Chikankari is a fine and intricate shadow-work type of embroidery done by white yarn on colorless muslins called tanzeb (tan meaning body and zeb meaning decoration). The word 'chikan' according to one school of thought appears to have had its origin in Persia, being derivative of chakin or chakeen. It may also be a distorted form of the work chikeen or siquin, a coin valued at Rs. 4 for which the embroidery was sold. Another explanation ascribes its origin to East Bengal where the word chikan meant 'fine'.

The earliest reference in literature to chikan dates back to the 3rd century B.C. In his records Megasthenes, a Greek traveler, had mentioned the use of flowered muslins by the Indians.

Folklore attributes the origin of chikankari to various sources. It is believed by many craftsmen that a traveler while passing through a village near Lucknow asked for water from a poor peasant. Pleased with his hospitality, the traveler taught him the art of chikankari that would never allow him to go hungry. The craftsmen believe that the traveller was a prophet. Another story imputes its origin to Queen Noor Jehan, who inspired by Turkish embroidery, introduced this needlework. The origin of this craft is also ascribed to the harem's of Avadh's Nawab where a seamstress from Murshidabad embroidered a cap for the Nawab to please him. Jealous of the attention she received from the king, other inmates of the harem followed her and thus the art of chikankari was evolved.



Stitches employed in chikankari are unique and can be divided into three categories: Flat stitches, which are delicate and subtle and lie close to the surface of the fabric giving it a distinctive textural appearance; Embossed stitches which are highlighted from the fabric surface lending it a characteristic grainy texture and Jali work which is the most striking feature of chikan embroidery and which creates a delicate net effect. The fabric is broken into holes by 'teasing' the warp and weft yarns and holding them in position by small stitches.


The chikan industry has five main processes namely cutting, stitching, printing, embroidery, washing, and finishing. Cutting is carried out in the lots of 20-50 garments. The layouts are done to minimize wastage of materials. Stitching, often done by the same person, may be 'civil', done exclusively for higher priced export orders or 'commercial', which is done for cheaper goods. Printing is carried out by the use of wooden blocks dipped in dyes like neel and safeda. After this, the fabric is embroidered by women. The last process, which is washing and finishing, takes about 10-12 days. This includes bleaching, acid treatment, stiffening, and ironing.

The most common motif used is that of a creeper. Individual floral motifs may embellish the entire garment or just one corner. Among the floral motifs embroidered, the jasmine, rose, flowering stems, lotus and the paisley motif are the most popular.

In recent years, the beautiful and wide variety of stitches and designs that were on the decline, have been revived. Concerted efforts by government and various private organizations have paid off and today the art of chikankari is flourishing, enriching both the domestic and export market.

Handicrafts Trade
Suggested Reading