The Art Of Appliqué in India 

Appliqué from Gujarat

From old research, 2001:

Appliqué is derived form the Latin word ‘applicare’ meaning ‘to fold’ or ‘to fasten’. It is the technique of applying colorful fabric pieces on the base fabric. Raw edges of these patches are finished with a definite mode of stitchery work. It developed as a means of mending old cloth or old garments from economical considerations. Cutting and pasting them on new fabric also preserved expensive and old fabrics. We have evidence that it was used many years ago by Indians in Arizona and Canada and by the natives of New Zealand and Japan.

Excavations from the Mohenjo-daro and Harappa sites have uncovered embroidery needles from between 2300 – 1500B.C. We also have literary and archaeological evidences highlighting the existence of highly exquisite Indian textiles. The image of the bearded man wearing a shawl with the trefoil motif on it, found from the Mohenjo-daro excavations, along with references to Indian cotton, Indian textile trade from the travelogues of Ibn Batuta, Alberuni, Huein Tsang and Marco Polo go a long way in proving the association of India to textiles.

There are a vivid variety of Indian textiles in woven, embroidered, printed and other techniques. They range from Kanchipurams to Benarasis, Phulkaris to Kanthas, Saudagiris to Kalamkaris. Most of the textiles survive to this day winding through lanes of history. History has seen them come under the patronage of the Delhi Sultanate, the Great Mughal Empire, Nawabs and Rajas, and the Europeans- Portuguese, French and the British. Appliqué is a textile technology that survives till today, not enjoying any royal patronage, but as an essential part to daily existence.

The tools and materials required for Appliqué : –

  • The ideal fabric is poplin. It has a good weave, is opaque and does not crease easily.
  • The colors have to be fast.
  • The new fabric has to be pre shrunk.
  • Silk is not used, as it is difficult to handle. Terrycot and mixed cotton  – synthetic are difficult to fold crisply.
  • Fine corduroy, velvet, and cotton-wool mixtures are good.
  • The fabrics of the base and the applied should be of the same weight.
  • However, generally thin fabrics are good for small and thick fabrics for large shapes.
  • Scissors.
  • Pins.
  • Needles. Preferably, nos. 9 and 10 as thick needles leave a mark on the fabric.
  • Cotton thread.
  • Thimble

Although, the origin of appliqué is not known, there are no examples in India prior to the 19th century. But, pieces found of that period are of sophisticated workmanship.

Through the ‘Gota’ textiles wrapped lanes of old Jaipur

The main centers of appliqué in India are Pipli in Orissa, Rampur in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. These centers have gained importance as they have carried out appliqué on a much wider scale, since history. In these centers appliqué developed not only on an economic level, but also as a craft reaching the extent of finesse and excellence. There are derivations of appliqué in the form of ‘gota’ work. ‘Gota’ work has been an integral part of the Rajasthani and Punjabi costume. Especially catering to Rajasthan, as it is used extensively in marriages and religious functions. The main center of ‘Gota’ embroidery is now Nayala, near Jaipur (more on ‘Gota’ in a future post).

Appliqué in Gujarat:

Appliqué is an integral part of the embroidery of Gujarat. It is known as ‘katab’, mainly in Saurashtra, signifying colored fabrics on a white ground. It is mainly based on the technique of patchwork with colored or patterned fabric, finely cut into various forms and sizes. These then become the motifs, which are placed on a plain background, and stitched. Sine the aim is to beautify individual items and not merely to recycle fabrics, Gujarat uses appliqué for household items and not personal. This results into items for religious and marriage ceremonies (appliquéd textiles being an integral par of a girl’s dowry), in rituals and festivals, for domestic furnishings, and for use on horses, camels, donkeys and bullocks.

The more popular stitches are satin, herringbone, double ladder, chain, running, used often in combination with mirror work. Embroidery is generally done with cotton, silk or woollen thread on fabrics of the same material. Floss silk is also very popular because of its shine.

The motifs are mainly highly stylized  geometric and human figures. The motifs most popularly used are of animals. Horse symbolizes social owner .It is used in social, religious, marriage and military ceremonies. It is a symbol for speed and pride also. The Muslim have highly stylized this motif as the Koran forbids a depiction of human and animal forms. It is also a symbol of strength and wisdom. Elephant symbolizes good fortune. It is also a symbol of wisdom and is revered for its strength and stability. Birds in flight symbolize the free spirit. But, while nestling in trees symbolize the soul of the faithful. A peacock in its own represents the absent lover, while a pair denotes the poignancy of separated lovers. It is also a symbol of onset of monsoons and desire for rain.

There are two types of Gujarati applique work: Kathiawari work and Mahajan community work.

In the Kathiawari work the figures are stylized and silhouetted with no additional decorative details.

In the Mahajan community work there is a preference for geometric ornamentation, and red on white colors. They also did ‘deplique’ work – squares of red cloth were cut into and folded back, to reveal a pattern on the white background clothe of flowers, birds or elephants set within foliage.

 Excellent appliqué is made in Cairo, for the canopies and stalls in the bazaar. Egyptian designs are of fine, geometric and formal floral ornaments, reminiscent of Islamic tiles, but the technique is that used in Kathiawar. It is possible, therefore, that the sudden development of the craft in Kathiawar occurred through trading contacts with the Middle East. The Indians adopted the method the of their won motifs on hangings and canopies for their own specific needs, taking inspiration and the mood from the Indian environment.


  • The women make the designs from their imagination; they do not draw the pattern on the fabric before cutting the fabric. They think the pattern and directly cut the fabric.
  • More traditional motifs such as horse, peacock, birds, flower, tree of life are used.
  • Small and fine stitches are used to sew the pattern on the fabric.
  • Brighter colors are used.
  • The motifs are made in one continuous panel and not separately, i.e. the motif springs from the panel here and there, a peacock and a horse may be cut from the same fabric continuously and not as two separate motifs.


  • Even here the women do not draw the patterns on the fabric.
  • The motifs are more organic and simple.
  • Long and quick hemming is done to stitch the pattern to the fabric.
  • More commercial than in Dwarka or Patan.


  • The style of appliqué here is in between the more traditional Dwarka and the more commercial Ahmedabad styles.
  • The motifs here are very balanced and symmetric. e.g. if there’s a bird on the left hand bottom corner then there will be a similar bird on the right hand bottom corner.

Appliqué in Bihar:

  • The technique of folding the pattern is similar to Gujarat.
  • The patterns have a bird’s eye view perspective to them; they are not depicted from any other angle.
  • There are lots of human figures, animals and geometric patterns – circles, semi circles.
  • The colors are mainly red, blue, but there are earthy tones present like mustard.
  • Like Gujarat the end products here are mainly household products.
  • Both in Gujarat and Bihar appliqué is a household craft made by the women for presenting to their daughter on marriage.

Appliqué in Orissa:

Pipli, famously known as the village of color, derives it name from the art of appliqué practiced here since ages. Appliqué is locally known as ‘Ralli’. Traditionally, the canopies of Lord Jagannath, his brother, Balbhadra, and his sister, Subhadra, were made out of appliqué. Thus, appliqué was always favored as an important art form. The Jagannath temple at Puri, has records saying that in 1054 AD, Maharaja Brijkishor of Puri appointed tailors of the “dorji” (tailor) community as “sevaks” (devotees). Their task was to provide a steady flow of appliquéd articles for the daily “sevas” (worship) of the Lord, mainly for the garments of the Lord that were changed everyday. ). Pilgrims coming to Puri would stop at Pipli to buy banners as offerings to temple gods, and on the way home would buy some souvenir Based on this record, it can be assumed that appliqué flourished in Orissa around the 11th century, mainly due to religious patronage.

The process of making appliquéd motifs here is very similar to the other hand made appliqués in India. The variations being that the pattern is cut out on cardboard like paper and then this is stenciled on to the fabric. The fabric is arranged in several layers so that there is minimum wastage of fabric and time.

