches and makes occasional use of the herringbone, button hole and darning stitches. The jail, open work, is used to produce a lace like effect The work is done on silk with single silk thread.
Hand Embroidery in Kashmir flourished when the ruler, Zain-ul-Abedin Shah invited artists from Iran to train the local people into a wide range of crafts. Successive rulers continued to give encouragement to the workers and the Mughals, who were enchanted with the area and spent the summers there, extended their informal patronage to the valley and turned all its crafts into arts. This patronage, combined with the natural artistic aptitude of the people, gave a firm basis to the crafts which, through the centuries have flourished as a cottage industry producing objects of unmatched delicacy and elegance.
The refinement of Kashmiri hand embroidery surpasses that done anywhere else in India. Not only does the Kashmiri embroiderer produce surface designs of great intricacy and fineness but he excels in the dorukha, the double-sided work in which both sides are the same so that there is no right or wrong side and the article can be used from both sides. A further refinement of this is when the colors on both sides are different This is done especially on shawls which are the great pride of Kashmir. The woven Jamawar shawls, the ultimate product of the loom, show innumerable refinements such as delicate shadings on flower and bud, details of the plumage of birds and the same dorukha effect in which even the ground colour on both sides is different. But the ambli, the embroidered Jamawar, achieves extra richness by using delicate filling in stitches in threads of different colors to enhance the effect of the woven material.
The valley of Kashmir is one of the most beautiful natural areas in the world. Surrounded by mountains the valley reflects them in innumerable placid lakes and paddy fields. Poplars, chenars and cypresses dominate the scene along with other trees like the walnut, almond, plum, apple and cherry. The climate is temperate and the flora reflects it The iris, the tulip, the lily, plum, almond and apple blossoms flourish along with the lotus, the pomegranate, of course, the lovely saffron flower, a field of which seen in bloom is said to be so beautiful that it makes the observer burst out laughing. The colors are there but they lack the exuberance of the flora of tropical regions.
All these shapes and colors are, naturally, reflected in the crafts of the area. Surrounded by so much of nature’s bounty the craftsman does not have to look elsewhere for his designs. The chenar leaf and the tall, tapering cypress dominate Kashmir designs. Among the birds the kingfisher is a great favourite followed by the magpie, the parrot, the woodpecker and the canary. Human figures are used only in the shikargah, hunting scenes which were a favourite pattern for shawls.
The designs are always evenly balanced and even though the pattern may show numerous flowers, leaves, fine stems and curving stalks, a sense of restraint is always evident keeping the decoration well under control and never allowing it to overflow the boundaries of good taste. Shades of red, pink, blue, yellow, mauve, green and white are used but these reflect the natural colors of the objects depicted and are always subtly blended to avoid garishness. The whole effect is flat and formalized.
This type of hand embroidery is done on articles of personal wear such as shawls, blouses, sarees, and on table linen. The really fine work requires years of training. A visit to a Kashmir craft centre shows how the system works. In a row on the floor of course, sit the workers, all men. The youngest, usually a boy of about eight years old, sits at one end and the oldest, a man sometimes well over 60 years old sits at the other end. In between sit others graded according to age. The boy does the most elementary work on the piece being worked upon. He then passes on the work to the next man who does the slightly more complicated work. The work is thus handled by different people according to their degrees of expertise until it reaches the oldest man who puts in the final and most difficult touches. The apprenticeship system, which can be the only possible method of achieving excellence in handicrafts, is still as much in vogue as it has ever been.
Coarser and more sturdy hand embroidery is done with the awl or crewel on yards of thick, cotton material used for making curtains, cushions and on floor coverings such as namdas (carpets), gabbas (floor-covering) and chain stitch rugs. In all these the chain stitch is used in varying degrees of thickness. The yard goods are usually done in floral designs and when the whole surface needs to be ornamented, flowers and leaves are joined together with curling stems. A line of dark colour immediately next to that in a light colour gives an impression of depth and richness. The embossed effect created by the work makes it a nice change from printed or woven materials and accounts for its great demand in the international market
Namdas are made by pressing felt together. They are then embroidered with chain stitch. At one time they were considered the cheapest floor covering but designers have taken a hand in them and made them so attractive that they have become an art form and have been raised from the floor to the wall where they hang in place of pictures.
Chain stitch rugs are done in pastel shades on hessian cloth and are extremely attractive. The whole surface is covered with the embroidery and is then backed with strong cotton backing material to give them strength and body. The light pinks, blues, creams and greens, blend together in such an aesthetic whole that the rugs become almost too beautiful to be placed on the floor. Bags, screens and cushion covers are other applications of this art.
Gabbas are made from old worn out blankets pressed together. Felt applique in bold designs is held down with chain stitch done with a hook. The designs are bold and can be floral or geometrical. Special designs are made to suit any taste or meet any demand. Thus, those made for children’s rooms show scenes from fairy tales or nursery rhymes or birds and animals.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, the Kashmir craftsman has been exposed to such flattery for centuries. In the 19th century, beautiful Kashmir Jamawar shawls were reproduced on power looms in England and France. The designs have been printed on shawls and scarves in Czechoslovakia and by the famous firm Liberty of England.