Department of Anthropology
Women's work and skill in the Lucknow Embroidery Industry
WSUV Faculty participants
My dissertation fieldwork focused on understanding the interconnection of economy and culture in the production of embroidery, known as "chikan" work in Lucknow, India. A year of ethnographic fieldwork revealed a multi-staged production process, entirely hand-powered, in which men predominated in each stage except for one -- embroidery itself. Embroiderers themselves are over 90% female, and Muslim, living to some degree in purdah. This much is certainly known by anyone with some familiarity with the craft, but what I tried specifically to explore was the trade-offs between creativity and necessity women made as they sought out work in an unpredictable marketplace. Some women are highly skilled in embroidery, knowing and naming many stitches, and fully capable of making extraordinarily detailed pieces that can command high prices. Other women with fewer skills (and without the familial connections to women that have them so that they can acquire them) make cruder work to order, often under the direction of skilled women who act as agents for the embroidery shopkeepers.
In the years since my fieldwork, the degree of government involvement in development schemes to provide employment and better wages to embroiderers has declined. At the same time, fashion designers have stepped forward to pick up the banner of craft revival that someone (whether a crafts scholar, or a government agent, or a local dignitary) has been waving for over half a century. Regrettably, a tendency to dismiss embroiderers as uninformed and unreflective practitioners of a debased art persists, and the stark choices (or lack of them ) that women face when they pick up the needle are largely ignored.
Articles and Chapters
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