Chikan Embroidery of Lucknow

Textile Ornamentation in Awadh

Credits: Sushma Swarup (Costumes & Textiles of Awadh) & Paola Manfredi (Chikankari – a Lucknawi Tradition) 

The Nawabs were connoisseurs of art and they patronised the most precious textiles and ornamentation, which then became instrumental in creating the nazakat and nafasat characteristic of the period. During the period of the nawabs, traditional Indian textiles achieved their beauty from the variety of materials used; like kinkwab, mulmul, jamdani, jamavar, to the variety of embroidery, from chiankari, applique-work and zardozi. Ornamentation with the use of kalabattun, badla-work (silver or gilt flat- wire embroidery), silver or gilt flat-wire embroidery, sitara-work (sequins work), mukaish­-work (tiny dots embroidered with badla), the technique of verek-work (applying gold and silver leaf to a hand­-block printed onto the fabric), gota-work and kinari (edging with a tasselled border) contributed immensely to embellish the garments of this period.


Mulmul was the preferred textile of the Nawabs, as it was fine and well – suited to the climate. The beauty of this textile was such to even attract the attention of poets. Amir Khusrau, the fourteenth-century poet, was so struck by the beauty and sensuousness of these gossamer fabrics that he wrote (Yafa 2006):

One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water.’

Fine muslin could only be woven during the rains and specifically in the morning hours when the moisture in the air enables the thread to be easily pulled and then woven. The quality of the cotton was determined by the tendency of the fibers to expand with moisture in the air, the sizing done on the yarns and the inherent design of the pit looms. Teenage girls were engaged to spin on these fine threads with their delicate hands. They were given poetic names, representing the quality or particular use of the material. Generally, they were called by names like mulmul khas (the finest sort), jhuna (not very fine), ab-i-rawan (running water), shabnam (evening dew), albaillee (unique), tanzeb (that adorns the Body)body), nayan-sukh (pleasing to the eye), seer-bund (used for turban) and jamdani (figured cloth).

Although muslin was earlier produced in Dacca (in present-day Bangladesh), as the demand grew in Awadh during the Nawabi Era, muslin began to be woven in the neighbouring villages of Lucknow. In particular, muslin with damasked patterns were made at Banaras and Rampur, Jais in the Rae Bareilly district and Mamudi in Hardoi district. The varieties such as sharbati, adhi and tarandam were plain muslin and were produced at Mahmudnagar. Striped muslin (doria) were made in Mau in the Azamgarh district. The Nawabs thus contributed to the textile by adding more variety to it.


These fabrics are remarkable for their fineness of texture, intricacy and flawless executions of their patterns, the charm and high artistic values of which have given Awadh a pride of place among the famous seats of the art Productions in the world.’ Jamdani is a textured weave where extra weft is used to create patterns, while muslin is a plain weave.

In Awadh, Jamdani the garment was decorated with small flower butis bunches  of  stylized floral patterns or diagonally arranged bel-patti to produce a delicate and sophisticated effect. Buti is a single motif and is called buta when the motif happens to be large. The various flowers and fruits depicted were chameli buti (jasmine), guldaudi buti (chrysanthemum), genda buti (marigold), turanj or kairi (shape of a green mango with a light curve at the tip) and pan buti (heart- shaped).


It was in the brocades that the distinctive Awadhi Ganga-Jamuni effect was most discernible, through the simultaneous use of gold and silver threads. Silk and zari brocades were the most attractive and beautiful among fabrics, which also indicate the higher status of the wearer. Brocade is a term that applies to elaborately and intricately woven patterns in silk and cotton. Zari thread making and zari cloth weaving date back hundreds of years.

The artisans were brought to Banaras from Surat during Mughal period. Shantilal Zariwala of Surat, a silk weaver says, ‘One of the reasons for the development of the zari industry in Surat could be the humid climate here because of the Tapti River and the city’s proximity to the Arabian Sea.’ He also explains that the humid atmosphere ensures that the core yarn filament used in the zari sticks together.

