The legendary nakshi kanthas are the best examples of the embroideries of Bangladesh. Although embroidered kanthas are very decorative their chief motive traditionally was thrift and economy combined with aesthetics, the idea being to utilise old and worn out cloth by sewing them together meticulously with close stitches and embroidering them so that not a single piece of fabric was wasted. The idea was to strengthen old and worn out cloth so that it could endure further usage. The care and artistry with which the embroideries are made transformed the kanthas from their original state of patched up rags into wonderfully beautiful creations of design. Nothing embodies the tradition of women’s creativity more than the nakshi kanthas. It also symbolises how women preserve, recreate and renew life forms. Sotries are told of how women met together in their courtyards, to stitch the kanthas for family members. They stitched the layers together with borders in coloured yarn taken from the sari borders; stitching the motifs, which represented familiar items, ritualistic symbols or imaginative scenes, followed this. It is said that almost fifty different stitches have been used in kanthas.
Nakshi kantha embroideries all over Bangladesh have common factors in stitching, format and composition. In the structure of the kantha, its outer contour sets the border for the embroidery planned. The embellishment takes form according to the dimensions of the fabric, as a square, an oblong, or rectangle. Then follows its intended use, as quilt (lep), large spread (nakshi kantha), puja floor spread (ashon), cosmetics wrapper (arshilata), wallet (batwa, thoiley) cover for Quran (ghilaf), floor spread (gailicha), clothes wrapper (bostana, guthri), dhakni or cover, ceremonial meal spread (dastar khan) prayer mat (jainamaz) and pillow cover (balisher chhapa or ahar). The boundary of the kantha’s shape is perhaps the onl constraint to the embroiderer, all else is left free to her imagination – to use language and imagery from the storehouse of memory. Women’s lives may have been circumscribed by their homes, but their minds were open to the world beyond. Thus in some older kanthas, are embossed figures of Company soldiers on horses, or Nawabs smoking hookahs. The kantha stitchers own dreams are patterned in the form of the sun image, of flora and fauna. Sometimes, the maker owned her work by signing her name or stitching a proverb on one side. In the centre of a large nakshi kantha was usually to be found a mandala, within multiple square borders. A replica of a temple, a place of worship or an icon would rest within the mandala. Many of the nakshi kanthas represent a mingling of cultures, with a Hindu rath and a Muslim tazia placed parallel or facing each other, or with a mixture of other religious symbols.