Phulkari’s are densely embroidered textiles, made with silk floss called “pat” on a ground of cotton called “khadi” or “khaddar”. Before the 20th century, the cotton ground used was white. Later iterations were dyed ochre/brown or very dark blue using madder and indigo. Craftswomen would embroider the textiles from the backside, leaving small precise stitches, so the majority of the thread could be seen in long stitches on the front. Satin stitch, darning stitch, elongated running stitch, or “rufagari”, are all names for the kind of long stitch that is characteristic of phulkaris.
Phulkari’s are specific to the cultural and linguistic region of pre-partition Punjab. Before 1947, Punjab was within the borders of what was considered British India. Following the partition of India in 1947, the region was split between what is now modern day Pakistan and India. The traditions and stylistic variations of phulkari have been subsequently influenced by these political partitions. Other areas of the subcontinent boast their own variations on the technique. For example, Punjab phulkaris traditionally are made with silk thread on a cotton ground, while Sindh variations use silk thread on a silk ground.
Phulkaris had great significance in the lives of the makers and wearers, and were traditionally made in rural communities by female members of a family. They were used to mark major life events such as births, marriages, or deaths. Phulkaris were also used in a woman’s dowry, being part of the wealth that would be brought along with her to her new marital home.
Often phulkaris were worn as shawls or head coverings. They would be wrapped around a woman’s arms and shoulders with a section of selvage covering the forehead. They were also used to adorn houses or places of worship.
Religion was a major influence on the stylistic variations of different types of phulkaris. Because of a proscription in Islam against the creation of images of sentient beings, Muslim phulkaris often display geometric or floral designs. Hindu textiles in contrast depict stylized humans and animals.
Examples of Muslim phulkaris in our collection can be seen in “Phulkari With Checkers” and “Phulkari with Ivory Field”, both from the early 20th century. These pieces vary significantly in craftsmanship, the former being much less refined and the latter being an example of exceptional needlework. Each textile has an exclusively geometric pattern, and contains a large field in the center with a patterned border surrounding. “Phulkari With Checkers” is done with yellow and red silk on a ground of dark blue, which would have been dyed with indigo.
Another of our Muslim phulkaris is “Phulkari With Flowers” These flowers are surrounded by several rows of triangles, arrows, and squares, also in red silk. The maker embellished the flowers with a touch of green silk, which adds a layer of visual complexity. This phulkari is particularly old, because it was done on a white-ground, which was popular in the 19th century. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a phulkari in their collection that is very similar to this one.
Some exquisite Hindu phulkaris in our collection depict a broad range of figures, objects, and animals. An exceptional example, now sold from our collection, is “Phulkari With Large Cat”. This phulkari, used for a woman’s dowry, features a center rectangle dominated by a large cat surrounded by other figures, peacocks, and stylized depictions of a bride’s jewelry. Another example, “Phulkari With Elephants” features many stylized figures, birds, and an abstracted elephant in the center, all surrounded by geometric shapes and patterns.
Many phulkari textiles contain motifs intended to ward off the evil eye. These motifs, called “nazar buttis”, often appear as intentional “mistakes” made by the craftsperson. This is meant to combat the belief that objects perceived to be perfect or complete are more susceptible to evil influences. A number of “nazar buttis” can be seen in “Phulkari With Checkers” where the incorrect color thread is intentionally inserted into small sections of the pattern.