Embroidery of Pakistan


Embroidery of Pakistan

The embroideries of Pakistan are among the richest in South Asia. Traditional costumes, accessories and animal adornments embroidered by women for their families are still in use. Although the techniques, design elements and uses may be in common, many are peculiar to individual communities and distinguishable by their style, motifs and colour. Embroidery, like clothing, functions as a non-verbal form of communication and motifs, colour and composition signify an individual’s group identity and occupation and, very often, social status.

The embroideries of Pakistan encompass many traditions and some information is detailed below.


Baluchi embroidery (doch) is outstanding in it intricate repeating geometric patterns and colors. The Baluchi women’s pashk invariably carries four panels of embroidery: a large yoke covering the chest, the sleeve cuffs and a long, narrow, rectangular pocket (pado or pandohi) that runs from the yoke to just above the hem. The embroidery is often referred to as pakka (firm or solid) as the ground fabric is completely covered in a repertoire of the fine satin (mosum), interlacing (chinnukal) herringbone (mai pusht), chain (kash), blanket square-chain, cross and couched stitches. While the distri-button of embroidery on the pushk remains more or less constant throughout Baluchistan, there are minor regional variations in the fabric of the pashk, or on pieces of coarse cotton cloth called alwan, which are then stitched on to the pashk

The edges of the sleeves and the neck opening are usually strengthened with a braid of silk and gold thread or tightly packed blanket stitches (toi) followed by a series of finely worked narrow and wide borders in a precisely defined sequence. The narrow borders are generally worked using black and white threads in a couched stitch (chamusurma), followed by chain (kash) and satin stitches (mosum), and this sequence is repeated symmetrically in all the narrow borders as they alternate with the wide borders.

Chain stitch is commonly used in Baluchi leather embroidery is also used for pashks in the areas around Nasirabad and Khanpur. These are often embroidered in Jacobabad, Sibi or its environs. Jacobabad has evolved into a major centre of Baluchi embroidery workshops, producing ornamental panels, wallets belts, traditional purses, spreads and caps, both for local demand and for export. The traditional Baluch cap or topi, over which the turban is tightly rolled and wrapped, is a deeper and more intricately embroidered version of the Sindhi topi. It is usually made of cotton with fine silk or cotton embroidery in floral or geometric patterns, incorporating minute mirrors and the occasional use of silver and gold-wrapped thread for more ceremonial wear.

Middle aged and older women crochet when not working in the field or home. Presently acrylic or wool is the popular base used to create lacy designs. Traditionally cotton thread was used for intricately designed bedcovers, table cloth, edging for duppattas. The craftswomen have been motivated to us 100% cotton thread for the products to be marketed by SUNGI craft shop.

The more isolated areas have retained their traditional embroidery styles, and the Kohistan region, stretching across the upper Swat and Indus Valleys, is a case in point. The people of this remote of this remote territory belong to a relatively small group of what are sometimes called Dardic people (although this is a name given them by European ethnographers and not used locally) and which also includes the inhabitants of the territory stretching from Chitral across to Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan.

Closer to the Kohistan style of geometric cross-stitch embroidery is a type of small-scale work common to both Hunza and Chitral. Mostly confined to women’s circular caps and other small items such as purses and belts, the embroidery of Hunza in particular can be extremely fine. Patterns are usually geometric and are worked in tiny cross stitch, or today only half-cross stitch. The same type of embroidery is found in Chitral, perhaps having been introduced from Hunza, and is used for similar objects: caps (very similar to the Hunza style, but usually with less deep brims), detachable cuffs and collars, and small bags. These small embroidered objects are called suru and are often found as dowry items. While they share similar geometric patterns with the Hunza embroideries, the Chitrali embroideries seem to favor colors like purple and bright green.

Embroidery is also a feature of the Kalash women’s costume, in which the voluminous black robes are embroidered with orange and yellow braids around the neck and cuffs. The elaborate Kalash ceremonial headdress, the kupas, which is strikingly similar in form and decoration to the turquoise-covered headdress of Ladakhi women, is made of wool lavishly embroidered with rows of cowrie shells and with medallions of brass, shells, buttons, and metal grelots at the lower end.


The folk embroideries of Sindh are used as part of the traditional costumes, accessories and animal adornments are some of the more spectacular embroideries of this region. Embroidered by women for their families they are still prevalent among a number of groups scattered throughout the province. Although the techniques, design elements and uses may have commonalities, many are peculiar to individual communities and distinguishable by their style, motifs and color.

