A ralee is a piece constructed and quilted cloth made from layers of discarded cloth and configured into a multitude of traditional patterns.
Ralees hail from Sindh, Pakistan, a southern province. Lines and lines of running stitch secure and strengthen the layers of cloth that make a ralee.
A ralee is used as a bed cover for a traditional wooden sleeping cots, as a floor covering and sometimes made into a large sack. Normally women create these textiles, whose name is derived from the local word ralanna which means to mix or to connect.
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 rillis 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 rilli is hard to determine. With daily wear, a quilt could show signs of wear in just a few years. However, if the ralee was kept in the family stack for use by guests, it could last generations.
The variety of ralee 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 rilli 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 ralees 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 ralee 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.