Kasuti embroidery is a special craft practiced mainly in Uttara Kanara district or the North Kanara district. Its secret lies in the fact that it can be done only by counting the threads of the weft and the warp. There is no possibility of tracing or implanting the design prematurely as outlines. The women of Karnataka turned for design to their own surroundings and chose the ones that appealed to their religious, artistic or domestic instincts. The religious motifs are the Gopurams of temples, the chariot and palanquin in which the deity is carried on ceremonial occasions, the lotus, the tuisi katti which is the enclosure for the sacred tulsi plant. Elephants with howdahs, peacocks with spread plumage, birds of different kinds, animals and flowers are standard motifs. The cradle, anklet-bells, palanquins and other articles of everyday use are artistically depicted. The material on which the embroidery is executed is a hand woven cloth of dark colour, usually black. The sarees, known as Ilkal sarees, have a wide silk pallu and border, the main fabric being thick soft cotton. The largest and most closely spaced motifs are placed near the pallu. As the embroiderer moves towards the main part of the saree the motifs become smaller and more scattered until they fade away gracefully with clusters of stars or mere dots.
The most frequently used colors are red, purple, green, orange and crimson. Patterns in only one or two colors are extremely rare and the usual colour combinations are orange, green and crimson or purple, green, orange and red, the brighter shades of these being preferred. The Kasuti embroidery is done in silk which, earlier, was unpicked from the tassels pendant from the pallu. Later it came to be obtained commercially. The basic embroidery stitches used in Kasuti work are the back stitch, running stitch, cross stitch and zig-zag running stitch. In certain work the overall effect is of a woven design rather than of embroidery. Kasuti stitches are horizontal, vertical or diagonal. These are used going in one direction, the design being completed on the return journey by filling in the blank portions in the running stitch.
With considerable dexterity, an ordinary sewing needle is used to create a variety of designs with coloured threads on the cloth. The embroidery is done only by women. The two kinds of stitching are Gavanti (line or double running stitch) and Murgi (zig-zag lines done with a darning stitch). The two sides are neat and identical. Negi is the ordinary running stitch used in large designs, creating a woven design effect. Menthi is a cross-stitch used for architectural patterns. Vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stitches are used. The motifs have to be completed as the stitching line comes back to fill in the blank spaces.
Kasuti embroidery is believed to have originated from north Karnataka which spread all over the region. There are literary references which date back to 15th century. Every woman was expected to adorn her sari and blouse with Kasuti embroidery. The history of Kasuti dates back to the Chalukya period. The name Kasuti is derived from the words Kai (meaning hand) and Suti (meaning cotton), indicating an activity that is done using cotton and hands. The women courtiers in the Mysore Kingdom in the 17th century were expected to be adept in 64 arts, with Kasuti being one of them. The Kasuti embroidery features folk designs influenced by rangoli patterns of Karnataka. Mirror work embroidery and gold and silver thread embroidery were mostly used for special occasions like weddings. Sarees embroidered with Kasuti were expected to be a part of the bridal trousseau of which one saree made of black silk with Kasuti embroidery called Chandrakali saree was of premier importance.
Kasuti work has grown beyond its traditional boundaries to be used in other dress materials like the Mysore silk saree. A Kasuti centre was set up in Hubli, Karnataka by the Department of Social Welfare, Government of Karnataka to encourage the Kasuti culture and also provide a single roof for the rural women to showcase their craft. However Kasuti work is suffering from poor patronage with not many people willing to take the craft seriously.