Phulkari: The Flower Embroidery

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Handicraft is practised in almost every part of the Indian subcontinent. Natural handwoven fabrics and embroidered crafts are amongst the oldest forms of Indian sustainable heritage art.
The artistic embroidery is often a profound symbolism of the personal emotions of the craftsperson, especially women, which also includes cultural metaphors and the community’s religion. They leave a piece of their legacy in every thread of the fabric.


Phulkari (which literally translates to floral art), the Punjabi embroidery spun from charkha is patterned on shawls, kurtis, and odhinis. Phulkari captures the essence of Punjabi women’s diligence, dedication, and desire for accomplishment and elegance, which has been passed down through generations.


In the Indian state of Punjab, Phulkari was never a business, it was a form of love for the bride-to-be from her maternal grandparents, however with time, women loved the task and became experts in Phulkari, which transformed dull but delicate naturally handwoven fabrics into exquisite ones. Phulkari specializes in decorating Punjabi women’s weddings and Salwar Kameez, but it also breaks into the trendy era of sustainable fashion fabric market with its new charm. Phulkari artisans make everyday Punjabi womenswear, such as trendy palazzo, shawls, and stylish sleeveless kurta for working women, a canvas for their intrinsic artistic creativity.

It is traditionally embroidered on a coarse piece of cloth, a Khaddar handwoven and sustainable base prepared with cotton at home. The base khadi fabric is dyed with natural pigments for a completely natural and sustainable fashion look. The roots of the Eurasian herb madder are used to dye the fabric red, which represents passion, power, and marriage. At times, indigo is used to tint it blue or black to represent Lord Krishna’s colour of skin.


Even though the meaning of the word “Phulkari” broadly corresponds to “floral art,” its styles embrace so much more than flowers: four and eight-petal (kanchanbuti), triangular petal (tikonibuti), round petal (golbuti), leaves (patta) and include motifs and geometrical shapes. There have been dozens of highly imaginative Phulkari patterns: simple geometric shapes such as diamonds, squares, and triangles forming various designs such as kites, peacocks (mor), trains, vegetables, and fruits, and familiar objects in the rural area such as animals, plants, farms, the sun, moon, flowers, cotton balls, tidal wave, and folk portrayals including countryside sights.

As much as the fabric is colourful, the technique on top involves beautiful coloured silk threads stitched on the wrong side of the fabric to get a style pattern on the right side. The stitching process is called Darning, wherein the thread runs across the grains of the fabric reserving the pattern space . Since, darning stitch is the most commonly used technique in the making of Phulkari, how exquisite the piece is measured in terms of the width of the stitch. The narrowest stitch makes the finest Phulkari piece. Previously, the artist had complete creative freedom. The motifs used represented various values of Punjab.

By Sheeba Madan Loewinger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


Like most of our exquisite heritage art from time immemorial, Phulkari suffered a significant decline during imperialization. In addition to appreciating magnificent heritage art, European conquests exploited its commercial value. Foreigners imported low-cost synthetic fabric and threads from Europe, causing domestic Khaddar fabric to go dormant. The notion of a lightweight headcover/odhinis led to the demise of the khaddar and silk businesses. Before European colonial expansion, Phulkari was solely a recreational activity, but its materialistic approach promoted Phulkari as a domestic-economic necessity. Europeans began to re-imagine this ethnic heritage art by selecting fabrics and designs that suited them and their market well.


Phulkari, being one of the main elements of the bride’s trousseau, reflects the bride’s talent and skills. Depending on which part of the community we look at, the number of Phulkari embroidery articles that comprise a trousseau has always been specified. The association of Phulkari with Punjabi ceremonies has kept the trend going for more than a couple of decades. Even in non-Punjabi weddings across north India, the Phulkari canopy and mandap used in mehendi and haldi ceremonies are used to imply the universe in some cases and protection in others.

As precise as the mid to late twentieth century, rural poor women continued Phulkari embroidery in the hope of making a little sum of money for their survival. Even though the machine-made- westernized fabric ruined the heritage handicrafts and arts, social workers made full efforts to preserve the sustainable heritage cottage industries joining hands with the state governments, resulting in formations of co-operatives. The heritage arts were promoted through rigorous advertisements and were made commercially available for promoting the ethnic arts.

However, the recent comeback had its alternatives to play out with the fashion trends, affordability and convenience of creating embroidery. Khaddar fabric was hard to make embroidery on and heavy as a headscarf. In recent times, the strong comeback of heritage art has spread the floral themes across sarees, churidar kameez, palazzo, chunris, bed covers, home furnishing, and everything in between.

Buy Phulkari here.

Author: Sushant Sani

This is Sushant Saini. He is a 4th-year History research major at Shiv Nadar University, Noida-NCR. He is also minoring in International Relations and Governance Studies. He has been a youth cultural ambassador to the US in 2016-17 and was awarded Anne Walker Distinguished Service Award in 2017.

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