Tharparkar is part of a rambling desert that is one of the most inhospitable areas of Pakistan continues to produce some of its most special folk embroideries. The majority of its inhabitants are tightly knit groups of nomadic pastoralists, artisans and farmers, predominantly Muslim and Hindu. Muslim groups include the Soomrahs, Sammats, Sammahs, Jats, Langhas, Odhejas, Halepotas, Noorhias, Khojas, Khaskelis, Junejos, Memons, and the Baloch (made up of a number of subgroups). This non-verbal form of communication also carries symbols that represent protective talismans. Motifs, color and composition signify an individual’s group identity, occupation and, social status. This is particularly the case for women, as in many parts of Tharparkar a woman who is unmarried, has children or who is widowed is immediately distinguishable by the ornaments she wears and by the shawl covering her head and shoulders.

The bhart or embroideries of Tharparkar are found in two basic styles, the pakkoh and the kacho or soof. Pakkoh is a style of dense, heavily worked embroidery that has historically been linked to the areas surrounding Diplo and Mithi in Central Tharparkar. The patterns are usually stamped on to cloth using carved wooden blocks (por) dipped in a paste made from soot, mud or powdered resin dissolved in water. Pakkoh embroidery consists of combinations of closely packed double-buttonhole, square-chain, interlaced square-chain, couched, satin, and stem stitches. Small mirrors are usually attached in a tight double-buttonhole stitch and provide focal pints in the overall pattern. Originally, pieces of naturally occurring mica were used but now mirrored glass is specially manufactured. The ground cotton or silk is usually lined and almost entirely covered with embroidery. Very often, when the silk has worn away the stitches remain intact, hence the name pakkoh, literally ‘solid’ or ‘permanent’.

The kacho or soof style, which originated with the Sodha Rajputs in the thirteenth century, relies on the counting of threads in the ground fabric. Satin stitches, usually put in from the reverse side, lie flat on the surface, and the forms produced bear a spatial relationship to one another. The motifs are not generally marked out on the fabric; although threads are occasionally drawn out to delineate areas to be filled in. patterns worked in the soof style usually have the ground fabric visible between motifs that are immaculately constructed from fine geometric shapes. Soof embroidery is also seen in conjunction with a stem or honeycomb filling, interlacing and buttonhole stitches and mirrors. The Suthars, a group of artisans traditionally associated with wood crafts in Tharparkar, are especially renowned for the whimsical soof patterns which they carry over on to carved utilitarian wooden objects such as saddles, tools, farming implements, mortars and bowls. The Suthar Women’s ingenuity in embroidering and combining simple shapes to depict natural forms finds ultimate expression in the garments they prepare as dowry gifts for their daughters and sons-in-law. Mirrors, cotton thread and floss silk are commonly used; where satin stitches are laid out on the surface on the cloth and not visible on the reverse (as in a false-satin or surface darning stitch), the embroidery is referred to as kachi tand soof (one-sided) whereas stitches visible on both sides are referred to as hakim or paki tand soof (two-sided).

The peacock found all over Tharparkar is the leitmotif of its embroidered textiles. Among the Hindu Meghwar groups who are professional embroiderers, leather workers, tanners, builders and farmers, the peacock is a metaphor for a bridegroom who comes to claim his bride from her parents. The long narrow scarf, bakano, that he is given by his future mother-in-law for his wedding day has a fanciful design of peacocks among flowers and on top of hills or dunes. The peacock is revered as a noble bird; it is the embodiment of good and is often represented as a vehicle for Saraswati, goddess of wisdom, poetry and the arts. Peacocks, as Tharri folk legends relate, are thought not to mate physically but through the medium of dance. The highly stylized pairs of birds depicted along the length of the groom’s bokano symbolize the coming together of the newlyweds and the sanctity of their union. They are embroidered in a row of symmetrical rectangles alternating with columns of flower and mirrors that run along the entire length of the scarf. A longer and broader version of the bokano, the karhbandhro, is used by Rajput, Thakur and Mehgwar bridegrooms as a cummerbund for their loincloths (threto). It may be wound tightly around the waist several times, and knotted with the embroidered ends left hanging down.

