This spectacular embroidered quilt, known as a nakshi kantha, was one of a group of three designed by Surayia Rahman and hand made by homeless women in Bangladesh in the early 1980s under a scheme called "Skill Development for Under Privileged Women". Each quilt was made by eight women working everyday for a year. Of the three, one was gifted to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who said it would end up in one of the Windsor Castle bedrooms; a second was purchased by a textile museum in Germany and the third was purchased by the donor and her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
It is thought that Bangladeshi women may have began to produce kantha, which have been part of the culture and tradition of Bangladesh for as long as anyone can remember, around the seventeenth century. Kantha means 'patched cloth', and kantha making was the equivalent of quilt-making in the West when old fabrics were given a second life by being transformed into something new. The women of Bangladesh layered old saris and dhotis one on top of the other, then covered them in either red or cream hand-woven cotton. These were then quilted through all the layers and embroidered with geometric and figurative designs using threads drawn from the borders of old saris.
Quilt making for the home had died out in Bengal by 1925 but is now being revived using old patterns and methods but with good quality materials. Traditionally, many kanthas featured a lotus flower as the central motif. The lotus was thought to provide protection from the evil eye and to be a supplication to the gods. Another popular design was the mandala - symbolising the unity of the universe. As in Western samplers, Bangladeshi women would also embroider familiar homilies into their kanthas.
A kantha is often given as a gift. Shape and size determine the kantha's usage, which can be anything from a bed cover to a cover for a Quran in a Muslim household. A pregnant women will sew a kantha for her baby and a bride-to-be will take a new kantha to her husband's household.
Christina Sumner, Curator Decorative Arts and Design, 2002