What’s So Special About Kantha?

If you’re an HGTV fan, love to browse home goods stores, or are constantly thinking up new ways to decorate your home with cozy textiles, you may have heard the term “Kantha quilt” thrown around quite a bit. Lately, it seems like kantha quilts are everywhere! Whether we’re scrolling through Instagram or reading the latest blog posts, these bright, beautiful quilts seem to be hitting our feeds at every turn. What’s all the fuss about? Isn’t it just a blanket or a pillow?

Two kantha pillows, one white and one black, are sitting on a light grey couch.

The History of Kantha

The origin of the Kantha quilt isn’t actually the West Elm showroom. In fact, these fabrics can be easily traced to eastern South Asia, to the country of Bangladesh. This country of many rivers and lush greenery sits just to the east of India. In fact, Kantha can also be found in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha, located on the Bay of Bengal.

An up close image of a teal piece of handstitched kantha fabric, showing colorful flowers and a bird.

So, we refer to this craft as “Bengali” rather than Bangladeshi, because it is practiced throughout the wider area. Women in these regions have been practicing Kantha embroidery since ancient times—much longer than they’ve been trending on Pinterest! The word “Kantha” is pronounced KAHN-taa. In general practice, the word refers to two things: 

  • Discarded cloth or rags that have been reused in a quilted blanket
  • A specific, small, straight running stitch that is central to Bengali embroidery
A purple and multicolored kantha quilt is spread out on a bed, acting as a bed spread.
Kantha quilts make eye-catching bedspreads

The Kantha throws and quilts you see today have evolved out of a rich tradition. For many centuries, Bengali women living in the poorest regions have produced Kantha quilts and cushions as a way to cheaply reuse old fabric. In Bangladesh, old cloth is said to have protective qualities. Think about how you feel when you touch your ragged baby blanket, your grandmother’s wedding dress, or even your old Girl Scout sash. Fabric carries so many emotions and can, quite literally, feel like a warm hug full of memories and positive feelings. Traditionally, Kantha quilts were a bit like the “t-shirt quilts” we see today—blankets crafted out of heavily used fabric and then passed to family members and loved ones.

How It’s Made

In Sanskrit, the word “Kantha” means rags. But these blankets aren’t usually produced out of actual rags. They are a mix of old saris and other discarded pieces of fabric. Never meant to be used as accent pieces, the original intent of these quilts was to keep people warm while repurposing old fabric. To that end, they feature a very simple, straight running stitch. The patterns are often creative, spontaneous, original, and emotional. Much like quilting traditions in the United States, Kantha quilts could take years to complete and were often embroidered with patterns that told stories, expressed wishes, and indicated the quilt’s maker.

A woman with red hair and wearing a black shirt is holding up a pink kantha quilt.
These quilts have a wonderful light weight texture

The first written mention of Bengali Kantha appeared about five hundred years ago, in the Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, a book by Krishnadas Kaviraj. In the book, the author makes note of a Kantha quilt sent to him by his mother. It’s not so hard to imagine the love and care a mother would put into the careful stitching and choice of fabrics. She might have sewn her own saris into the quilt or those of other female family members. While today’s Kantha quilts and other Kantha products may not be produced in such an intimate fashion, they do touch on that emotional and family-focused tradition, one that not only reaches back through many generations but can also be felt and understood by people across cultures and continents.

How to Use Kantha

So, you’ve decided to incorporate Kantha quilts and products into your home. What’s the best way to feature them? As it turns out, the options are numerous.

A thin woman with brown hair and a pink shirt is laying on a blue kantha quilt on the beach. Behind her, is a straw umbrella and the blue ocean.
Perfect for your favorite beach bum

A Kantha makes an inspiring accent piece. With its bright colors, interesting patterns, and unique stitching, your blanket will surely be noticed by visitors. Why not give it an even bigger spotlight? All-white or all-grey bedding is one ideal backdrop for a colorful Kantha throw. Layered on top or draped over the end of the bed, the rich colors will really pop. You can try the same look on an upholstered chair or couch. In a room that has been following a strict minimalist aesthetic, a Kantha quilt can turn up the color volume in a coherent, measured way—unlike an aggressive accent wall or harsh piece of furniture, a Kantha quilt brings warmth and richness into a room. You can even take the look outside: Our Kantha Quilt Beach Blanket makes the ideal sitting space for your next picnic, beach day, movie night in the park, or other outdoor adventure. Soft and durable, this piece will outlast the tireless summer days.

On a white chair by a bright window sits a brown and orange tabby cat. On the back of the chair rests a pink kantha quilt.
Kantha quilts are cat approved!

If you already have a laid-back, bohemian style, a Kantha may incorporate rather seamlessly into your home design. With their pretty patterns, these blankets are natural alternatives for tablecloths. Try one draped over your dining room table or even your coffee table. Once set with plates, candles, books, or other baubles, this draped fabric look can transport you and your guests across the globe in an instant. Feeling crafty? Stitch a Kantha quilt around a throw pillow, or even get out that staple gun and take on a new upholstery project! Kantha fabric can give a whole new look to an ottoman, Papasan chair, or bench. Scarves, journal covers, tote bags…the options are endless when it comes to repurposing that Kantha fabric.

A myriad of different colored kantha pillows are popping out of a wicker storage chest.

Whichever way you choose to wear or display them, Kantha patterns are sure to add light and life to your home and wardrobe. With their rich history, bright colors, and exceptional warmth, you’ll quickly become a convert. That’s okay, because you can never have too many blankets, and these centuries-old patterns won’t go out of style anytime soon. Ready to find your own perfect accent piece?