The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
the quilt scout goes global:
pakistan & west india
I was standing in the archives of the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, leaning over a table where a special quilt had been laid out for board members to admire, trying not to drool. I’m going to describe the quilt to you the best I can; I’d ask you to close your eyes and picture it, but then you couldn’t read. Maybe just squint a little?
The quilt featured what you’d instantly recognize as four-patches and Ohio Stars, alternating five rows across, six rows down. The blocks finished about eight-inches, I’d guess. There was a wonderful array of solid-colored fabrics in this quilt, rich pink and kelly green, royal blue; black and white provided contrast. The craftsmanship was fantastic but not laser-precise, which made it more loveable. A traditional sawtooth border framed everything, and hourglass units in the four corners delivered a satisfying final touch, bringing everything together the way a nice cornerstone always does.
If you hadn’t read the title of this column and didn’t put together that I’m here to report on ridiculously cool ralli quilts, it would be understandable to read the above list of features and assume the quilt I just described was a traditional American one.
Certainly, any of these features would be right at home in a traditional American quilt (e.g., pieced border, Star blocks, solids, etc.) But these design motifs, as well as the construction methods used to make the quilts in which they feature, have cousins in many parts of the world—and there’s perhaps no more breathtaking example of this than in the ralli quilts that come from Pakistan, West India, and Sindh.
I love ralli quilts. (It was the ralli that inspired me to start a series on quilts around the world, in fact!) Rallis are made out of fabrics so bright, it feels like they’re smiling. These are visually juicy creations, quilted with big, Sashiko-like stitches pulled through patchwork that looks familiar to any quilter making quilts today, yet the subtle differences inspire further investigation.
When you see a ralli for the first time, you do a double-take. These quilts, made a world away and maybe long ago are friends with the quilt you finished last week. There’s a relationship in color and pattern and therefore there’s a kinship. Quilters like the same things, wherever they are in the world.
A ralli featuring patchwork and reverse appliqué. Love those hourglass units, am I right, ladies??
The history geek in me digs the story behind ralli quilts, of course, and that story is a long one. The ralli (sometimes you’ll see rilli, rilly, rallee, or rehli) originates in Southeastern Pakistan and Western India, though, as with all regional styles in quilts—and art, and fashion, etc.—there are examples that come from surrounding regions, too.
The tradition of ralli textiles goes back thousands of years. Yes, thousands: The first rallis were likely sewn during the fourth millennium BCE. Obviously, the quilts have shown differences across that really, really long amount of time, but surprisingly few. After all this time, ralli blocks are still composed mostly of squares and triangles; symmetry is foundational to the form; and though differences in dye technology has changed the vibrancy and longevity of the color in rallis, these covers are never dull or drab.
An image from It Takes a Quilt, a short film made by Cara Wade in 2017, available to view on YouTube. (Screenshot)
Ralli quilts are made primarily by women, similar to those who makes quilts around here. They’re typically created by a single person, though ladies often gather to sew together, just like we like to do. And just like our quilts, rallis mean something beyond their utilitarian function.
Even “everyday” rallis in heavy rotation symbolize family, community—even life itself, as some rallis given to newborns become ongoing projects, with blocks and borders added throughout the person’s life. Rallis will often show up on a deathbed or cover coffin, too, further showing their central place in the lives of those in the community.
Rallis are hung as doors. They are given as wedding gifts. They are used as furniture, laid out on the floor when guests come or when it’s time for family dinner. If you find yourself in Pakistan, see if you can spot a ralli on a camel. Camels need quilts, too!
The quilt I saw that day in Lincoln was pure patchwork, but other rallis feature a reverse appliqué technique similar to Hawaiian quilts, and many are embellished with mirrors, tassels, cowry shells, and other fabulous embroidery stitching. You’ll find all three of these methods in some ralli quilts, and those are special quilts, indeed.
For more on rallis—and there is much, much more to learn and enjoy about these quilt “family members”—Patricia Stoddard is your woman. Her 2003 book, Ralli Quilts: Traditional Textiles from Pakistan and India is a terrific resource, full of some 130 full-color photos of these textile wonders. If you’d like to listen to Stoddard speak on her research, just enter “ralli quilts” into the search box on YouTube. You’ll find a terrific lecture she gave at the International Quilt Market a few years ago.
Patricia Stoddard, we salute you! Book cover image via Amazon.com
Your YouTube search will yield a number of videos about rallis, actually; a lot of them are quite good, too, and allow you to view the quilts and the women who make them. The internet is pretty cool in this way, because asking you to picture a ralli quilt just isn’t enough: Rallis have to be seen to be believed.