Ralli Quilts

Every ralli quilt has a story. Each quilt illustrates the strength of tradition. Every ralli tells of natural creativity and love of color and design by the women who create them. Examining a ralli gives clues to the life and community of the woman who made it. A specific old shawl as the back fabric indicates she was from an agricultural group, certain colors identify a specific community, and new cloth, sequins, beads and tassels indicate a ralli made for an important occasion such as a wedding. For those not from the culture of ralli makers, rallis are a way to help us understand more of their lives, thoughts and creativity. In addition to creating beautiful designs with colors and shapes, they have developed a textile craft with universal appeal touching the senses of those far beyond their community and culture.

Ralli Quilts: Introduction
Ralli quilts are a visual feast of color, pattern and energy. Rallis are made extensively in Pakistan in Sindh, Baluchistan, southern Punjab and in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat bordering Sindh. The quilts are called "ralli" (or rilli, rilly, rallee or rehli) derived from the local word ralanna meaning to mix or connect. Rallis are made by women of rural villages, nomadic tribes and settled towns. These areas are filled with hundreds of different groups and castes differentiated by religion, mainly Muslim and Hindu, and occupation. The occupations include farmers, herders, various craftsmen, businessmen and landowners.

Rallis are made from scraps of cotton fabric hand dyed to the desired color. A typical ralli is about seven by four or five feet. Much of the fabric comes from old, worn shalwar kameez (traditional loose shirt and pant outfits). The most common colors in rallis are white, black, red, yellow, orange, green, dark blue and purple. However, there are some unique regional and tribal color palettes. For the bottoms of the rallis, the women often use old pieces of tie-dye, ajrak (red and blue block printed material) or other shawl fabric. An old head shawl will usually be large enough for the back of the quilt minus about six inches on top and side that need piecing. Ralli quilts have three to five layers of worn fabric or cotton fibers between the top and bottom layers. The filling is basted to the backing using long stitches that are later removed. Usually the piecing on the top is done by one woman. She calls on female family and friends to help with stitching the quilt together when she is ready. This is a time of talking, news sharing and singing for the women. To sew all three layers together, usually several women sit on opposite sides of the quilt placed on a reed mat on the ground. No quilting frame is used. The layers are sewed together by thick colored thread stitched in straight, parallel lines. Depending on the thickness of the quilt and the skill of the quilters, the stitches may be as close as 1/8 inch apart.

The three basic styles of rallis are: 1) patchwork made from pieces of cloth torn into squares and triangles and then stitched together, 2) appliqué made from intricate, cut out patterns in a variety of shapes and 3) embroidered quilts where the embroidery stitches form patterns on solid colored fabric. A distinguishing feature of ralli patterning in patchwork and appliqué quilts is the diagonal placement of similar blocks. Special rallis made for weddings or gifts often have a variety of embellishments including mirrors, tassels, shells and embroidery. There is much individual expression and spontaneity in color within the traditional patterns resulting in a seemingly endless variety in rallis.

Rallis are commonly used as a covering for wooden sleeping cots called charpoys, storage bags, or padding for workers or animals after the quilts are worn out. In the villages, ralli quilts are an important part of a girl's dowry. Special rallis are made for weddings or as gifts to holy men. There are legends, folk songs and sayings about rallis. Owning many ralli quilts is a measure of wealth in the rural areas. Yet the ralli is a humble craft, made of worn out clothing and other discarded fabric. It is not usually bought or sold but made by women for use in their family. Occasionally, women will make rallis for sale. After the terrible floods in Pakistan in August 2010, many women are making rallis in the refugee camps as a way to earn money to return to their villages.

Ralli: History of Ralli Patterns
The women carefully form patterns and symbols from cloth, some simple and some complex. The women making the quilts rely on their own memories and the memories of their mothers and older women to teach them the patterns. They do not use paper or any tools to make their patterns. There could be a great variety of patterns and styles of rallis even in a small village or community. The women have a large “mental portfolio” of quilt patterns they have made, known or have seen. They often describe them historically as “old patterns” or “new patterns.” The age of a ralli is hard to determine. With daily wear, a quilt could show signs of wear in just a few years. However, if the ralli was kept in the family stack for use by guests, it could last generations.

The variety of ralli patterns is intriguing. The motifs appear to have originated far back in the history of the Indus Region. The carvings of the desert tombs of Sindh and Baluchistan (covering about 400 years starting in the middle of the fifteenth century AD) have many similar motifs. The geometric designs in the blocks of carved stone are very similar to quilt blocks. Some of the lines in the stone look to some like lines of stitching. However, going back farther than this are clear similarities between ralli designs and ancient painted pottery of the region (most from about 2000-800 BC). The majority of the patterns are based on a geometric grid but there are also patterns based on circles, stars or flowers. Some of the designs that are shared by the rallis and pottery are simple including checkerboards, lines and triangles, yet others are complicated patterns using many shapes and design elements together.

One of the interesting aspects of the ancient pottery is that archaeologists think that the pots may have been painted by women as there are some small fingerprints still visible in the paint. Scholars report pottery with painted motifs seemed to have been replaced in the first millennium BC by plain, undecorated pottery yet the old designs continue in ralli and embroidery designs today. Even though ancient records are scarce, we know that quilting is an old tradition in the region. (Quilts are listed as an export item from western India to Europe on trade records from the early 1500s.) Could the women have passed on the traditional cultural designs from mother to daughter for many thousand years and at some point used them in quilts? There is a good example in the region where an ancient tradition survives today. In old graves from the time of painted pottery, women were buried wearing many white bangles. Women in the same rural areas today still wear multiple white bangles. Perhaps the ancient motifs have survived in their quilts as the tradition of bangle jewelry has survived on their arms.