The Nawabs of Awadh showed a preference for the brocades of Banaras for their chogas and angarkhas and patronized these artisans. Sometimes, the pote (material) was specifically woven according to the designs of the chongas

Brocade weaving involved a well defined process. The naksha (design) was first made on paper, known as likhai (writing), and was then woven with a cotton thread on a small wooden frame as a sample. Once sample was acceptable, the weavers proceeded to the final weaving with zari threds, silk yarn to both. 


Makhmal or velvet, one of the most beautiful and luxurious fabrics, was used profusely by the Nawabs in Lucknow. Makhmal is Arabic in origin and was brought to India by Arab traders. Earlier, it was mainly used for tents, canopies, carpets and saddles. In Awadh, makhmal was used abundantly in ceremonial costumes and for special occasions.

Unlike the brocade, makhmal offered a plain background to the artisans to show their workmanship, and the zardoz artisans enriched them with gold, silver, pearls and precious stones to render exquisite pieces of work. 


Jamavar weaving holds the pride for being one of the best forms of the weaving art. Originally, the word Jamavar referred to the 3’ 3/4  yard woven fabric lengths used for making jamas (long coats) – jama meaning robe and var meaning yard. The Nawabs were fond of this art that has its origins in the fifteenth century when Zain-ul-Abidin ruled Kashmir, and reached its zenith during the Mughal period. Emperor Akbar started the practice of wearing it as a shawl in winters.

Jamavar shawls were mad from the fine yarn spun from the wool of the Caprahircus goat found in Kashmir. First, the wool was cleaned, spun into yarn by women and then sold to the dyers.

The process involved in the making of a Jamavar shawl is best explained by Meera Kumar:’ Once the warp was laid, it would take anywhere between 18 months to three years to wave a Jamavar depending upon the intricacy of the design. To prevent yarn breakage for these long sessions on the warp, warp dressers starched the threads with a thin paste of rice flour to prevent them from fraying and breaking on the loom. This was later washed out and the waters of Jhelum were said to have a special effect on the fabric imparting a unique softness to the finished product.

A vast variety of colours were used for weaving. Upto fifty colours could be used to make a single shawl. The most popular colours were zard (yellow), sefed (white), firozi (turquoise), ingari (green), uda (purple), gul-e-anar (pomegranate crimson), orange, saffron and kirmiz (scarlet). Most of the colours were produced by vegetable dyes. To produce mushki (black) colour iron fillings were used, which was also responsible for the early damage of the shawl cloth.


Chikankari is the most artistic and delicate type of white -on- white embroidery and provides elegance to the garment by laying special emphasis on the technique, forms and designs. In perfect Nawabi nazakat and nafasat, its charm lies in its minuteness, evenness and its subtle appearance. This craft was used to embellish chon gas, angarkhas, kurtas, topis and chapkans.

Historically, chikankari was done in Dacca and Calcutta in Bengal. It was brought to Lucknow during the period of luxury and extravagance that characterized the court of Awadh. The chikankari of Lucknow became popular and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. 


Describing the stitches used in chikan embroidery might appear a simple and straight forward listing of technical skills, which artisans master with various degrees of competence, but actually it is more complex than that. The stitches and how well they are executed are one aspect, but others relevant factors concern the artisan/designer’s choice of the blocks ­ designs, the placing and spacing of the blocks within a composition, and last but certainly not least, the choice of stitches and the interplay of their different textures.

Literature promoting Lucknawi chikan and some master craft persons have a tendency to stress, as evidence of the sophistication and intricacy of the skill, on a rather considerable number of stitches proper to chikan embroidey. Some accomplished artisans claim to know upto 75 stitches, while others admit to more modest repertoires of 36 or 52! The sampler made by Rukhshana, one of the most accomplished crafts women from SEWA-Lucknow in the early 1990s, for example, includes 33′ stitches’.

However, many artisans also agree that the confusion stems from the fact that little motifs that are achieved by combining sequences of stitches and that form individual units, are actually assimilated to separate stitches. These’ compound stitches’ generally follow a specific sequence, but at times on particularly creative pieces there are unusual interpretations, such as instead of the phanda or the little pearl like shape in the middle of the motif there is a hul stitch.

Following is a brief enumeration of the chief stitches.


This is usually done by women and is the cheapest form of work. It consists of a sort of darn stitch in which the thread is drawn through the fabric in more or less parallel and straight lines. The design is simply outlined and it is ordinarily done on muslin. 


This is a form of applique’ produced on calico or linen, never on muslin. Minute pieces of the same material as the fabric are sewn to the surface, in a elaboration of the folio and floral designs, these are so minute that it requires very careful observation to detect that the design is mainly in appliqué not embroidery. The details are then filled in by taipchi or some of the other stitches to beshortly described. Khatao is one of the two forms of what are collectively designated the flat embroidery of Lucknow   in contradistinction to the Forms of embossed or knotted chikan work.


This is the true flat chikan work of which khatao is but a cheap imitation. It might be described as inverted satin stitch. In other words the thread is mainly thrown below and is employed ineffective opaque spaces and lines on fine muslin. The needle nips the material on the upper surface by minute stitches thus outlining the petals, leaves, etc., while the thread is carried below and accumulates in compact masses, until the fine muslin on the embroidered portions is no longer transparent. It is this effect that the skilful worker desire to produce and which has received the name of bukhia.

MURRI (rice-shaped)

This form is practiced on muslin only. The thread may be described as forming numerous knots or warts of a pyriform shape. These are in reality produced by a sort of minute satin­ stitch but the embroidered patches rarely exceed one-eighth or even one-sixteenth of an inch in size, and thus look like French knots.

PHANDA (millet form)

This is simply a small and less elongated condition of murri stitch. The knots are very minute and practically spherical, that is to say, not drawn out (or pear-shaped) as in murri. The presence of phanda is the surest indication of the high class of the work. The knots are very frequently not more than one thirty-second part of an inch in size and in that case are aggregated together to form the filling of leaves and petals. This is one of the most graceful developments of Lucknow embroidery and the one that may be described as most characteristic of this great centre of needle work.

JALI (fishing net)

This when met with in chikan work is commonly spoken of as drawn stitch, but as a matter of fact the Lucknow embroiderers regard the drawing out of a thread (tar) as a slovenly imitation of true jail embroidery. In true Jali the strands of the warp and weft are pushed on one side by the needle and held in that position by a sort of extremely minute button-holing. There are various forms of Jali in Lucknow chikan.

The chief are the following:-

MADRASI-JALI : This consists of a series of minute squares usually about one-sixteenth inch in diameter. of these one is opened, the other left closed and third broken into four still more minute openings.

CALCUTTA-JALI : (as produced in Lucknow) consists of a series of openings one-half the size of the Madrasi-Jali but assorted in parallel bands with alternating bands not perforated. In neither of these forms are any threads drawn out.

SIDDHAUR JALI (simple Jali) : (Usually produced by women) is drawn Jali and is the form seen in all cheap work. The openings are irregularly shaped, approximately squares, but usually not bound by button-holing in any form. In Calcutta chikan work is called box-work, especially in the larger or coarser condition as practiced with calico and linen tea-table covers. A feature of Lucknow chikan must be mentioned, namely that yellow or tasar silk is largely used in the filling of petals or leaves. Phanda work is, as a rule, done in tasar. This peculiarity instantly distinguishes the chikan work of Lucknow from that of the rest of India.


As the name suggests, the embroidery motifs are in the shape of flowers and leaves. This is a delicate form of appliqué work on cotton that flourished in Aligarh under the Nawabs. This textile decoration style consists of little pieces of fine muslin fabric that are cut by hand and then delicately folded and stitched onto the fabric to create a variety of beautiful patterns in shapes of phool patti. The entire embroidery is done by hand. This work used to adorn the neckline and pusht (back) of angarkhas of the Nawabs and shalukas and dupattas worn by the begums. This art is mainly practiced by women folk, who are referred to as patti karigars. In khatao work, or reverse applique, the pattern is cut and sewn on the inner side of the garment, creating a smooth finish on the outer side of the garment.


Daraz ka kaam is a unique way of assembling two pieces of a garment through invisible stitches, which are concealed in the daraz (fissure) and produce a decorative see­-through effect. Tiny pieces of muslin, cut out in different shapes, are applied either on the surface or between the two surfaces and outlined with fine stitches. All this used to be done by hand, including the finishing of edges and joining of the seams. It is visible only when seen against the light. It was through these kinds of touches of detailed workmanship that the nawabi refinement and elegance permeated the atmosphere. Different motifs were used for joining the seams, such as phool-daraz (flower), macchli-daraz(fish) and patti-daraz (leaves).


Zardozi, being opulent and luxurious in nature, was greatly adopted and appreciated by the Nawabs and reached its highest level of sophistication during the Nawabi period. It is an embroidered extravaganza in gold and silver threads, predominantly produced on makhmal, kinkwabs (type of brocade) or precious silks. The word zardozi is derived from two Persian words, zar meaning gold and silver threads, and dozi meaning embroidery.

Lsrar Husain of Lucknow, an artisan of zardozi, has described the workmanship as follows. The first step is to trace a pattern or design on butter paper, which is the n transferred on the cloth to be worked upon.


The most unique and original type of workmanship in Awadh was the chatta-patti work. This work was labour­intensive and required large quantities of precious silk. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Attia Zaidi, a famous chatta-patti artisan of Lucknow. The chief garments upon which such embroidery was done were kalidar payjamas and farshi payjamas. The finished payjama was called’ tukri ki gote ka paijama’.The workmanship consisted in sewing various fabrics of Varying colours and designs. A pattern was made on a piece of cardboard called farma and layers of differently coloured fabrics were cut according to the designs of the farma. These pieces were then skillfully sewn together, according to a particular colour scheme.

Chatta-patti has a rich repertoire of patterns. The most common was the mahapusht (shape of fish scales) as it developed on the emblem of the Nawabs of Awadh. The level of complexity in the workmanship depended on the number of angles involved   in the pattern. In fact, the most difficult patterns were the sitare ki gate (star-shaped) and  asht pahal (having eight sides). Other patterns included chariyon ki gote (straight vertical lines), gilloriyon or singhare ki gote (triangular­ shaped), patake ki gote (square shaped), namakpare ki gote (diamond shaped), katari ki gate (semi-circular shaped), koni ki gote (horizontal zig–zag design) and aari-chariyon ki gote (Diagonal Lines)


Kamdani is another rare craft of Awadh and epitomizes the exemplary Luckhnavi delicacy of the opulent courts of the Nawabs. Using both gold and silver wires together created the beautiful Ganga-Jamuni effect, characteristic of the era. While in brocades this effect is achieved by weaving with gold and silver zari threads, in kamdani it is achieved by embroidery with gold and silver wires. Such embroidery was usually produced on silk and cotton.

Pure gold and silver flat wires were used to create small knots or dots called fardi. In the words of Sudipta Dev, ‘The badla [flattened gold or silver wire] is attached to the thread of a needle. As the needle passes through the cloth, tightened around the finger, the succeeding folds of the wire on the cloth make the knot or buti. A minimum of three folds are needed for teen sui ki fardi [three-thread knots]. By increasing the number of wire folds, the size of the knots also increases… the folds are rubbed with a cowrie (shell) in order to deeply embed it in the cloth

The main stitches used were karan phool (straight ­line flower), munda phool (flower with petals) and patta (leaf) and the popular motifs were floral butis, peepal or paan and amiya or kairi. This craft is mainly done on white chiffon and, once completed; it can be dyed in any colour desired without losing the shine of the badla. The chunnis of cotton, and later of net and chiffon, were sprinkled with Jardi-butis that created a shimmering effect of star-lit night. The minute Jardi  butis were joined to form elaborate motifs.


