One of our favorite Indian embroideries is chikankari, which is also called shadow work because it's traditionally been a white-on-white embroidery originally done on fine cotton cloth. It's now done on a variety of fabrics, from chiffons to silks.
We can almost guarantee that you've seen this embroidery work before, but its South Asian cultural history typically doesn't accompany its use. From Talbots "tunics" to high fashion garments, chikankari is one of many forms of South Asian craftsmanship that has been taken from the region without context. We don't think chikankari or other specialty fabrics and embroideries should be reserved only for South Asians wearing South Asian garments, but we want the maintain their histories and nuances even as they're introduced to new audiences.
This embroidery was made for royalty. Many accounts say Noor Jahan, the wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, introduced Chikan, which was originally a Persian art, to India in the 17th century. (Source) Her patronage spread knowledge of the craft throughout modern day India, but the region of Awadh remained the home of the art as the embroidery became a favorite among Mughal nobility. The embroidery patterns themselves are influenced by the intricate carving patterns of Mughal architecture. (Source)
Credit: Sundari Silks
In the next century the Mughal Empire declined while local governors in the Awadh region of what is now North India continued to prosper and gain increasing independence. The British would soon notice their prosperity and take a lot of their territory (notice a theme of colonialism in several of our blog posts, including this one about what Bridgerton and Indian fashion have in common). Fortunately, despite the changes in regime, artisans continued to preserve Chikan work.
Lucknow, one of the cities in the Awadh region, remains central to the craft. That is why chikankari is sometimes called "lucknowi" work. Today there are 5000 families involved in Chikankari embroidery in and around villages of Lucknow. The artisans belong to local Muslim community. Delhi and Mumbai are the other centers for Chikankari work. Within those centers, nearly 90% of Chikankari work is done by women professionally. Unfortunately, many of the women are exploited and are not properly compensated for their expertise. Recently, there are more organizations trying to change that. If you know of small family-run chikankari businesses, let us know! We'd love to work with them.
Credit: The Lucknow Observer
Here are a few of our favorite outfits that use Chikan work: