Really Ralli

Quilts from Pakistan and India 

Not many people have made a study of ralli textiles from Pakistan and Northern India, so when we met Patricia Stoddard at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market representing the ralli-makers of Lila Handicrafts, it was obvious that her knowledge was rare.  Her book, Ralli Quilts: Traditional Textiles from Pakistan and India, gives great insight into the variety of designs and the techniques used in their making.  HAND/EYE is lucky to have Patricia share some of her knowledge with us this week.
 
Some of the most amazing stitching in the world is seen in the ralli quilts of Pakistan and India.  Meticulously sewn, they are used daily on simple beds of Sindh, Cholistan and Baluchistan in Pakistan and also in Gujarat and Rajasthan, India.  The colorful quilts are fashioned out of pieces of old cotton clothing.  The fabric is hand dyed to satisfy both traditional and modern color schemes.
 
I was immediately drawn to the quilts when I arrived in Pakistan in 1996.  Curious, I asked many questions about the quilts and found that they were well known, but only slightly documented.  I set out to discover more. Over the next few years, I developed an undying enthusiasm for ralli quilts.  I sought them out at every opportunity and probably saw thousands of them. I was always somewhat partial to the ones that were obviously worn, perhaps smelling of camels or cooking fires.  
 
I asked anyone I met who came from a ralli producing area about the quilts.  I found that rallis were mostly produced by rural, poor, and traditional people.  These people are from hundreds of different groups and castes differentiated by religion and occupation – but all make ralli. Many well-to-do urban women were familiar with ralli quilts but considered them quaint and not sophisticated.
 
There are three styles of ralli quilting:  patchwork, appliqué and embroidery. Patchwork is based on colored fabric cut into geometric shapes and stitched together.  Most of the designs are symmetrical and very carefully stitched.  Some of the pieces may be less than one inch.  
 
Appliqué designs are made from cut fabric sewn to another cloth. Some of the most popular designs are made from pieces of fabric folded and cut, as one would make a paper “snowflake”.  The cut appliqué is placed on a back fabric (sometimes with the help of some flour glue) and the edges are carefully sewn under to hold it in place.  Many of the appliqué patterns form very fine lines and some are only 1/8 inch wide.  
 
Embroidered quilts use embroidery as embellishment and as a method to hold the quilts together. The embroidered quilts are filled with stitches that would be familiar to those who know “western” embroidery, plus unique stitches used only in this part of the world.   It is customary to use colored thread (often on a black or dark background fabric) for the stitching in order to create wonderful colors and shapes.
 
The sewing on the top of the quilt is usually the work of one woman and traditionally the sewing of the layers is done by a group of three or four women. (This is very similar to the American tradition of a “quilting bee”.)  The fabric used for the back of the quilt is often an old head shawl or pieces of several old outfits dyed to be the same color. Special quilts may have a complete fabric on the back. The quilting is especially festive when the quilt is for a marriage and the sewing is accompanied by singing and stories.  There are also legends, folk songs and sayings about rallis.
 
Ralli quilts are truly part of the daily life of the people in the ralli region.  People sleep on a short-legged wooden cot called a charpoy.  A ralli is placed over the string webbing of the cot.  More rallis cover the person, the number depending on the coldness of the night.  In some areas, the wealth of a family is measured by how many rallis they own. When rallis made for sleeping become old or ragged, they become padding for animal saddles or are put to other work-related uses. Smaller size square rallis are used as cloths to put down on the ground to serve food, or are folded into an envelope shape (and sewn) to hold clothing or valuable items.  Very special rallis are also made as dowry or wedding gifts and as gifts to the local holy men.  Special rallis are often embellished with mirrors, sequins, beads, tassels made from silk or yarn and shells.
 
Ralli quilts are made by women who are taught textile work from childhood by their mothers or other women.  Their skill in sewing and embroidery are great advantages in finding a mate, and young girls start on textile pieces from childhood.  Most girls start quilting about age 12.  Because most of the women are illiterate, the women sharpen their minds by memorizing the patterns and processes of ralli making. Making and using ralli quilts is a strong cultural symbol of many rural, agrarian, nomadic and sometimes urban groups that live in this region.  
 
Some quilts have qualities and colors that identify them with specific groups of people and others are symbols of how the cultural groups have shared ideas over hundreds of years.  Scholars see the rallis as true folk art of the region.  Ancient motifs used in the quilts are similar to symbols used in local civilizations that flourished 5,000 years ago. 
 
Ralli making continues today.  The ralli-making region has produced fine cotton for thousands of years.  Recently, however, the manufacturing of cotton fabric has made it more expensive and the locals have turned to cheaper synthetic fabrics for clothing.  Thus, some of the newer rallis have a mixture of fabrics.  However, some communities are realizing the value of making the traditional, all cotton rallis.  
 
Rallis customarily have only been made by families for their own use or for gifts.  Recently, however, some women’s co-operatives have emerged to supply a small, but growing demand for rallis. 
 
 
For more information about Rallis, please check ralliquilt.com or the book Ralli Quilts: Traditional Textiles from Pakistan and India by Patricia Ormsby Stoddard.  There is also a quilt exhibit opening May 15, 2010- November 17, 2010 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Quilt Museum containing rallis called South Asian Seams: Quilts from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
 

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