 The base fabric required for appliquéd is also made from various fabrics that are stitched together before the pattern is stitched on to the fabric.

The stitches used are mainly running, chikan, buttonholing.

The most popular motifs prevalent in the appliqués of Pipli are:

‘Mali phool’ – meaning ‘white flower’ – this is made from white muslin called ‘sallu’. Now, even mirrors are added for giving more visual attraction to the fabric.

 ‘Surajmukhi phool’ – meaning sunflower – in this motif different triangular pieces of fabric are attached in a circular form. This ensures maximum utilization of fabrics.

 Mainly used for wall hangings.

‘China lace’ – this is a zigzag stripe

‘Kulranga’ – this is also a zigzag stripe but it is mostly stitched around borders.

The common motifs are:

‘Surya’ – sun

‘Chandra’ – moon

‘Surya patti’ – rays of the sun

‘Pattari’ – leaf

‘Gachh’ – tree

‘Golpatra’ – round leaf

‘Machh’ – fish

‘Patti’ – stripe

‘Phulbasapatti’ – stripes of floral and leaf motifs

‘Suapatti’ – stripe of parrot

The more traditional motifs are:

‘Mayura’ – peacocks

‘Garuda’ – mythical bird with two heads

‘Sua’ – parrot

‘Ulta sua’ – two parrots opposite to each other

‘Hathi’ – elephant

‘Batak’ – duck

‘Hamsa’ – swan

Most cultures use appliqué for both decorative and more utilitarian purposes such as the strengthening of materials. It is used to make thick, warm and waterproof fabrics that can be easily inlaid and padded to create warm and hardwearing fabrics. It is the most commonly used form of embroidery amongst the peoples of cooler regions: the Imit Indians of Greenland, the Laps of Northern Scandinavia, and the peoples of the mountainous regions of central Asia. Here, local materials such as fur and skin of caribou, reindeer, and seals and fish sins and wool are used.

Types of Appliqué:

Felt Appliqué is one of the oldest forms of appliqué used by nomadic cattle breeding tribe who wandered Russian Balkans and the Gobi desert as far back as 200 B.C. Saddle covers and wall hangings have been found in Siberian tombs.

The earliest examples of appliqué are woven roundels, squares, stripes and l-shaped corner pieces that were stitched onto plain robes by the Copts of Egypt between A.D. 300 and 1000. Tapestries with images of beautifully observed plants, animals, birds, portraits and dancing figures in splendid decorative patterns were found in Egyptian burial sites.

Reverse Appliqué involves the cutting away of shapes and layout of materials to reveal the different colored layers, the opposite of most other appliqué techniques. Used by the Cuma Indians with unique vitality.

During the Middle Ages of Europe, Inlaid Appliqué was used as a cheaper substitute for embroidery. Specific shapes were set onto corresponding shapes on ground fabric. The raw edges were sewn together and hidden by embroidery stitches or couched work, this adding an attractive decorative edge to the appliquéd piece. It was used for heraldic banners at secular ceremonies, pageants and festivals, for altar fronts and vestments, for chair and horse furniture. The use of solid bright colors and bold motifs made eye-catching displays.

Leather Appliqué : Mochis of Kutch learnt the skill from end of 16th century or early 17th century from Muslim craftsmen. Black, red and green leather were used for the purpose and embroidered with chain stitch of silver and gold. It was used to cover shields in Kutch and nearby Sind. These shields were then tooled and painted, and armored with metal bosses.

SHADOW WORK is another style of appliqué where shapes are cut from fabric and stitched behind a transparent fabric such as fine silk, cotton or muslin creating a shadow effect through the materials.

Next post: We will share the work of Tushita Singh, senior design consultant, in the next post. She is exploring new perspectives of Appliqué.

Books referred:

Indian Embroidery, Rosemary Crill:

Indian Textiles, John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard:


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