Flowers symbolizing fertility and prosperity for the bridal couple are found in practically all Tharparkar wedding garments. The largest and most outstanding of these is the Meghwar man’s wedding shawl or doshalo, a large mordant-dyed and resist-printed cotton shawl or maleer embroidered in the pakkoh style by the bride and her family for her wedding day. The doshalo and bokano often share a decorative theme of peacocks, and are made up of two symmetrical halves of cloth joined by a web of fine interlacing stitches called a kheelo. The doshalo is usually elaborately embroidered at its ends and has densely embroidered squares resembling flowerbeds at the four corners. It is thrown around a bride-groom’s shoulders by his female relatives as he leaves to collect his bride on their wedding day, and he continues to wear it with the ends thrown forward over his shoulders for the journey and rituals that will follow at the bride’s house. Occasionally it may be wound flamboyantly around his head in the form of a turban with the ends hanging down over his shoulders. When he is finally allowed to leave with his bride, the doshalo is symbolically draped around them both, each holding one end. Among some Meghwar families the doshalo is hoisted like a canopy over the newlyweds, its corners usually held by close male relatives of the bride as she takes leave of her parents. It is a treasured dowry gift and continues to be used as a shawl or spread on auspicious occasions throughout the couple’s life.

The flowers represented on the Meghwar doshalo and bokano are usually renditions of desert flowers, most commonly the golharho (Coccinia cordifolia) and rohirho (Techoma undulaca), embroidered in the pakkoh style using combinations of elongated square-chain, interlaced square-chain, double-buttonhole and satin stitches. Accents may be added in satin, pattern-running or fly stitches (chanwar kani). The flowers are predominantly red, orange and white floss (untwisted) silk or cotton thread with centrally placed mirrors. Accompanying green, purple and yellow leaves are very often outlined in black stem and white back or couched stitches. As a particular printed and embroidered textile is part of the groom’s wedding accessories, the bride’s abochhini or shawl is also embroidered in a characteristic style and distribution of motifs (buti). Among the farming and semi-nomadic groups in Tharparkar and the adjoining areas of the Indus delta, the Sammat, Memon, Lohana, Khaskeli, Baloch and Soomrah, bridal shawls usually have scattered buds or blossoms of the akk plant (Calotropia procera) embroidered inpink or red flows silk in a typical phulkari or herringbone stitch for the petals and a green floss silk in chain or square-chain stitches for the leaves. Other stylized flowering plants such as the beyri (Zizyphus jujuba), the kanwal or lotus (Sindica nymphia) and the pat kanwar (Malva parviflora) are depicted in a unique scatter pattern either as single flowers or as clusters placed in rows around an elaborate central medallion. Half medallions along the upper and lower edges with quarter medallions at the corners and end borders enclosing clumps of flowers are also particular features.

The costumes and textiles of the frontier herding groups in Tharparkar are among the most powerful because of the symbiosis over many centuries of Muslim and Hindu social and religious traditions. Amongst these, the Muslims attach a great deal of importance in girls to appliqué, quilting and embroidery skills, which are in direct proportion to their desirability as wives and mothers. Conventional wisdom dictates that girls begin to accumulate and work on their dowries when very young as they should include a variety of clothing: several blouse-fronts, a skirt, storage bags, purses, dowry wraps, a quilt and as much jewellery as their fathers can afford.

Among the herdsmen who live close to the border with India and who earn their keep by selling supplies of milk and ghee (clarified butter used as a cooking medium or as artisans and laborers in neighboring and farms, the Rabaris are particularly well known for their spirited embroideries. The women’s veils (odhani) and gathered skirts (gaghra) are black to symbolize a state of ritual mourning. Wool is most commonly used and is of a coarse handspun variety as it is the most cost-effective and readily available raw material. The woolen cloth may have a simple woven black-an-white chequer-board pattern, or it may be left plain or tie-dyed before it is embroidered. A distinctive Kutchi Rabari textile is the dark woolen ludi or odhani that girls embroider for their weddings. It has a tie-dyed pattern of red orange of yellow dots and is elaborately embroidered at both ends and along a central seam with scattered medallions of one of the vividly colored desert flowers of which the most popular is a bright-yellow mimosa (Acacia Arabica). With all Rabari motifs there is very little distinction between representation and abstraction. The stylized flowers, symbols of fertility, often have raised centers using triangular-shaped mirrors and white buttons as accents. The ends, often with a supplementary weft pattern, have dramatic embroideries of flowers and peacocks in square-chain, interlacing, herringbone, buttonhole and couched stitches. At the same time the bridegroom carries a brightly embroidered pothu or purse edged with colored felted-wool pompons as the travels with his family and friends to his bride’s house, echoing the vibrant colors and embroidery in yellow, white, pink, orange, green and purple thread on her ludi.

