Embroidering Lives

Women's Work and Skill in the Lucknow Embroidery Industry

By Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber

Subjects: Sociology Of Work
Series: SUNY series in the Anthropology of Work
Paperback : 9780791440889, 239 pages, March 1999
Hardcover : 9780791440872, 239 pages, March 1999

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Maps

List of Figures

List of Tables

A Note on Translation




Apprenticeship and learning (about) chikan
Summary of chapters


Chapter 1 Chikan in Historical Context


The field setting
What is chikan?
Stitches and "work"
Origins and history of chikan


Chapter 2 The Division of Labor


The production process
Knowledge and the division of labor
Productive specialties
Machine work


Chapter 3 Embroiderers in Social Perspective


Theorizing women's work
Problems with statistics
Embroidery and poverty
Embroidery and the life cycle


Chapter 4 Work and. Wages


Embroidery wages
Work habits
Agents and embroiderers
Is chikan embroidery "free-time" work?


Chapter 5 Skill and Knowledge in Fine Chikan Embroidery


Distinguishing the work of a skilled embroiderer
Knowledge of chikan
Learning chikan
Shauq and pareshani
Processes of learning
The embroiderer's "design": Planning and execution
Working for the market: Concessions in skill


Chapter 6 Development Schemes and State Patronage


Government handicraft policy
Government promotion and patronage
Award schemes
Training schemes
Government jobs for skilled embroiderers
SEWA Lucknow
Embroiderers, skilled embroiderers, the government, and SEWA Lucknow








Fusing aesthetic and economic perspectives in exploring the lives and work of women in the Lucknow, India embroidery industry, this book offers insights into anthropology of work and women’s studies.


Fusing aesthetic and economic analyses, Embroidering Lives investigates the lives and work of women in the chikan embroidery industry of Lucknow, India. Richly descriptive and accessibly written, the book explores many important issues in women's studies, anthropology, and urban development today—the impact of purdah (seclusion of women) upon women's work and occupational opportunities, the key role of sub-contractors in home-based industry, the need to understand a handicraft from its makers' point of view, and the role of development agencies and programs.

Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Washington State University.


"This is a sound anthropological study exploring a well-regarded industry from a new vantage point: the women involved in embroidering, teaching embroidery, and arranging for work for the embroiderers. The book provides detailed information on the art/skill itself, and rich descriptions of all stages of the process (including laundering the cloth, stamping the cloth, etc. ) Great innovative methodology is used and this enables deeper, comprehensive understanding of a range of issues. The author relates themes she discovered to larger issues of gender and work. " — Anita M. Weiss, University of Oregon

"From the standpoint of a general reader, the chapters on gender make a major contribution to our understanding of several gender issues. The author explores the relationship between female seclusion and the practice of embroidery, examines how 'craft' activity is integrated into the larger social life of women, and analyzes the internal differentiation of women within the industry. The book is an important addition to feminist literature on work, but is more sophisticated and nuanced than comparable scholarship on South Asia. Its discussion of the ways that female agents are themselves involved in the 'exploitation' of, and control over, female labor is novel and important. Wilkinson-Weber's argument against the standard position heard in the Lucknow area that embroidery is a 'part-time' activity done by women in their 'free time' is a compelling one that has significant implications for the study of women's work in India and elsewhere in the world. " — Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College