What is Sozni Embroidery?
Sozni Embroidery: A Most Magnificent Handicraft from Heaven on Earth
For sheer beauty, sozni embroidery is bound to mesmerize you. And leave you dumbfounded. No kidding. But that’s just for starters. Knowing how this wearable art came to be can seize your imagination even more.
Indeed, there’s no denying embroidery is an old art. Arguably, it traces its origins to ancient times — thousands of years ago when emperors and kings rule the earth. Or as historians deem it to the prehistoric Cro-Magnon man. Indeed, you can count by a few fingers in your hand the number of embroidery styles in the world that can go head to head against sozni needlework, much less outclass it.
What’s even more impressive is that sozni embroidery is a craft that’s made entirely by hand. All without help from any machine whatsoever.
If you think needlework is a thing of the past, then a quick look at Tom Daly during the Tokyo 2021 Olympics
should give you a change of heart. Daly, of course, is no ordinary human. He’s a British diver who won gold in the Olympics 2020 in synchronized diving on the 10-meter platform. In short, he’s a world champion that loves knitting like no other. Like many of us.
Of course, embroidery is totally a whole new craft altogether. While both use needles, embroidery uses stitches to add beauty to the finished cloth. Knitting starts from totally nothing turning the thread into a new fabric. In effect, Tom Daly would need a piece of garment to stitch upon had he been embroidering (which he was not).
An Ancient Art Thrives inIndia
As needlework, embroidery has definitely come of age. A quick look at its history will tell us that said handicraft had a long way to go. In fact, the origin of embroidery has been dated to 30,000 BC: back to the days of the Cro-Magnon man. Archaeological remains reveal fossilized remains of beautiful clothing adorned with hand stitches.
Indeed, such beautiful handiwork can certainly catch the eye when worn. No less than the recently-passed queen of England, Queen Elizabeth wore a head-turning wedding gown accentuated by a 15-foot embroidered train in her 194 wedding.
And that’s just for starters. Haute couture today is paved with jaw-dropping examples of embroidery. So much so that today’s top designers are incorporating embroidery in their creations — from everyday slippers to signature dresses that make fashion statements.
A study on how big the market of machines used for embroidery should be telling. Topping that list is India.
Graph 1: Global Embroidery Machinery Market
Note: India is one of the leading producers of embroidered products globally. Not only is it getting more organized in its embroidery business, but the Hindu country is home to dozens of embroidery styles.
One particular type of embroidery has risen to the top. It’s getting a lot more attention these days: the fine sozni embroidery from Kashmir. And in a totally unique way.
Sozni Embroidery: India’s Most Eye-catching Handicraft
So what is sozni embroidery? And more importantly, how did it become a product much sought-after by the world? The answers to these can be found in the handicraft itself.
Unparalleled Superior Craftsmanship
There’s a difference between playing the piano and playing the piano in an orchestra. Any hobbyist who wants to spend his time well could carry a needle and thread and proceed to embroider a design on a piece of cloth. But to create an embroidered piece of art that makes people drop their jaw is a totally different thing.
And that’s exactly the reason why Picasso's paintings are sold for millions of dollars. The cubist master commands such a high prize with his superior craftsmanship.
Sozni embroidery sits at the top of the hierarchy of embroideries. Also called Sozan Kaari (needlework in Indic Urdu), sozni is an embroidery technique that has been honed by Kashmiri artisans for over 500 years. The artwork is so refined that the final fabric looks like it’s a tapestry.
Now, if you’re having trouble making your embroidered design stick, then being able to achieve such intricacy is definitely a long shot. Just imagine how much time and effort it would take to make this happen.
What makes it all the more stunning is the fact that sozni embroidery is all done by hand. And not by any machine whatsoever. As such, the needlework is incomparable and is unique only to the artisans of the Kashmiri region of India.
Sozni designs can be simple and could run along the borders of the cloth only. But it could also fill the whole cloth becoming more intricate in the process.
The more intricate the work, the longer the handicraft would take. A simpler design of putting 1-inch embroidery panels on all 4 borders of a choice shawl could take as much as 2 months of a meshwork (jaali). But a more intricate design such as a totally embroidered shawl could take up to two years.
Topnotch Fabric: The Finest Wool in the World
There’s another aspect of sozni embroidery that has made it a most sought-after craft. One word: pashmina. If you haven’t heard about pashmina, then it’s high time you should.
● Pashmina is a Persian word that means ‘soft gold’. And it represents the finest wool anyone can find in the world.
Where does it come from? Quite simply, pashmina is wool coming from a distinct breed of goats in Ladakh, a newly-formed Indian province that used to be part of the larger Kashmir region.
Called Changtangi goats, these ruminants are not your run-of-the-mill goats. First up, they’re found at impossibly high altitudes of over 14,000 feet above sea level. They’re named after the Changtan community that has thrived in the plateaus of Tibet and Ladakh region.
The story goes that a Muslim saint from Persia dubbed Mir Ali Hamdani was the inventor of the pashmina. Together with 700 of his craftsman, he discovered the material and produced socks gifting them to the king of Kashmir at that time: Sultan Zail-ul-Abidin (1418- 1470).
