*This post was edited on August 12th, 2019.
The word “chicken” is probably a derivative from the Persian word “chikin” or “chikeen” which means embroidered fabric. This form of embroidery became very popular with the king and his nobles and was embroidered on the finest muslins garments perfect for the hot, Delhi weather. These dresses do not stick to your body and are extremely light in weight. They allow your skin to have fresh air even in extremely hot conditions. This exquisite needlework gained popularity during the Mughal Empire. It is believed to have been introduced by Nur Jehan, Mughal emperor Jahangir’s wife in Lucknow/Delhi. Chikankari has found references as early as 3rd century BC. Megasthenes, a Greek traveler has mentioned about this unique craft involving the use of flowered muslin by Indians.
After the decline and fall of the Mughal court, the artisans and craftsmen scattered across India and the sub-continent. Some settled in West Bengal, some fled to the Northern state of Awadh and some probably settled in now what is called Pakistan. In its hay days, the Chikankari was only associated with embroidery which was white on white, known as whitework. Today, you can see chikankari work on mostly fresh pastel colors of muslin, however, I have seen it on deep colors as well. Originally, it was done on kurtas only, but today I have seen it done on saris and shawls also. The patterns are mostly inspired by Mughal architecture and the cloth used can be cotton, muslin, chiffon, georgette, organza etc. While scouring Karachi for chikankari, we found out that there are two types: cotton casuals that are usually worn in the daytime and a more formal range which includes kamdani or gotawork (See HERE). Whether it’s a day wedding, a Sunday brunch or another day at work, chikankari is always the perfect choice!
Where to find it?
If you live in Karachi, there are numerous places where you can get your hand on good-quality, handmade chickankari. I don’t know about you, but I prefer and cherish hand embroidery over machine embroidery. If you live in Karachi, then search HERE for the finest chikankari embroidery in the city.
How is it made?
As the entire work of designing is done by hand, the creation of this art involves a few steps:
1. Design – The designer motifs are mostly inspired from the Mughal era. More natural elements are incorporated into the design like flowers and leaves. When Chikankari was still in a very nascent stage, FISH was an integral part of the design as it was also the emblem of the court of Oudh.
2. With Engravings and Block Printing – Once the design is approved, it is engraved on one or more design blocks. Design blocks are then used for block printing on the ground fabric.
3. Stitches (Embroidery) – A master embroiderer then creates his or her magic by making use of different types of stitches. The type of stitches and the thickness of the thread determine the patterns and effects created on the fabric. There are more than 35 stitches used in Chikankari to give a unique look to each design. All these 35 stitches are mainly classified into 3 main types. Flat, embossed, and raised stitches. Flat stitches are very subtle in nature and remain close to the fabric. Embossed stitches provide a grainy appearance to the fabric. The dress in the feature picture is all Chikankari.