Why Rafia Shafiq Started Dhaga Art to Revive the Art of Phulkari

Rafia Shafiq is an artist and founder of Dhaga Art, a small business that promotes the unique Phulkari embroidery style of Pakistan and India. We caught up with Rafia on the importance of Phulkari, why she chose to pursue art, and running a small business. Follow @dhaga.art on Instagram to see more of Rafia’s work!

What is Phulkari ?

The word “Phulkari” is derived from two Sanskrit words, phul (meaning flower) and kari (meaning to work), thus it means to do flower work. Phulkari artwork can be found from Swat Valley, through the areas of Hazara, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Sialkot, and Lahore in modern day Pakistan into Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludihana, Patiala (Indian Punjab) and Rohtak and Hisar — neighbouring parts of Haryana — right up to Delhi.

The distinctive feature of this embroidery is the simplicity of its stitch. Darning stitch was the most commonly used technique to make Phulkari. The design was formed by counting the number of threads on the wrong side of the fabric, without any tracing or drawing. Traditional Phulkari was made of hand-dyed and hand-woven spun cloth called “khaddar,” using high quality untwisted silk thread called “pat.” The silk thread came from Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Bengal, and dyed in Amritsar and Jammu. The best quality thread came from China.

The earliest mention of the word Phulkari appears in the famous love story Heer Ranjha written by Waris Shah. The earliest available articles are Phulkari shawls and handkerchiefs embroidered in Chamba Style during the 15th century by Bebe Nanaki, the sister of Guru Nanak Dev ji, the first guru of Sikh religion. The Punjabi women made the traditional Phulkari in a group called “Trijan” where all women engaged in embroidery, as well as dancing, laughing, singing and weaving. A girl’s education was considered incomplete if she had not learnt the intricate art of embroidery. Phulkaris and Bagh Phulkaris (the whole base fabric is embroidered) were made by the young girls for personal day-to-day use, as well for their dowry.

The motifs were inspired by the things they used in their daily life, articles precious to them with a geometrical base such as domestic animals, birds, fruits, flowers, human figures, jewelry, household objects, spinning wheels, cooking, or other routine activities. All the colors and motifs used by the women for embroidery had a symbolic significance. The color red symbolized happiness, prosperity, love, and passion. Yellow is used in great quantities for Phulkari, and it stands for success and fertility.

The Phulkari fabric formed an important item of a bride’s trousseau. In the West Punjab, following the birth of a boy, it was customary to begin “Vari da Bagh.” The newborn’s grandmother would place the first stitch on the fabric. The bagh would later be handed to the boy’s bride on their wedding day. A bagh given to bride by her grandmother was known as “chope.” The chope was started by the grandmother after the birth of a girl.

Small peacock and cow motifs were embroidered, which symbolized protection, good luck, and wellbeing.

How did you learn Phulkari?

I have always been fond of crafts and textiles, and it was when I had to choose a particular topic for my thesis in my final year of university, I came across Phulkari embroidery. My university in Lahore, Pakistan, Beaconhouse National University, is closely connected with the local community and artists of Pakistan. I reached out to a local artist who had revived Phulkari for her thesis program. She was extremely helpful and provided me with valuable information on how to access the Phulkari artisans.Through her support, I managed to work with with Gulshan Bibi, a local artisan of Phulkari in Haripur Hazara, Pakistan. I went with my family to Noordi village in Haripur Hazara to meet with the Phulkari artisans. Gulshan Bibi was a warm and hardworking lady who was working with NGOs in Pakistan to revive the Phulkari craft. All of her daughters knew the art of Phulkari, and it was a source of livelihood for them. I learned Phulkari embroidery from one of her lovely daughters. My own journey in learning the craft was difficult in the beginning, but with time and practice, I managed to create very fine and detailed Phulkari shawls for my thesis display. Through additional practice to create customized orders for my clients and by teaching this craft at various workshops throughout the Greater Toronto Area, I have seen that my Phulkari embroidery has drastically improved.

How do you draw your inspiration for your pieces? Any influences?

