It goes without saying that people all over the world have found it necessary to create warm bed coverings. In different places, people have used different approaches to fill this need. The Europeans have created big, fluffy duvets filled with down and feathers. Mountain dwellers in Central and South America have developed a way of making colorful, tightly woven blankets. In Appalachia, artisans, mostly women, have developed a rich history of quilt-making involving traditional patterns and painstaking, labor-intensive needle-work. In the Indian state of Rajasthan, quilt-makers have developed a tradition of making a warm, snuggly, lightweight quilt called a “Jaipuri razai.” Although the name seems exotically foreign to Anglophones, the translation is fairly straightforward. “Jaipuri” means “coming from Jaipur,” the capital city of Rajasthan, and “razai” simply means “quilt.”
A Jaipuri razai is unique both for its artisanry and for its functionality. First, in handmaking these beautiful quilts, the artisans use the traditional textile-making skills of cotton carding, cotton voile-making and quilting. Cotton carding is the process of preparing cotton to use as cotton fill in a quilt. To card cotton, a worker uses two carders. The carders are convex paddles covered with small, fine teeth. The worker charges the carders by placing cotton fibers onto one of the carders. Then the worker gently draws the other carder across the face of the first one several times, changing position of the carders from horizontal to vertical. In the process of carding, the cotton dross is exposed and removed. “Dross” is simply waste material. Removing the dross leaves soft, fine, delicate cotton fibers. In a typical Jaipuri razai, the worker starts with a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton and works at carding it for a full week. After fully carding the cotton, the worker is left with a mere 100 grams (approximately 3.5 ounces) of cotton to use to fill the comforter. The lighter and fluffier the cotton fill, the warmer and cozier the quilt will be.
Once the fill is prepared, the artisans go on to make the quilts. It is important to layer the cotton evenly throughout the quilt. This is another characteristic of the handmade quilt that gives it its warmth. The shell of the quilt is usually a high-quality soft cotton voile. Cotton voile is a lightweight, gauzy cotton fabric with a soft, smooth surface. The softness of the voile adds to the very snuggly, cozy nature of the comforter. Sometimes the quilter uses a velvet covering instead of cotton voile.
After being filled, the quilt is stitched together. Of course, in times gone by, the quilt-makers did all the stitching with a hand-held needle. Modernly, however, quilt-makers use a sewing machine to stitch the sides of the quilt together. The machine-stitched sides increase the durability of the quilt. Quilters then use a running stitch on the interior of the quilt panels to hold the fill in place and add to the beauty of the quilt. All this work, from the carding to the filling to the quilting, is typically done by artisans whose families have been practicing these skills for generations.
The functionality of the Jaipuri razai is as important as the artisanry that goes into making it. Although this type of quilt is handmade, soft and snuggly, one should not get the impression that it is delicate. These comforters are, in fact, quite durable. This is not surprising when one considers the history and geography of the region that these covers originated in. Rajasthan is located in northwestern India. Bordering on Pakistan, Rajasthan encompasses the Aravalli Mountain Range and the Thar (Great Indian) Desert. Throughout Rajasthan, the terrain is inhospitable and the weather can get bitterly cold, especially at night. Traditionally, Rajasthanis were often on the move. Shepherds, traders, soldiers and warriors, itinerant bards and others traveling by camel caravan were in need of a covering to carry with them that would keep them warm in the cold desert nights and yet be easy to carry. So artisans by necessity had to create a cover that was as long-wearing and convenient to carry as it was warm and comfortable to use. This quilt-making style suited its environment so well that it has lasted for centuries and continues to be used today. It is an interesting example of a common item the characteristics of which are a reflection both of the environment in which it was developed in and of the needs which it was intended to meet.