​Kantha Embroidery Empowers Women

Posted by Angie Brown on 27th Feb 2019

A highlight for out trip to Kolkata, India was time spent with Shamlu Dudeja, the founder of Self Help Enterprise (SHE), a nonprofit that empowers women through embroidery.

Shamlu, a math educator and textbook writer by profession, has worked with rural women to train and support them to produce exquisite Kantha embroidery pieces. She has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to sell these pieces in both the Indian and global market.

Shamlu and SHE have done much to keep the traditional Bengali art of Kantha embroidery alive. The hallmark of Kantha embroidery is the uniform in size, often tiny, of the overall running stitch.

The detailed and delicate embroidery pattern gives the pieces a dimension that is never boring. The materials and color combinations render some pieces formal and elegant and other pieces perfect for every day, casual wear.

Shamlu’s presence is captivating. She is gracious, perceptive and light-hearted. At 80+, she remains steadfast in her commitment to finding ways to help the women in her nonprofit. "Traditional sewing gives these women hope," said Shamlu.

She oversees the training and development of the women as well as designing the scarves, shawls, saris and home decor that sell around the world. Over the years, the group has experimented with different fabrics, added fashion colors to the line and SHE now produces clothing in western styles, too. The Kantha stitch, however, remains constant on every piece.

We first met Shamlu at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where SHE’s Kantha embroidery is celebrated for its beauty. In 2018 Shamlu's work was recognized when she received the 2018 IFAM Community Impact Award for empowering more than 800 women embroidery artisans.

Her model is simple. She pays the women 50% of the revenue for making the piece; she provides the raw materials. She puts 25% into a foundation that funds projects in the villages such as providing clean water and combating malaria and the remaining 25% covers overhead.

When asked "Why have you focused so much on empowering women? What does empowerment do for women?" She paused then quietly responded saying "When the mother is empowered, the family is empowered. When the family is empowered, the village is empowered and when the village is empowered, the country is empowered.”

Click here and see more of the work from SHE.

Join our friends at the Textile Center for an excursion to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico July 11-14 2019. Check it out! While at the Market, meet up with Jody & Mary Anne and the women of Multicolores, the group of Maya women they trained in the art of rug hooking. (Read their story: Rug Money How A Group of Maya Women Changed Their Lives Through Art and Innovation.)