In this article, Cheyanne Greig-Andrews delves into the history, symbolism, and creation of some of the finest textile traditions around the world, exploring how these traditions continue to flourish in the modern era.
In the beautifully diverse world we live in, the list of textile traditions worth exploring is seemingly endless. “Textile” refers to any woven fabric used to create garments, rugs, bags, and other household or wearable goods. With both functional, cultural, and symbolic value, textiles are a key component of any societal identity. Textiles allow communities to preserve their culture through the making, and wearing, of traditional fabrics. So, let us travel around the globe as we explore some of the exquisite textile traditions that are thriving today.
When discussing textiles of the world there is no question that India needs to be on this list. Indian textiles date as far back as 5000 B.C.E. The Rig Veda, the oldest surviving literature in the world, mentions the iconic Indian garment known as the Sari (or Saree/Sharee). Originally worn by both men and women, the Sari is the oldest recorded piece of clothing. Today, the Sari is worn by women. Traditionally the sari fabric is handloomed from silk or cotton. However, artificial fibres and mechanical looms have become commonplace. A Sari is a large rectangular piece of cloth (roughly 5-9 meters in length). Every Sari is embellished with intricate designs and colours, traditionally stamped by hand using intricately carved blocks. Each region of India has unique designs on their Saris offering a glimpse into the local culture. India’s textiles are as prevalent today as they were thousands of years ago, a beautiful textile tradition that is here to stay.
On the west coast of South America sits the enchanted land of Peru. Each region of Peru has unique traditions carried down by the indigenous people. Although it is impossible to know exactly how life may have looked before Spanish settlement in South America, the resilience of indigenous Peruvians (and the durability of their fabrics) has allowed an important part of their culture to survive. Made from alpaca or sheep wool, Peruvian textiles are still made traditionally today. Women are typically responsible for weaving the wool on handlooms. In the mountain regions, however, men take on the job of knitting colourful hats, mitts, and other wearables. Shearing the animal, cleaning with plant suds, and using dyes derived from the earth; every step of the process is done by hand as it has been for centuries. Peruvian textiles are not only beautiful but also help to ensure indigenous cultures survive for generations to come.
Colours, patterns, textures galore; Nigerian textiles are a feast for the eyes. With an array of ethnic groups within Nigeria, the textiles reflect the diversity of the country. There are several regional textiles found in Nigeria such as Aso Oke, Adire, A’Nger, Kente, and Ukara. Undoubtedly, the most recognizable textile in Nigeria is known as Ankara. Historically worn for formal attire, by both men and women, today Ankara is worn in a variety of styles for everyday use. Ankara first arrived in Nigeria in the 19th century after West African men, enlisted by the Dutch army, were sent to Indonesia. They fell in love with the Indonesian wax resistant dyeing technique known as batik. The bold, vibrant, and tribal-like patterns were quickly adapted into the Nigerian staple textile of Ankara. Today, Ankara is deeply engrained in Nigerian culture and has become a source of African pride and diaspora. As successive generations utilise Ankara in new and innovative ways, they keep the tradition alive while simultaneously creating something new in the process. A textile tradition with a life of its own.
With rich regional variety, Thailand has an incredibly diverse textile history. Natural plant fibres and dyes create vibrant textiles in every part of the country. In some regions, indigo is the dye of choice, while in others, deep reds and purples are preferred. Tie-dyeing is also common throughout Thailand, offering beautiful patterns befitting to the climate and surroundings. There are unique regional differences in the weaving of textiles throughout Thailand. In Northern Thailand, you can still find couples using a “lovers loom,” a loom requiring two people to weave at the same time. In other parts of the country, it is solely women who carry on the weaving traditions, some learning the skill at the age of 16. Patterned sarongs can be found in most parts of the country. The sarong can be worn by anyone. With its lightweight and breathable material, it’s perfect for the hot Thai summer days.
You can’t think about Scotland without picturing the quintessential kilt. Typically worn by men, the kilt is a pleated knee-length skirt with a tartan print. Every Scotsman and Scotswoman belongs to a clan (or many) connected to their surname and lineage and each clan has a tartan print associated with it. There is no shortage of speculation and folklore behind the symbolic meaning of the colours and patterns in tartans. However, little evidence can be drawn from these theories.
Tartan patterns aren’t completely random, however, certain clans with neighbouring ties would have similar tartans to show their kinship. Red was a difficult natural dye to procure, so clans with lots of red in their tartans likely came from wealth. Tartans are traditionally made from woven wool, but today are made from several other materials. The patterns on a tartan are created out of pre-dyed threads woven in alternate patterns to create intricate linear designs.
Although it isn’t clear why certain patterns and colours were chosen for the many Scottish tartans that exist today, it’s befitting of Scottish lore toenvisage a story behind them.
With thousands of years of international trade and migration, Morocco undoubtedly has a fascinating textiles history. With influence from the Ottoman and Roman empire, Berbers, Phoenicians, and Arabs, Morocco has a rich and vibrant story to tell within their garments. Known for their colourful fabrics, and of course, the incredible hand-woven rugs, Moroccan markets are teaming with textiles for every purpose. Moroccan textiles come in an array of beautifully designed patterns in warm vibrant tones, commonly made from cotton or silk. The Kaftan is a traditional garment dating back to the 16th century. Today the Kaftan is worn by women for both formal and informal occasions. These garments are defined by their long sleeves, intricate stitching, piping, and handmade buttons. The Djellaba is another traditional garment in Morocco. Lastly, the Takchita is mainly reserved for weddings. Morocco’s unique history and geographic position are reflected in its textile traditions, a tapestry of stories woven into every fabric.
History is tricky and where words may fail us, textiles cannot. A narrative is silently woven into every fabric. Textiles survive when languages, religions, or other traditions can be lost in time. We are offered a glimpse into the past from the textile traditions that are carrying on throughout the world. Certainly, there is fear that our modern, fast fashion world will make the craft of traditional textiles superfluous. However, by learning to appreciate the fibres that weave cultures together, there is hope that these textile traditions can continue to thrive.
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