Traditional phulkari is an exacting form of embroidery once practiced exclusively for home consumption by women of the Punjab. Although applied to various garments and household articles, it has been most widely valued as enhancement for women's chadars, a sort of large shawl and head covering. Of these, most particularly esteemed and most frequently preserved as family treasures are the handsome shawls associated with weddings and other festive occasions. phulkari embroidery's distinctive angular motifs typically are worked in silk floss on a coarse, palin-woven, cotton cloth called khaddar, usually produced locally.
Design is formed by a multitude of short darning stitches about 6-8mm long (1/4inch) that are placed closely parallel only one fabric thread apart and lie either warp wise of weft wise. En masse the stitches are assembled to form straight lines, zigzags, triangles, chevrons, rhomboids, diamonds, and compounds thereof. Work is done from the back of the fabric, and stitches must be carefully counted if the design is to be formed correctly below on the right side of the shawl, hence the need for a coarse fabric. The technique requires long practice and great patience to master. However, the finished embroidery is distinctive and when used to cover a large area can be dazzling. Great pride was taken in fine work.
The origins of phulkari embroidery are uncertain. Conjecture suggests that the art may have come from Iran, where it is known as gulkari; or that it was brought from Central Asia by the jat tribes who became the principal cultivators in the Panjab, the area in which this folk art was most widely practiced. However, it was not confined to any one group of people. Hitkari (1980: 15, 16) after an extensive study of the embroidery, states that there are no examples which can be said to be more than 150 years old. He believes this needlework style probably developed early in the nineteenth century. By mid-twentieth century, with changing social conditions, the art of phulkari embroidery had fallen into disuse. Yet, remaining examples of these shawls still excite admiration and arouse interest in their manufacture.