Larh, the low-lying delta areas of the Indus, are home groups of Jat nomads, regarded as camel breeders of Scythian extraction and amongst the oldest inhabitants of Sindh. The women’s costumes of the different groups share basic design elements or motifs that have identical names as they are commonly both drawn from nature and reflect the gradual transition from a nomadic to an agrarian way of life. Stylized forms of the sun, moon, stars, flowers, streams, rice grains, millet stalks and fields of crops are reduced and repeated to form ingenious minimalist patterns used in striking juxtapositions. Mirrors highlighting individual motifs can vary in size from tiny imperceptible dots to pear-shaped discs of up to 15 mm in diameter. The giichi is embroidered in a meticulous grid layout that covers the chest almost entirely. This linear arrangement is a distinctive feature of Jat embroidery. The sun is a predominant motif framed by rows of stylized flowers in narrow borders or columns containing mirrors. The embroidery is less dense than the pakkoh style of Tharparkar with combinations of square-chain, buttonhole, interlacing, satin and couched stitches using maroon, black, white and occasionally yellow-ochre silk or cotton thread. Symmetrically placed roundels embroidered in laid and couched stitches have triangular rays emanating from the centre. The edges of the gaj, the sleeves, the hem and the neckline together with its central opening are often fortified by a striking black cretan stitch, the gaano. Umrani Jat women often attach columns of tear-drop-shaped mirrors in bold red, black and white buttonhole stitches on to their yoke, with a scatter of floral motifs on their sleeves that reduce sequentially in size as they approach the cuffs. The cuffs of the sleeves end in a fixed combination of embroidered borders, kungri, tikko, dor, warho, and finally the gaano. The colors are used in a vibrant satrangi (seven colors) combination: red, green, orange, deep blue, white, yellow and black or purple. Although these gaj share a number of stitches with the pakkoh style and are essentially floral in theme, their edges are much more fluid and rounded. In addition to square-chain, double-buttonhole, herringbone, cretan and chain stitches, Romanian couching and a characteristic kharek (literally ‘fruit of the date palm’) stitch are commonly used. The kharek stitch is made up of arrow bars of satin stitch laid closely together in the form of triangles, V-shapes or small squares. Mirrors may be used as central highlights and when outlined with a couched stitch the kharek works effectively as an outlining or as a filling-in stitch; used in this way the bars of satin stitch are also known as nehran (‘river’).

Groups of Mahars, who like the Jats are pastoralists and cattle breeders, have taken to farming arable tracts around Sikarpur, Ghotki and along the Cholistan border. They combine exquisitely embroidered geometric and floral patterns with small mirrors (shishobhart). Mahar thalposh (ceremonial or dowry wraps), chadar (shawls) and bhujkis (purses) are immediately recognizable as the interlacing, double-buttonhole, square-chain, cross, couched and satin stitches are extraordinarily fine, and the curvilinear outlines seen in the gaj from further south are replaced by increasingly square and polygonal compositions or embroidery. The Sindhi cap (topi) from the Siro has the finest embroidery, using pat or silk thread with tiny mirrors. It has a flat crown and a soft, even rim with a dome-shaped cut-out over the forehead.

Areas of the Dadu district in the west of Sindh and the Katcho plain are inhabited by Sindhi Balock groups – the Khosas, Palaris, Jokhias, Burfati and Karmatis, who live on both sides of the Kirthar and Lakhi ranges. Their gaj embroideries consist of intricate geometric patterns in the soof style. Mirrors are not generally used and individual motifs are framed in vertical columns. Of particular interest are the Lohana women of farming groups in Thano Bula Khan who embroider stunning silk cholas, straight knee-length tunics so thickly encrusted with panels stiff. The cholas are wedding shirts, but similar densely structured embroidery using ‘heaped’ forms of double-buttonhole, square-chain and open-chain stitches are also used to embellish children’s dresses caps, coverlets and animal adornments.

The ground fabric may be laid but in a similar fashion to kanbiri or in bands to form sequential rectangles but the stitches are combination of the certain, cross, double-running and back varieties. Rallis can be seen in the courtyards of shrines (dargahs) throughout Sindh today

Jute matting or old woolen blankets form the base of these exquisitely floor rugs or wall hangings. With the use of a special needle called “aar” the ground is completely covered with chain stitch embroidery, depicting scenes of hunting, wedding celebrations, rural life and floral or geometric patterns. The creation of training centres in Muzaffarabad and Kahuta has encouraged and given impetus to this craft.


