Ralli-making (also known as Rilli) comes from the word “ral” which means to mingle. This traditional art form provides women an activity that transforms their homes into women-friendly spaces where women gather and sew bits and pieces of fabric into a quilt. It is a test of creativity, turning whatever pieces life has left them into a thing of beauty and utility – from nothing into something. Even today, if you go to interior Sindh, the lady of the house will spread out her best Ralli on the charpoy and motion you to make yourself comfortable.
The art of quilt-making is, thus, metaphorical in many ways. Women create homes out of small and big things gathered and assembled together as a labour of love. It requires accuracy, patience and hard work. Making a quilt is similar.
When Samiah Ahsan Zia and Samina Qureshi co-founded a group for women in 2008 with a passion for quilting, little did they know that more than a dozen passionate quilters would join hands with them. “The Piecemakers’ Guild”, as the group is named, recently held its 4th exhibition in Karachi. With quilts on display and on sale, the work of these women is nothing short of art.
The love for quilting took time to grow on Zeba Rehman, one of the group’s earliest members. Her eye-catching quilt with shades of white and indigo is on display. “I now spend days sitting near the window in the sunlight, sewing each piece carefully, with my glasses on. When I am working on a quilt, I can go on working non-stop for hours,” adds Rehman.
“We are 16 members, all very committed, who meet every fortnight. Senior quilters train new quilters. We use varied techniques,” says Samina Qureshi. Her piece was the winner of the Mughal Art Challenge this year, in which she has used many mediums like applique, block-printing, sequence and thread embroidery, and even printing. “I find quilt-making therapeutic; it has a calming effect,” adds Qureshi.
Samiah Ahsan Zia echoes Qureshi’s sentiment. “It keeps the mind and hands busy and offers an avenue to express one’s creativity. Patchwork and quilting has been practiced world over since time immemorial. Modern tools have added new dimensions to it,” she says.
For Nida Huq, another member of the Guild, the inspiration came from her mother who has passed away. “It was my way of remembering my mother as she used to sew,” she says. Huq finds the activity very effective for stress management. For her, the most rewarding piece has been the raffle quilt which has been completed by the team to fund-raise for a good cause.
“The money from the raffle quilt will be donated to the Child Aid Association which operates from the National Institute of Child Health and treats children suffering from cancer. We treat quilting not just as a hobby but try to use it for social activism for causes close to our hearts,” says Zia.
The group was also invited to participate in the Karachi Biennale 2017, and challenged to convert a discarded electric cable reel into an art installation. “Our reel, titled ‘Heroines not victims’ was designed to be a tribute to Pakistani women and their resilient spirit, highlighting their achievements despite immense socioeconomic challenges and rampant misogyny,” says Zia. The group has also intermittently worked with groups of women from interior Sindh to help hone the skills of rural women in the art of ralli-making. “We hope that while staying true to their age-old craft, their work would become more contemporary and hence more marketable.”
For Rehman, a mother of two sons, the aim is “to leave one quilt each for my two future daughters-in-law as a personalized family heirloom”.