This craft had its origin in Rajasthan and the artisans were given patronage in the court of the Nawabs. A gota is a ribbon in which gold or silver thread forms the weft and silk or cotton thread the warp. With a slight hemming or simple running stitch, gota work involves placing woven ribbon onto the garment to create different surface textures. This can be plain or can be pressed with a hot wooden block to produce crimples, giving a sense of movement to the surface. The pressings are of various designs. Different names are given according to the width of the gota. A two-inch broad gota is called lachka and when it is pressed with a hot wooden block, it is known to be pattha; thin gota is called dhanak or dhanush, meaning rainbow; hoof-shaped is chutki; pointed gota is champa; and one with diagonal lines is uttudar; bankuri is a thin gota, used to embellish the borders of chunnis.

It was used in various     forms and shapes to make motifs and created sheer magic on dupattas,farshi payjamas, kalidar payjamas and lehengas. This made these garments perfect for festive and formal wear.


The popularity of verek ka kaam (a technique of printing) reflects the luxurious lifestyle of the Nawabs. In this a technique, engraved hand-blocks were dipped in a resinous substance and then stamped on to the fabric. The pattern is then sprinkled with gold, silver or mica which adheres to the area with resin on it to produce a rich surface. Further luster is given to the fabric by buffing it to on stone. Gold and silver were used to add a rich effect to the garments of Nawab. This technique was brought to Awadh from Rajputana region (present day Rajasthan). 


The textile hand printing industry of Awadh is over 300 years old with its centre in Farrukhabad. Although established much earlier it flourished under the patronage of the Nawabs. A number of wooden blocks, depending on the complexity of the design, are needed to complete one design. These blocks are made of shisham and come from the neighbouring city of Lucknow. The blocks are kept in oil for a few days to increase their softness.

The first step in    the process transferring      the design on to the fabric involves making an outline called raek. The block makers from Phila kuva in Uttar Pradesh specialize in making blocks with engraved brass-wires into the grooves, that are used for outlining the design. The design is traced  on the fabric with the aid of a small tipni (iron needle). Through a process called dattai, different colours are then printed over the outline in sequential order. Once the design is complete, the textile is dipped in diluted sulfuric acid for fixing the colour. Finally, the textile is washed in running water.

During the Nawabi period, block printing was mainly employed on hand-spun cotton, silk and masbru fabrics and it was used for quilted angarkbas, dagla, mirzai, quilt covers and curtains. It was known as Lakhnavi fard. The traditional prints of Lucknow were kairi (mango) called kebri or turanj in Awadh, biccbu, phool, cbena-patti, bajra and jamavar. Animal, bird and human figures, along with the floral and the geometric patterns were other designs.


“Dosh-e-nazuk par dupatta is kadar rukta na thaKal jo rangne me zara gahra gulab ho gaya”

(The veil was unable to rest on my delicate shoulders, For yesterday it was dyed to a deeper pink than usual)

The Awadh region has always been famed for its dyes. Dying is the process by which a fabric is immersed in a solution, mixed with colours extracted from vegetable, animal and mineral sources, in order to dye it. Begums and other women dyed their chunnis in various colours for festive occasions. Excellence in dyeing was achieved by a dyer from Fatehganj, who was capable of dyeing two sides of cloth in two different colours. Gama was another master dyer at the time of Nasir-ud-Din Haider. The use of jhamak or bukka (mica flakes), mixed with colours, added extraordinary beauty to the chunnis and saris.

A technique of tie-and-dye called lahariya (diagonal lines of alternate colour) was also used for dyeing chunnis. Compared to other regions, Awadh developed its own method. Firstly, the dampened chunnis were folded in various layers and spread horizontally on wooden planks. Then fitas (cotton ribbons) of various colours and widths were applied on the chunnis. This process involves two dyers simultaneously one holds it tight with the index finger and thumb on both sides and the second person presses the fitas with the finger. In this way the colour penetrates all the folds of the chunni and creates the coloured diagonal designs.


Credits: Sushma Swarup (Costumes & Textiles of Awadh) & Paola Manfredi (Chikankari – a Lucknawi Tradition)