Despite the rise of mass produced, industrially manufactured fashion, the world is still full of artisans and designers making traditional textiles. These wares, dating from a rich history of culture clothing, are often made in the same way they have been for generations and sold at local markets across the world.
Whilst this can seem remarkable, it is and has been a way of life for generations. And you can experience the authenticity and heritage firsthand by dodging the middleman and travelling to textile destinations yourself. You’ll be supporting local designers, sustaining the trade and sourcing incredible fabrics to take home. Here are 12 of the top worldwide destinations for traditional textiles.
Photto credit: Fanandex blacket by design-junkie.com
Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes is rich with Incan traditional heritage. It also has the most authentic range of Frazadas, ethnic blankets made from hand spun alpaca wool. Modern artisans use the same techniques as generations before them, and a single Frazada takes about a month to complete. The lengthy process means that many makers are going in search of faster incomes, and there has been a decline in the weaving of this traditional fabric in recent times.
Visit the Puksana Wasi textile store in Pisac, where Frazadas and weavings are sourced from isolated rural communities, to find high quality produce and to support the industry. Chincero market also has a good selection of traditional and contemporary handicrafts if you want to head deeper into the villages yourself.
Photo credits: John Molds and Haute Culture.
Vietnam’s northern hill tribes offer a staggeringly diverse range of traditional textiles that can be experienced on even a short itinerary. In Sapa, a few hours north of Hanoi, you can visit the Dao and see their beautiful hand embroidery, and the famous batik and cross-stitch of the Hmong people. A trip further west will give you the opportunity to get behind the loom yourself to weave with the Thai ethnic minorities who live in the valleys of Mai Chau.
Batik has covered Indonesian traditional dress for centuries. Originally intended for Javanese royalty, batik is now one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Indonesian artistry. You can see an almighty range of designs as you travel across the country, and these often hark back to traditional festivals and religious ceremonies. Certain cloth is believed to have mystical powers and can bring luck or ward off evil.
Although you’ll find batik across the vast archipelago, Yogyakarta is one of the best places to buy fabric and you can attend hands on batik workshops at Batik Winotosastro.
Photo credits: Top right Karen Weaver by Daughter’s Rising
Chiang Mai offers an amazing window into the ethnic dress of the Northern Thai tribes. The six most prevalent of these tribes are the Karen, Lisu, Dara Ang, Lahu, Mien and Akha, who are spread throughout the Himalayan foothills of Thailand.
Each tribe has a unique traditional dress, which contrast one another as much as they complement. Silver jewellery, seed embroidery, applique and chain stitching of animal and insect motifs are popular adornments. Women of all tribes come to Chiang Mai markets to sell their wares.
A visit to Japan is an assault on your sense style – with Geishas, subculture street ware and Shinto ceremonies all providing plenty to gawp at. It’s famous Kimonos will be forever synonymous with Japanese cultural fashion, but the less luxurious history of traditional textiles is equally as interesting. Whilst only the wealthy were swathed in silk Kimonos, the rest of Japan dressed in humble garments made from homespun hemp and cotton.
Sashiko hand stitch was developed by Japanese seamstresses in the 17th century to add flair and individuality to these simple fabrics. Sashiko means ‘little stabs’, referencing the tiny needlework used. It’s still popular on all types of fabrics today; visit Hida Shashiko in Takayama to buy some of the finest contemporary Sashiko design.
Photo credits: Left: David Stanley. Right: Suzani fabric photo by design-junkie.com
The women of Uzbekistan would once embroider tribal Suzanis as part of their dowries. These would be presented to the grooms on their wedding day, telling the story of the new bride’s daily life. Typical motifs included sun and moon disks, flowers, leaves and vines – and lots of pomegranates. The intricate and time-consuming embroidery was a sign of the bride’s devotion to her husband.
This traditional art form has had a revival in recent times through the selling of antique pieces, which has subsequently resulted in resurgence in the making of Suzanis in Uzbekistani workshops. This means a new source of income for artisans, and that Uzbekistan is now one of the top destinations in Central Asia to pick up unique traditional textiles. Tashkent, Nurata and Samarkand have a wide range of antique and original pieces.
Photo credits: Traditional moroccan rug photos by design-junkie.com
All of Morocco is a mecca for stylish interior design and traditional textiles, but Azilal in the Atlas Mountains is an excellent choice for perusing and purchasing an authentic Moroccan rug.
Traditionally woven by Berber women for domestic use, the distinct, abstract designs are indicative of a culture which has descended from heathen religions. The thickness and durability of an Azilal carpet is intended to protect it from the harsh environment of where they are woven, and the deceptively simple designs are said to represent the deepest joys and fears of the weaver.
Photo credit: Yenkassa via Flickr
Originally influenced by batik design from Indonesia, African wax prints (also called Ankara and Kitenge) are an incredibly popular piece of culture clothing in Uganda. As popular today as they were 100 years ago, wax prints are as fashionable with villagers as they are with diplomats.
Historically, women have used the bold wax prints of the fabric as a method of communication and expression, with certain patterns forming a shared language with widely understood connotations throughout communities. African Fabric House in Kampala sells high quality 100% cotton Ankara.
Photo credits: Right: Young girls by lifeabundantly vid flickr. Left: Huipil Cushion by design-junkie.com
The Huipil is an embroidered blouse that features in the traditional dress of many South American countries, and non more so than in the Mayan population of Guatemala. Hand-woven on back strap looms, each design holds deep cultural significance and sacred meaning dependent on region, town and village.
There is still a large Mayan population in Guatemala today, and you’ll see distinct differences in Huilpil design as you travel around the country, with modifications being made for climate. Each garment takes about six months to complete, and the finished blouse is a one of a kind with its intricate design dating back to ancient Mayan civilisations.
Photo credits: Left: Mexican Ojo de Dioa by design-junkie.com Right: Women in embroidered blouse byHistoric Old Town Albuquerque via Flickr
Mexico is known for its ponchos and sombreros, but look a little deeper and you’ll discover Ojo de Dios. Meaning ‘God’s Eye’, these carry deep spiritual meaning and are commonly found in Indigenous and Catholic communities.
The design is weaved from yarn spread across a wooden cross, and features a central ‘eye’ which is said to see beyond the physical. When a child is born, the father weaves an Ojo de Dios and a new eye is added every year until the child reaches five. Authentic pieces are hard to come by, but search rural markets and talk to locals to find one with genuine spiritual importance.
Photo credits: Right: Indian woman by Chris via Flickr. Left: Mirror fabric by Karen Roe.
Anyone with a penchant for a bit of sparkle will love Shisha fabric, and there’s no better place to buy it than from the land where it originated: India. This distinct embroidered and mirrored material can be found in stalls and bazaars across the country, adorning clothing, tapestries, bags and domestic textiles. Add a little bling to an outfit with a Shisha clutch or decide to turn your home into a Raj palace with rugs, throws and door hangings. Hindus, Muslims and Jains traditionally tied Shisha to their front doors to ward off evil eyes. Gujarat or Rajasthan have the most diverse range of garments – and the best prices.