Ralli: Patchwork Patterns

Traditional Everyday Patchwork
Maker unknown
Middle Sindh, Pakistan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:121.4

This ralli illustrates one of the most typical everyday quilts. The color scheme is based on the old, natural dyes colors even though chemical dyes are now used. The size of the fabric used in the piecing is typical for an everyday quilt. The geometric design is bold, especially when viewed from a distance. The stains are ones that are very often seen on rallis. The back is fabric over-dyed green.

There are three basic styles of rallis: patchwork, appliqué and embroidered. Traditionally, patchwork rallis are the most common ones found on the village beds throughout Sindh. They are made from small pieces of hand dyed fabric either torn or cut into geometric shapes. The patterns are often bold with frequent use of triangles or squares on point to give movement to the design. Some patterns have practical uses such as a game board. One pattern is used for a chess type game (tukri) and another game uses the spaces in a cross pattern (chopar). Overall geometric patterns are called farsh or tile floor. Often the borders on patchwork quilts are fairly simple. In the Punjab, patchwork is often alternated with appliqué work.

Ralli: Appliqué Patterns

Landowner Appliqué Ralli
Maker unknown
Sanghar, Sindh, Pakistan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:121.10

In every way, this is a fine example of an appliqué quilt. It came from a wadera or landowner family. These wealthy families are usually able to get the finest quilters to provide their families with rallis. The stitching is fine, close and uses multi-colored thread. The colored blocks are placed diagonally to produce a pattern. There are occasional sequins or embroidered embellishments. The back is over-dyed dark green. The edges of the quilt are over sewn with various colored threads.

Appliqué patterns came in a wide variety of abstract shapes. Ralli makers are proficient at appliqué work including many very fine lined appliqué designs. The appliqué in the center fields of the quilts often has appliqué as blocks in the pattern. The same color of blocks is usually placed in a diagonal pattern. In upper Sindh, the rallis are mostly appliquéd with a speciality of layered appliqué. In this work, the appliqué is cut and before it is sewn down, another color of fabric is inserted in the space. Lower Sindh specializes in appliqué work with a red appliqué border on many rallis. Most patchwork or appliqué rallis also have some appliqué in the border including scallops, cones, interlocking circles or intricate stepped square patterns (upper Sindh).

Ralli: Embroidered

Black Embroidered Saami Ralli
Mai Bhagi
Badin, Sindh, Pakistan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:121.15

The most famous embroidered rallis are from the nomadic Saami and Jogi (snakecharmer) tribes from lower Sindh. The Saami travel every year across Pakistan as they migrate with their animals from India to Iran. On a solid fabric (usually black), they embroider a vast variety of beautiful and intricate designs using a thick thread that gives the impression of a printed pattern. The Jogi group more often uses a brown fabric. The stitches include running stitch, chain stitch, double chain cretan stich, feather stitch, herringbone stitch, interlacing stitch and others. Sometimes the quilters will make a quilt using running stitches on a printed fabric called a lassi (simple) ralli. In upper Sindh, appliqué blocks are sometimes alternated with embroidered blocks in a quilt. The stitch used in those is usually the complicated hoormutch interlacing stitch that is famous in south Asia.

Ralli: Regional Variations

Badin Dowry Ralli
Maker unknown
Matli, Badin, Sindh, Pakistan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:121.8

There are many regional variations in ralli designs. Sometimes it is possible to know where a ralli is made purely by its design. In the southern part of Sindh (lower), the region of Badin is famous for intricate quilts made in a black, white, red and yellow color scheme. The desert region there is also where the embroidered Saami quilts are made.

In middle Sindh, there are many variations in ralli design. The color scheme often includes white, black, red, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple and for the Hindus, pink. The backs are often green or fabric overdyed green.

In upper (northern) Sindh, they are famous for intricate blocks of appliqué (and sometimes embroidery) using many colors. The appliqué shapes often have other colors inserted in the openings. Multiple borders with many different designs are also used. They frequently put tassel borders in the corners or around the entire quilt. The older quilts have more subdued colors that have faded with time.

Rahim Yar Khan Ralli
Maker unknown
Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, Pakistan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum acc.#2008:121.6

In southern Punjab (north of Sindh), the rallis have some very distinctive characteristics. In the area of Rahim Yar Khan, the ralli most commonly seen are a mix of 9 path blocks with very fine lined appliqué blocks. The border used frequently is squares on point and the backs are often orange. The desert of Cholistan to the east, also uses some patchwork mixed with fine appliqué. The colors used are often red, blue, yellow and white or more muted variations.

Ideas from Ralli Quilts: Traditional Textiles from Pakistan and India by Patricia Ormsby Stoddard, 2003, Introduction.
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  • Museum

    Michigan State University Museum

    Michigan Quilt Project

  • Collection

    Ralli Quilts

    Stoddard, Patricia Ormsby

  • 1976-1999

    Traditional Every...

  • 1976-1999

    Landowner Appliqu...

  • 1976-1999

    Black Embroidered...

    Bhagi, Mai

  • 1976-1999

    Badin Dowry Ralli...

  • 1976-1999

    Rahim Yar Khan Ra...

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