That is how the world’s most elegant pashmina shawl was born in Kashmir. It’s the down hair or the under fleece that’s considered the most sought-after. And though other parts of the world make pashmina, the best of the best comes from Kashmir, India. That’s how cashmere (Anglicized) pashmina sprung forth to the ends of the earth.
More often than not, these cashmere pashminas are adorned with sozni embroidery. Top material meets top craftsmanship from one of the most stunning places on the planet.
As the Pashmina shawls came into being at the height of the Mughal empire (16th to 19th century), an empire that traces its roots to the vast Mongol empire of Genghis Khan that preceded it. It’s no accident that Mughal influence can be seen in the motifs of these attention-grabbing shawls.
● Designs such as Buta Muhammad Shah (Muhammad Shah’s Flowers) and Shah Pasand (Emperor’s Delight) still are coveted today.
With the proliferation of the Silk Road, the spread of the fame of pashmina and of sozni embroidery became unstoppable.
TheSilk Road from Wikimedia Commons
Zosni Embroidery Sprungfrom Heaven on Earth
Kashmir became known for its top-quality cashmere shawls that are embellished with sozni embroidery, more often than not. The question is what moved such fine artisans to create jaw-dropping wearable art.
A Majestic Place Fit forthe Gods
The level of intricacy of zosni embroideries has made the handicraft much sought after. As India continuously organizes the industry, certain standards have to be met. For instance, pashmina shawls must pass rigorous standards to be considered certified handmade pashminas. Some of the major ones are:
1.) The fabric must be made from “pashm” fiber from the underbelly hair of the Changtangani goat. That means it should have a finesse of 16 microns.
2.) The fabric must be hand-spun on a Charkha, a traditional wheel
3.) Plus, it must be woven using traditional handloom.
Still, meeting all the standards does not necessarily mean a beautiful wearable design. Interestingly, a survey of the physical terrain of Kashmir should be telling. Indeed, the northernmost region of India is such a beauty, you really can’t help but call it paradise.
Kashmir is filled with stunning Chinar trees that turn the whole valley into a sea of red and yellow when autumn comes. Plus, you have a silver lake that shines in gold as the dawn beacons. To add to all that, you have crystal-blue rivers that come from the icy mountains above. You only have to experience all the beauty to feel like you’re on another planet altogether.
The Kashmir valley became famous for its mesmerizing beauty all throughout history. Eventually, it was called “paradise on earth” in deference to the Garden of Eden in sacred texts. Fascinated by it all, the Mughals added layers of gardens to the overall attraction. Eventually, rulers made the Indian province a favorite summer capital. A poet during the Maluk era, Amir Khusru, was the first to refer to Kashmir as paradise as he first entered the valley saying:
“Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast”
- Amir Khusru
It simply means: If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.
All these natural beauties from flora and fauna alike became the direct inspiration for sozni embroidery. So you shouldn’t be surprised if you see pashmina motifs constituting flowers, paisleys, creepers, and everyone’s fave: chinar leaves. When you come across eye-catching cashmere pashminas with sozni, you know it’s the best as it is inspired by nature.
A Practical Handicraft Saves the Day
There’s the aspect of practicality that played in the rise of sozni embroidery and posh pashmina shawls and wearables. You may view it as the perfect pairing of the quality material from choice goats to the unparalleled craftsmanship of a Kashmir artisan.
A Perfect Fit
Created by superfine wool, Pashmina shawls provide the perfect cover to fight the pangs of winter. As it shielded the goats from the cold, the same material protects the wearer with its warm effect. But pashmina shawls are delicate and lightweight. Hence, it has to be provided with embroidery that fits the material. And doesn’t ruin it.
This is where sozni embroidery saves the day. The thread used in stitching is not only light but also delicate and feathery. It’s perfect to put pashmina shawls and wearables in the best light. The results say it all. Such fine handicraft is exquisite to the last thread. And that’s an understatement.
Fighting the Long Winter
To a large degree, the handicraft also reflects such practicality. If you look at the demographics in the various towns of Kashmir, people there are predominantly farmers. In fact, Kashmir is a rich agricultural place. As a result, the majority of the villagers in that Indian territory are involved in farming. They tend to fruits and vegetables and also raise animals and produce milk and cereal.
So, one question that’s bound to prop up in your head could be: How did these farmers become so skillful in creating pashmina laden with sozni designs?
And to answer that, you’ll have to look at the weather. Farming is fine with the sun being out and everything is warm and dandy. Plants grow to their best potential. Markets happen.
But once winter comes, farming grinds to a halt. Nothing grows on snow-covered land. Truly, farming is never a viable 365-day livelihood. And this is where sozni embroidery came to flourish.
In the cold months of winter, Kashmir artisans work inside: in their homes and assigned workplaces. They do what the world has known them to do best: embroider quality designs into the best fabrics in the world.
Every time you cater to pashmina scarves, shawls, apparel, and a whole army of fabrics, you cater to premium quality. Even better, you ensure the farmers of Kashmir put food on the table.
Farmers turning into world-class artists with their utmost dedication. That’s how sozni embroidery conquered the planet.