Soulful Stitching: Background

After working from the outer edges to the center (the reverse of most Western quilters, and regarded as a more difficult, challenging way of working), some quilters finish the edges with a row of stitches that seals the backing to the patchwork. One seemingly mandatory decoration is the sewing at each corner of the quilt one or more square patches folded twice to form a multi-layered triangle called phula, or “flower.”  These serve no specific function, yet they are essential to a properly finished or “dressed” Siddi quilt and are a distinctive style element. As one Siddi quilter explained to me, “they must be there, if not, the quilt would be naked!”


Aesthetics
Soulful Stitching: Quilters showing work, Mainalli village

Quilters showing work, Mainalli village

Siddi quilts are highly individualistic and unique, yet quilters share many clear and precise opinions about quality and beauty, and the need to “finish properly” a quilt with  phulas/flowers at the corners. The size and shape of the quilts and their patches vary significantly from quilter to quilter. Sizes generally fall into several categories and are measured by a “hand” – the length between the elbow and fingertips of the quilter, which can thus vary. The size categories are: large/family (6×6 hands); double (5×6 hands); single (3×5 hands); and baby/crib (2×3 hands). Some quilts are quite regular and orderly, others are more varied, dynamic, and “unruly” in terms of colors, patterns, and scale. Some have no or few small patches scattered over the surface, others are be-jeweled with lots of small, colorful patches (tikeli), and these quilts elicit much praise for their pains-taking artistry. Quilters unanimously admire work with straight lines of small, regular, closely-spaced and carefully rendered running back stitches, and the rhythms created by the patterns of stitches and patches. In terms of color, Siddis prefer bright and light colors and patterns, which makes sense given their interior domestic contexts – dark sleeping rooms in homes with small, shuttered windows, only recently supplied with electricity. When not in use or folded in piles in a room, kawandi are displayed outside, hanging from roofs, clotheslines, or fences in order to air out and dry in the sun. Their bright colors and vibrant patterns contrast sharply with the brownish red earth and tiled roofs. The beauty and artistry of the finest quilts sometimes prompts friends and neighbors to commission a quilt from a master quilter, but the vast majority are made by and for a family member.


Uses

Quilts are traditionally made for family members as sleeping mattresses or covers to keep them warm during the cool, damp Monsoon nights (May-September). Small, crib-sized ones are often highly decorated with bright colors and lots of small patches. As quilters explained, these are to “entertain and enliven” the children. These fill wooden cribs suspended from the rafters of Siddi homes.  Larger ones come in sizes to accommodate one, two or more family members. Ones for three or more persons are seen as auspicious for they imply progeny — a prosperous, growing family with children. Old or tattered quilts may be repaired with additional patches both in front and back, but when they are no longer useful for sleeping, they serve other purposes – some may be re-cycled into newly stitched quilts, others will be used for cleaning, a door mat, or a verandah shade, until they fall apart and are thrown away.