Chikan embroidery is a type of Indian embroidery from the city of Lucknow, which was first popularized by Nur Jehan, the wife of Jahangir. In Persian, it literally means ‘cloth covered with needlework’. It is an extremely refined form of needlework that is known for its delicate beauty and pretty look. Chikan embroidery has become one of the most famous types of needlework in the world and is considered a key aspect of Indian culture and fashion heritage.
The history and origins of Chikan embroidery can be traced back to the medieval period, though it is quite hard to find one origin story that everyone agrees on. Some believe that this exquisite form of embroidery dates back to pre-Mughal times and was only given a kind of aesthetic makeover with the increased influence of Persian aesthetics in Mughal times while others believe Nur Jehan commissioned this type of embroidery for the first time. Whatever the true origins, it is certainly true that Chikan embroidery designs only became popular in the Mughal era, largely thanks to Nur Jehan’s patronage. Today, it is considered one of the most important Indian embroidery styles, not just because of its commercial popularity but also because of its cultural significance.
Chikan embroidery has a deceptively simple look. This means that often, people wonder how to do Chikan embroidery and if it can be done at home. In truth, the creation of Chikankari designs is a very long and involved process. First, the craftsmen create the designs which are to be embroidered on a piece of paper. These designs are then engraved on to a wood block, which is dipped in faint dyes and printed on the fabric to provide the outline for the Chikan embroidery patterns. The embroidery artisan then sews over the design using intricate embroidery techniques; finally, the fabric is washed to remove all traces of the print, leaving behind the gorgeous and delicate Chikan embroidery.
Initially, Chikan embroidery was only done only using white threads on white fabrics and till today a pale color aesthetic is preferred. However, over the years, different colored threads began to be used, typically light hued shades of green, blue, yellow and red; nowadays, pastel colored fabrics are also sometimes used as a base for Chikan work.
Chikan embroidery designs are supposed to be done on light, fine fabrics such as cotton and muslin, which are the traditional favorites. However, today, other varieties such as chiffon, georgette, silk and rayon are also used to make all kinds of Chikan work garments. As this type of embroidery is from Lucknow, a city with a rich cultural association with Mughal culture, Chikan work is most often used to decorate salwar kameez, the preferred Muslim garb. Consisting of a long tunic, a loose pair of pants and a flowing dupatta, the salwar kameez comes in many different varieties, such as the straight cut suit, anarkali suit, Pakistani suit and the Punjabi suit. Chikan work is typically used to decorate the neckline and borders of the kameez though the whole outfit can also be made of a single Chikan work fabric. Chikan work dupattas have also become an extremely popular item, especially amongst the younger generation.
However, despite the popularity of these classic Mughal outfits, nothing can match the beauty and elegance of a Chikan embroidery saree. Made of soft, fine looking fabrics, these saris are beautifully decorated with intricate and often artistic Chikan embroidery designs of flowers, fruits, trees, birds etc. They are considered a very high class, sophisticated summer wear saree and are a staple part of high society fashionistas’ wardrobes.
Besides these kinds of classic, traditional Indian outfits, many of the more modern and fusion garments also come decorated with Chikan work. Tunics, kurtis, kurtas, shawls, scarves, stoles and even vests and skirts can be found prettily embroidered with Chikan work designs. This type of embroidery is often thought of as feminine but it is often used to subtly decorate men’s wear garments as well. Sherwanis and kurtas sometimes come with Chikan work borders to add to the beauty of the look.
Styling and Trends
Chikan embroidery has become extremely trendy at the moment. The ethnic revival of the early ‘00s has led to an increased popularity of these kinds of traditional, regional techniques. Many Bollywood movies have also prominently featured Chikan work which has further increased its appeal with the masses.
Chikan work is a very elegant, sophisticated type of embroidery so it should be paired only with appropriate jewelry. Gaudy or loud jewelry will completely ruin the look of this type of work. Instead, women should opt for pearl jewelry, silver pendants, dangling earrings and other such subtle yet beautiful jewelry pieces.