Chikankari, rooted in the alleys and lanes of Lucknow, is a traditional art form. Designers and artists spend hours bringing each piece to perfection.

Each artist creates their own one-of-a-kind complex hand embroidery, which is the result of days and months of laborious effort. Some claim that chikankari has been popular since the third century BC, while others say that it originated in the Mughal courts and was promoted by the Nawabs.

Due to the calming colours, cool fabric, and exquisite designs, chikankari was initially worn on a daily basis. Chikankari embroidery was also used to beautify daily lives as it adorned everything from tablecloths and curtains, to sarees and kurtas.

Chikankari has intricate front and back stitches. Its sheer silhouettes, breathable fabric, and serene colour schemes make it comfortable to wear and attractive to the eye.

People, not only in India but all around the world, have now started wearing chikan-embroidered clothing on a daily basis due to the appeal and buzz surrounding this style. In addition to white, chikankari embroidery looks fantastic when done on pastel coloured fabrics. This is a reason why designers choose lighter hues to appeal to a global clientele.

According to artisans and weavers, only fabrics made of muslin cotton, 100% pure cotton, crepe and georgette can be embroidered with the classic chikankari technique.

However as time went by the market changed as well, and buyers now want chikan embroidery made on a variety of fabrics, including modal, rayon, silk, and Kota.

According to Dildar Hussian, an embroiderer from Lucknow, the disadvantage of embroidering a design on materials other than cotton, muslin, and georgette, is that it fails to capture the essence of the stitch.

The importance of the ‘purity’ of the thread used to embroider is equal to that of the fabric. Silk, cotton, and synthetic cotton threads are used for chikankari. The artisans blend and experiment with these threads to embroider. The final choice of thread depends on the design.

According to Hussain, “the best thing about resham threads is that you can colour them and shape them into any pattern you want. Because of the unparalleled gloss, smoothness, elegance, and neatness of the work with this thread, any pattern can be enhanced and made to appear appealing”.

A simple chikan kurta can be hand embroidered in 15 days, but an ornate ensemble like a sharara or an anarkali kurta can take two to three months to complete. A chikan saree takes close to six months to be hand embroidered.

However machine embroidered chikankari clothing can be produced in a few hours whereas it may take an artisan months and years to create some pieces. Along with the quality of the art, the price range is one of the main distinctions between Lucknowi chikankari work produced by machines and that created by hand.

“A machine-made chikan kurta can be purchased for as little as Rs 500, but the same kurta can cost as much as Rs 1500 to Rs 2000 when it is hand-embroidered. The production speed is increased by the fact that machine-made goods are mass-produced and intended for mass consumption in addition to being less expensive,” Hussain said, adding, “This makes our jobs and hard work void and people start dismissing us for selling chikan kurtas at a higher price”.

Replicas of chikan products are easy to find in the market, however, Hussain believes that consumers who choose originality and quality over cost will continue to favour purchasing from legitimate merchants and embroiderers of chikan. “After all, machine work can never match the love and labour we put into our handmade embroidery and weaves," Hussain added.

Chikankari garments are an important part of all festivities and occasions and especially Eid. Hussain believes that “the only way to revive and promote genuine chikankari is to combine both machine-made and hand-made production methods. This will help us survive and keep the arts alive in addition to providing the highest quality work at reasonable pricing”.

Photographs: Syed Ali Haider and Text: Sanjana Chawla