The famous quote by Amir Khusro on Kashmir, “Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast,” perfectly justifies the splendour of the valley. Kashmir, often known as the “Paradise on Earth”, is a popular tourist destination owing to its breath-taking scenery, snow-capped mountains, plethora of wildlife, gorgeous monuments, friendly people, and regional handicrafts.

Kashmir has a long tradition of artistic handicrafts, particularly the production of incredibly fine, delicate, and artistic hand-embroidered textile products, which also serve as one of the main sources of income for natives. Vibrant embroidery can be seen on a variety of clothing and materials, including crewel fabrics, shawls, jackets, and more. The craftspeople use a variety of embroidery techniques, among which is the renowned ‘sozni’ needle point embroidery style, commonly referred to as Sozan Kaari.

For more than 500 years, artisans in Kashmir have been engaged in the art of sozni embroidery. One fascinating aspect of sozni is its level of intricacy, ranging from five stitches per centimetre to an astonishing 500 stitches per centimetre. This exceptional craft stands out as one of the most specialised and delicate forms of hand embroidery worldwide, with no other place practising this extraordinarily beautiful and artistic form of needlework. The commonly used materials are wool and silk. Sozni embroidery is particularly renowned for adorning pashmina cashmere shawls and jackets.

Pashmina, one of nature’s finest gifts to humanity, finds its heart in the intricate art of sozni. These delicate and exquisite shawls call for lighter embroideries, making Sozni Kari the perfect match. Sozni mostly uses cotton threads, but sometimes even silk is used, fine needles are used to embroider motifs onto the base. In the Sozni Shawl Baafii process, block printing plays a crucial role; the carved designs on the wooden blocks themselves exemplify superb craftsmanship. The patterns often feature lotus flowers, geometric motifs, floral vines, and paisley motifs. Expert wood carvers specialised in shawl design typically use traditional hand tools to chisel and engrave the design on wooden blocks based on a design created by the naqqash (an artist or craftsman, particularly one involved in decorative arts or ornamentation).

Expertly crafted pashmina shawls cannot be captured in a single picture. To truly appreciate their magnificence, one needs to closely examine the intricate patterns, feel the softness with bare hands, and recognise the treasure they embody.

Undoubtedly, a shawl is nothing less than a piece of history in the making. The art of sozni is not limited to pashmina and extends beyond to encompass wool shawls, jackets, salwar kameez, and sarees.

For a preliminary understanding, the process of sozni embroidery can be divided into four distinct steps:

1.  Selection of material - The most important and typically Kashmiri base materials used are pashminas, shahtoosh, and namdas. These luxurious fabrics provide the ideal canvas for the intricate embroidery work. Other fabrics like wool, silk, cotton, and gabbar may also be used for specific designs. The yarns employed for the embroidery can vary and include staple, cotton wool, and silk, each lending its unique texture and appeal to the final product.

2.  Selection of design - The selection and transfer of designs are done by a skilled artisan called naqqash. The naqqash carefully considers various elements such as motifs, patterns, and cultural symbolism to create designs that resonate with the essence of the embroidery tradition.

3.  Transfer of design - After selecting the design, the naqqash transfers it onto the cloth, establishing the foundation for the embroidery process. This transfer can be done in two ways: It can be done using wooden blocks, where the naqqash skilfully carves the desired design onto a wooden block, which is then inked and pressed onto the fabric, imprinting an outline for the embroidery. Another way is by using perforations on paper. The naqqash creates a detailed pattern with perforations based on the chosen design, placing it on the fabric. By dusting powdered charcoal or chalk over the perforations, the design is transferred onto the fabric, providing a helpful guide for the embroiderers.

4.  Actual embroidery - With the design transferred onto the fabric, skilled artisans commence the actual embroidery work. Using fine needles and a variety of cotton threads or silk, they meticulously stitch intricate patterns onto the fabric. The artisans employ different stitches, often ranging from five to five hundred stitches per centimetre, depending on the intricacy required by the design.

Types of Stitches Used in Sozni

Sozni stitching demands exceptional talent and meticulous attention to detail, making it a time-consuming and highly skilled craft. Consequently, it is considered a luxury and commands a higher cost. Depending on the client’s budget and preferences, the design can be interpreted and executed in different ways, allowing for customisation and versatility in the final product.

1.  The exquisite sozni stitch- This stitch is used to outline the pattern in sozni work, using a deeper shade of thread. A different colour of the same fine sozni stitch is then used to fill in the design. The filling and outline blend seamlessly, with no discernible space between them. Additionally, the motifs are often coloured multiple times in various hues. Tiny contrasting stitches are used to depict empty spaces around the motif. This stitch is typically used on high-end products like silks, genuine pashmina wool, and crepes, as it produces a highly compact and luxurious appearance.

2.  The less complicated work- This style combines various exquisite sozni threads for outlining the motif, while larger stitches like satin stitch are used to fill it in.

3.  Vatachikan stitches- Occasionally, vatachikan stitches are used for richer fillings. Larger herringbone or buttonhole stitches are utilised to fill in the vacant curved or straight backdrop areas between different patterns.

Ending Note

Ancient craft traditions face significant challenges in the present cultural and economic context, as mechanisation is considered the most viable method for mass production, putting numerous Indian heritage skills at risk of being lost forever. In Kashmir, many artisans who practice sozni embroidery are also farmers who turn to needlework after their harvest season. They rely on both occupations equally for their livelihood. However, due to the intricate and time-consuming nature of sozni stitching, it often requires more time than farming. This has led to the emergence of “easier” stitching techniques and lower-quality shawls.

Given these circumstances, it becomes crucial for everyone to support and appreciate the work of these artisans, making it easier for them to pursue their craft and encouraging them to keep the skill alive. It is equally important to inspire and motivate the younger generation to actively learn these traditional crafts, develop their own styles, and carry on the legacy without being overly concerned about financial challenges or fame. Sozni embroidery is not only a beautiful art form but also a testament to the perseverance, dedication, and hard work of the Kashmiri artists.