Phulkari, meaning “flower work” (phul= flower, kari=work) is a type of embroidery originally made throughout the Punjab, a region now straddling Pakistan and India. Punjabi women worked this type of embroidery on large, rectangular cloths used as shawls, veils, ritual wall hangings, bed covers, or other soft furnishings. Traditionally, the base cloth was a rough handspun and handwoven cotton called khaddar and the vividly colored thread, called pat, was unplied silk usually imported from China. While phulkaris show multiple stitches, the dominant stitch is the darning stitch (straight stitches in parallel rows).
Phulkaris were a primary part of a Punjabi woman’s material wealth, often forming part of the dowry she brought to her husband’s home. Young girls learned this needlework from older female relatives and friends. While each phulkari is unique, they may be grouped by design and background color with names such as thirma (characterized by a white background), sainchi (figurative), or bagh (garden, characterized by solid, usually geometric, embroidery).
Most of the museum’s examples–compromised in large part from the collections of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and an anonymous donor in honor of the women who made phulkaris–were likely created before the Partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. Recently, Manish Malhotra, one of India’s leading fashion designers, added his twenty-first century vision of this tradition in the form of some of his high-fashion garments.