Initially, when I started my small business, Dhaga Art, my work revolved around the traditional Phulkari motif. However, I adapted to the changes in the textile market in Toronto and focused on my target audience, which resulted in custom orders. There was a drastic change in the traditional Phulkari motif into a more contemporary and modern style. I started creating embroidered hoops based on themes, such as Mother’s Day, Canada Day Maple embroidery, flags, portraits, cityscapes (which is the hot seller!) and custom name embroideries. When I receive a custom order for a cityscape, I ask the client to provide me with four to five landmarks that holds significance for them. I go through a process of sketching the embroidery and showing the thread colors to the client before starting the final layout.

What does Phulkari artwork mean to you?

Every textile piece has a story and meaning to it, and for me, Phulkari is a language which gives a sense of belonging to our culture and history. It is a forgotten and lost craft and needs to be passed onto the next generations. Whenever I conduct Phulkari workshops, most of the students know about it from their elder family members, usually mothers and grandmothers, but never got a chance to learn it themselves. It gives me a sense of responsibility to share the rich heritage of this embroidery with them and once they finish a floral motif, they understand the patience and worth of the craft. To quote Flora Annie Steel – Phulkari was a ‘work of faith, savouring somewhat sowing seed in red-brown soil,’ a thing that has gone down the memory lane.

What do you hope people take away from your work?

Before every workshop, I talk about the history and heritage of the Phulkari craft. This makes the students feel they also have a responsibility to revive the craft, hence their embroidery shows how much dedication and passion they put into it. When I create custom pieces, I always send a note about Phulkari’s importance to my clients, with facts such as the meaning of Phulkari, origin, and its history. In each contemporary custom piece, I make sure to incorporate the traditional Phulkari motif; however, the technique I use to complete the embroidered hoop is a darning stitch (the same technique used to make Phulkari). Since I’ve started sharing information about Phulkari on my Instagram page, I realized my audience is interested to learn more about the craft.

How and why did you start your small business, Dhaga Art?

After I completed my thesis in Phulkari craft, I immigrated to Canada. I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Textiles and Fibre Studies, and it was challenging to find a job in the textiles field. Initially, I started volunteering at the Textile Museum of Canada for a few months, but unfortunately went back to Pakistan because of my father’s terminal condition. My father had always shown a keen interest in my work and career, and provided immense support at each step. My thesis display was the finest amongst the visual arts school, and received a distinction as well. I embroidered five Phulkari shawls, with the help of artisans from Haripur. I would always discuss with my parents how hard it has been for me in Canada to find a job which suits my field, and it was then my father told me to start my own creative venture. He knew the skill I had in Phulkari was as fine as the artisans, and encouraged me to teach it in Canada and take orders. I was ecstatic about it, and started brainstorming ideas on how I can reach out to museums and galleries in Toronto. God’s will, my father passed away after a months’ time and it was extremely difficult to get back on track.

In May 2017, I launched Dhaga Art. Dhaga is an Urdu word which means thread. I started off by teaching to a group of mothers and daughters at a friend’s home, followed by hosting a Phulkari workshop at my home. Since then, I have conducted Phulkari workshops at different galleries, museums, and colleges across the Greater Toronto Area, including Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op Toronto, Art Gallery of Mississauga, Sheridan College, Peel Art Gallery Museum & Archives, Michael’s, and Queen Elizabeth Park and Community Cultural Centre in Oakville. Due to COVID-19, I have started teaching the craft virtually and collaborated with the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

How did COVID-19 impact your small business?

COVID-19 has affected most of the small businesses to a great extent. I had an ample number of workshops booked for 2020, and all of them got cancelled. It was definitely a challenging moment for me, as it seemed everything stopped and there was no direction to my work. I started getting a lot of custom orders during this time. My clients have been extremely patient with my work, and understand how each piece is made with love and time. It has been quite a journey until now, and I feel blessed with the immense support of my family, my husband, and my 15-month-old daughter, who lets me catch up on orders by taking a longer nap!

To learn more about Phulkari, check out the following references:

The Needle Lore by Neelam Grewal and Amarjit Grewal

Fabric Art: The Heritage of India by Samla Das

Asian Embroidery by Jasleen Dhamija

Traditional Embroideries of India by Shailaja D. Naik

From Silk to Synthetic Phulkari: The Long Journey of a Period Textile by Dr. Shabnam Bahar Malik

salaam! i'm fatimah, a student and writer at Muslim Girl! i'm interested in medicine, anthropology and learning more about the world.