Fine embroidery on leather known as kundi work was traditionally produced, especially for use on gun-belts and their accoutrements, in a broad ‘frontier’ area spanning parts of the Punjab, NWFP and Baluchistan. Dera Ghazi Khan, Dera Ismail Khan and Quetta were all known for this type of fine silk embroidery. Whatever the place of origin, embroidery of this type is almost always in patterns of small circles done in buttonhole and chain stitch, densely packed together on the leather ground.


Pashk from the Makran coast employ a similar precise layout in their embroidery but a slightly different palette of colors, two shades of red (usually red and maroon), black, white, dark green and royal blue. A conspicuous border or frame (pat daman) made up of horizontal bands of colored stitches, surrounds the central pudo and may extend along the seams. This framing border varies from those of Khat and Khuzdar in the use of the jalar stitch, an elongated and elaborate form of the herringbone stitch (maipusht). In a number of pashk worn today, applied narrow braids have replaced a number of the supplementary borders.


Perhaps the best known of all embroideries from the Punjab is the phulkari. Unlike the woven textiles, phulkari is essentially a domestic textile, made by a non-professional embroider in her home, for herself or for her own family. While some rich patrons might employ embroiders in their households to make fine phulkari, these were not traditionally items to be bought and sold in the bazaar, but given as gifts at auspicious event, especially weddings.

Made and used by both Muslim and Hindu communities, phulkari of either society differ to some degree: those made by Hindu embroiderers incorporated figurative designs of people, animals and household implements, while the Muslim communities confined themselves to non-figurative geometric patterns. Originally an art of rural communities, phulkari (which means flower work) were embroidered in floss silk thread (pat) on coarse hand woven cotton fabric (khaddar). This ground fabric was usually dyed with madder to a deep reddish-brown or sometimes an indigo blue and the embroidery was almost always in yellow or white. At its most basic level for everyday use, the embroidery would consist of simple flower shapes dotted over the fabric of the full skirts (ghaghra) or the large all-enveloping head-covers (chadar) traditionally worn by rural Punjabi women. More elaborate types called bagh (garden) also evolved for use as ceremonial gifts.

The most remarkable feature of the phulkari of that it is worked entirely from the reverse of the fabric, so that the embroiderer does not (or need not) see the front while she is creating the pattern. The rigid geometry of the bagh pattern is produced by counting the threads on the reverse of the ground fabric, which is fortunately of fairly coarse yarn and loose weave, before taking up a single thread with the needle, leaving a long ‘float’ of silk on the front.

Phulkari type embroidery from regions other than Punjab
Some of the finest embroidery of NWEP comes from the remote valleys of Indus Kohistan, especially the area between Patan and Kamila, where small settlements beside tributaries of the Indus – such as the Palas and Kolai Rivers – produce embroidered costume and small bags worked in minute cross stitch, surface darning stitch and tent stitch. The use of a phulkari-type stitch in this remote northern area is a reminder of the continuous and far-reaching movement that has traditionally taken place both within the Kohistan region itself and between Kohistan and the Punjab and Hazara districts.

In contrast of Indus Kohistan with its fondness for tiny cross-stitch designs, the Swat Valley and its lower-lying neighbor Hazara are traditionally associated with embroidery of the phulkari type. The Hazara pieces typically use a color scheme of dark pink on a white or dark-blue ground, in contrast to the yellow and orange of the Punjab, and the design elements themselves often have a ‘feathered’ effect on the outlines unlike the straight edges seen in the Punjab pieces. Hazara is also the source of another distinctive type of white ground shawl with pink and red designs in a markedly different style from the phulkari with curling horned and star patterns.

The Swat phulkaris may be embroidered from the front, unlike the Punjabi type in which the embroidery is always done from the back of the cloth, and the patterns may first be outlined with running stitch before being filled in with satin stitch. The women’s shirts (kurta) that were once widely worn in Swat are embroidered with pink floss silk on dark-blue indigo-dyed cotton.


Multan and Lahore, as well as the nearby town of Sharaqpur, are traditionally known for finely embroidered shoes (jooti or khussa). While jooti is a generic term for shoes of all traditional types, the khussa is the traditional round-toed slipper. When the toe is curled up to a fine point the shoe is called salimshahi, after the Mughal emperor Jahangir (formerly Prince Salim) who supposedly made them fashionable. Both types are frequently lavishly embroidered with gold or silver thread (tilla).


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