Archaeological finds in the ancient cities of the Indus Valley have unearthed bronze needles, indicating the existence of sewing skills as early as c 2000 BC. Further on in time, literary references suggest that embroideries, whether for domestic and personal use or for professional and trade purposes, have long served as textile embellishment.
Professionally embroidered goods for commerce and those created in the karkhana (workshops) for the princely courts continue to be practised. Embroideries range from the Chikankari of Lucknow, the white-on-white embroidery reputed to have been introduced by the Mughal Empress Noor Jehan to the metallic yarn embroidery workshops of zari and zardozi located in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and other regions to the professional caste of ari embroiderers of Gujarat. The cutwork convent embroideries of Tamil Nadu introduced by Christian missionaries to the eclectic mix of Persian and Chinese influence combined with Zoroastrian symbolism that form the hallmark of Parsi embroideries are just some of the examples.
Domestic embroideries almost always created by women for their own and family use, for gifts and as part of trousseaus, have over generations defined societies and identities. The semiotics of motif, colour and patterning signal religious, occupational and group affiliations. From the distinct red, blue and black puthukuli embroidery on white cotton that distinguishes the Toda tribals of the Nilgiri hills to the nomadic Banjara tribes spread across a wide geographic swathe. Included as an integral part of the trousseau are the phulkari of Punjab, while in Karnataka the auspicious motifs of kasuti are embroidered on saris. The dowry embroideries of Kutch and Saurashtra and the adjoining areas of western Rajasthan define communities. Even as the tradition of embroidering pictures extends from the Chamba Rumaals of Himachal Pradesh to the Kantha embroideries of West Bengal that originated as a means of reusing and layering old cotton saris, to the contemporary pictorial Sujnis of Bihar that narrate issues of everyday existence.
With economic and social transformations there has been an increasing commercialization of these embroideries. Their status as a readily marketable product now providing employment and income to women embroiderers. While it may be argued that this phenomenon has reduced creativity or resulted in a loss of authenticity, it is equally true that the mutation of traditional craft into an item of global consumption has enabled its continuity and the empowerment of its practitioners.