Memories: About Sindhi rilli quilts

When I was eleven, my family moved from the big, hot dusty city of Karachi, in southern-most Pakistan, to a tiny, hot, dusty village in the Sindh Province, just a few hours' drive to the north. I didn't live there all the time; we kids were at boarding school in the Himalayas by that time, but we did spend our three-month winter holiday at our family's home in the village.

From a very young age, I was attracted to handcrafts. I learned to sew early with the help of my sewing-machine-happy Nanna, and was constantly looking through craft books for ideas on what to make next.

For a craft-lover, Pakistan was an incredible place to grow up. Everywhere you turn, there are insanely gorgeous traditional handcrafts of all types; pottery, painting, embroidery, copper craft and jewellery. Even the trucks on the roads are painted works of art. 

So when we arrived in the Sindh desert areas on our school holidays, of course I noticed the local  handicrafts. In Pakistan, much of the handicraft  style you see around the place is specific to the region you're in, and it was here that I discovered the patchwork and applique quilting done by Sindhi village women.

I was immediately smitten.

All these images have been pinned in my Quilts folder on Pinterest. Follow back for the image source.

Sindhi quilts, or 'rilli*' are completely hand-sewn. To say they are striking is an understatement. The women who put them together use traditional patterns and, as is common in Pakistan, love to choose extraordinarily bright colours. I distinctly remember gasping the first time I saw a rilli being made, with its bright reds, pinks, greens and yellows. Contrasted with the dusty brown of the landscape and the earth tones of the mud buildings and stick fences in the villages, rillis are almost like music for the eyes.

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Sindhi Ralli.jpg

The women create their rillis in groups, sitting around on the ground to sew. (If you're from the West, it's almost impossible to sit on the ground constantly like they do. You need a lifetime's practice squatting and moving low. Looking at these pictures as a middle aged western woman, all I can think is about how sore my back would be, working like that.)

They create a quilt top made from new materials in block colours, both patchworked and appliqued. When that is done, the quilting takes place. The backing of the rilli is laid down, and on top of that are placed old clothes and rags that can't be worn any more. These make up the batting (or the middle, thick layer of the quilt), and the quilt top is placed over the top. All the layer are stitched together with small, close hand stitches that often follow straight lines, criss-crossing the rilli. The feature is always the patchwork and applique rather than the quilting stitches themselves.

Ralli quilts from Sindh

Why make rilli? Being hospitable is a huge virtue for Pakistanis, who are way more hospitable than we Aussies, and will treat guests lavishly and with great affection. The more rilli quilts a family group has, the more people it can put up for the night. And in a place where people have to walk, cycle or come by bullock cart to get places, staying for the night is essential to life.

If you host a wedding (always in the cold months, when you actually need a rilli to stay warm with), you'll want to host a lot of people, who might stay for several days. If you have quilts for all of them, you're winning.

I am hatching plans to make an entirely hand-stitched rilli, Sindhi style, incorporating old clothes and rags instead of new batting, once my current sewing projects are done. I probably won't sit on the floor to sew it, but if you come and stay, you may well get to have it on your bed.

What do you think of rillis? What traditional handcrafts did you grow up with?


*Some people spell the word 'ralli' but I just can't bring myself to do that. I remember hearing the pronunciation as 'i' as in 'ship'.