"Indian embroidery seeks to engage in a contest with the sun," said 19th-century writer Théophile Gautier, "to have a duel to the death with the blinding light and glowing sky. At all costs its duty is to shine and glitter and to send forth the prismatic rays: it must be blazing, blinding and phosphorescent-and so the sun acknowledges defeat." This battle is fought with tiny mirrors called shisha, which are held to the fabric in a cage of stitches.
No one has yet documented how these mirrors came to be used in Indian embroidery or who developed the technique. In A History of Textiles, Kax Wilson claims that the mirror work originated with the hill tribes of southern India, who sewed beetle backs onto wedding garments. Orthodox Hindus, disapproving of this practice, used pieces of mica instead. Eventually bits of glass or mirrors were used.
Author Jacqueline Enthoven believes that shisha was developed by clever servants who admired the jewels embroidered onto the maharanis' clothing. At first they probably salvaged chips of broken jewelry. Later, the mirrors were manufactured and practically everyone could afford them.
The most charming story is Jean Simpson's in Shisha Mirror Embroidery. Shah Jahan erected several buildings with rooms of mirrors, called shish mahals (palaces of mirrors). His wife, Mumtaz Mahal, developed the technique of shisha embroidery so the shah's beloved mirrors would appear on clothing, pillows, and wall hangings. When she died, the shah built the Taj Mahal as a monument to their love and a mausoleum where they could be together forever. Later, Shah Jahan was overthrown by a son who imprisoned him across the river from the Taj Mahal. From there, the shah was only able to view the resting place of his dead lover by gazing at one small shisha mirror embedded in the wall.
Shisha embroidery is practiced all over India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In some regions, bright-colored peacocks, elephants, and flowers are embroidered around the mirrors; in others, the designs are geometric and the colors subdued. But no matter what the variation, shisha work is always laden with mirrors, and applying them by hand is a time-consuming task.
Robbie Fanning explains how to make eye catching garments using shisha in this article from Threads #1.