The narrow streets of Khanyar in Srinagar lead to a small room filled with wool, rolls of fabrics and the smell of kerosene. On the other side of the room, women of different age groups work on the yellowish-white cloth, known locally as Dusout.
These women do crewel embroidery, chain stitches with a special crochet needle locally called Ari, on the prints made on the fabric and make colorful crewel pieces of bags, cushion covers, curtains, sheets bed, etc.
The women of the old city of Srinagar are not only good housekeepers but also proved to be good craftsmen and played a vital role in strengthening the stitches.
Many craftsmen have preserved the rich ancient craftsmanship of Kashmir; most of them are women who win with traditional embroidery styles which are intricate and labor intensive.
In her late fifties, Farida de Khanyar is one of the main craftsmen in the manufacturing unit. She has been associated with art since childhood. Thanks to her years of practice, she holds the needle between her fingers and in no time, she achieves an intricate flower design. After being trained in many government skill development centers, she now runs her own business unit.
She said that many women and young girls came to see her to learn crafts. “They do a tremendous amount of work in a week and come in asking for more work. It’s a good source of income,” she said.
Farida’s sister who lives in Rajbagh and many of her relatives are also associated with art through her.
She said: “Previously, these skills were important for girls in every household to acquire, unlike now, so that women could earn a certain amount while being at home. I take advantage of the trades I learned and today I can take the responsibilities of my family on my shoulders. I don’t depend on anyone. »
During the lockdown and covid restrictions, her work was going smoothly. “Even during the shutdowns, we didn’t suffer any loss of business. We got paid on time. We took all the work home and did it easily,” she said.
Another craftswoman, Dilshada’s weakness pushed her to take up the art. Previously, she used to spin yarn on the traditional spinning wheel. Over time, her eyesight deteriorated and she had to stop spinning.
“I had financial problems at home. I wanted to work but couldn’t because of my poor health. Then I took the crewel embroidery because the thick yarn didn’t strain my eyes and started working again,” she said.
She further added that being at home, she found a good source of employment. “You can take care of your family and at the same time you don’t have to go out. Your mind remains occupied with good things. I never stay idle but I’m always with it. I have years of experience and if I do it with my eyes closed I can always make good designs,” she said.
Ruksana from Nowhatta knows many types of embroidery like crewel, sozni and zardosi. Apart from learning at training centers, she has benefited from the help of YouTube to learn about embroideries which are not yet common in Kashmir. Although she has no education herself, she works for the better future of her younger siblings.
“I couldn’t study because of the poor financial conditions at home. I thought if I couldn’t be educated, at least I could be skillful. I started with crewel embroidery and gradually learned many embroideries. Currently, I work for a number of people who pay me well,” she said.
Hagroo Crewel Arts is one of the oldest manufacturers in Old Town, operating for over 45 years. Created by Ghulam Ahmad Hagroo, who is an artisan, he taught the skill to other artisans, including his grandson, Umar Hagroo, who now runs the ancestral business.
In its manufacturing unit, mainly female craftsmen from Khanyar and other neighboring regions work. “Some of them are skilled while those unfamiliar with the craft are taught here by us. Some work directly with us while some artisans have their own small business units. They take on bulk labor and hire their workers to work for them,” Umer said.
He said that women of all age groups, educated or not, are associated with it. “Today, women make a lot of effort to earn money. Our clients from my grandfather’s time are still associated with us. Some even have their daughters work with us,” she said.
Saadat, daughter of one of the artisans, has been working in Hagroo’s manufacturing unit for 5 years. While preparing for her 12th class exam, she also manages to work. Years ago, little Saadat was bought into the manufacturing unit by her mother with the intention of getting a meager job.
Due to her health issues and having no knowledge of crafts, her mother thought she would be good for cleaning jobs in the unit. Instead, Umer introduced her to sewing Crewel products.
“At first she didn’t talk to anyone but we taught her how to sew crewel bags and stuff and she gradually learned. Over time she started to gain confidence and now she tells me what to do and what not to do,” Umer said.
Talking to Saadat, she said she lost her maternal grandmother years ago which caused her depression. “I was very close to my grandmother. She died suddenly of a heart attack and I couldn’t cope with her death. I sank into depression and started losing interest in everything. I refused to speak to everyone. Then my mother bought me here and I saw a lot of women working,” she said.
All the women in the unit were nice to her and some reminded her of her grandmother. “Little by little, I came out of depression and started to take an interest in my work. I learned a lot here and also started my treatment with the money I earned here,” she said.
Saadat lives with her parents and a younger sister who is also studying. She aspires to continue her studies and to experience other professions as well.
The process of making crewel artwork begins with the pure cotton fabric. The different prints are traced onto the fabric using kerosene. Then, the fabric is brought back to the manufacturing units where the craftsmen work. The plain yarn comes from Rajasthan. Different shades of colors are used to dye the yarn. The dyeing is carried out by the traditional dyers of the old town. The colored thread is then adapted to make colored patterns with a special needle called Ari.
Once the embroidery has been done by craftsmen, the fabric is washed and returned to the manufacturing unit. Then it is cut and sewn into bags, sheets, etc. For Crewel handbags, willow rings are used, which serve as handles in handbags. A large number of people are associated with the making of crewel art pieces which finds relevance in Kashmir and outside as well.
It is considered a must have in every bride’s trousseau. Crewel curtains, cushion covers provide a rich look to home interiors. Hand carved Crewel embroidery bags are also popular in contemporary times.