When you flip through your favorite shelter mag, are you drawn to that unique textile repurposed into a throw pillow, draped over a designer’s bed or hanging on a wall? Do you ever get That Feeling when you spot something so unique you just have to know more? (We can’t be the only ones, right?!) The world is full of unique and colorful textiles steeped in tradition and history. Can you keep your kilim straight from your khadi? What is the difference between Kuba and Kente, anyway?
These gorgeous global textiles we celebrate at Meridian are more than just pretty fabrics with alluring names. Each one is an individual work of art, telling the story of its creator and cultural heritage. Most are created by hand in multi-step processes passed down through many generations. In a series of posts, we’re going to dive into the world of global textiles to give you a working glossary. First up:
West African Indigo
Origin: Over centuries, almost every culture and every major religion has prized nature’s rarest color. For the purposes of our first guide, we’ll focus on indigo from West Africa, including the traditional dyes from Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.
Provenance / History: For hundreds of years, the ability to procure the vibrant, deep hue of indigo was a valuable skill passed down through generations of dyers. In ancient times, indigo was referred to by many as “blue gold,” for it had a value on par with treasured silk, coffee, and chocolate as well as highly traded commodities such as cotton, sugar and gold. The global market was strong for this exotic plant material and it traveled great distances and across continents. Throughout West Africa, the women who presided over the dyeing process had great social and political power.
Technique: Cotton fabric is first handwoven on looms and then dyed using the leaves from the indigofera tinctoria plant. To create the dye, artisans collect the leaves during the rainy season and macerate them with a large mortar and pestle until the leaves become a pulp. The resultant substance is formed into 4 to 5 inch balls and then set out to dry in the hot sun for several days. After the leaf pulp has dried, it is mixed in a fermented ash and water solution to form a binder for the dye.
The panels of cotton are submerged in and out of a bath of this solution over several days to ensure an even and deep hue. The dyed cloth is then removed and air dried to allow for oxidization. Often panels will go through this process more than once to achieve the depth of shade characteristic of West African indigo.
Design: Before the dyeing process begins, there are multiple ways to create patterns that are used across West Africa. When raffia is tied around the cloth, for example, it acts as a resist to the dye. Using this method, creators made patterns of small circles using raffia to affix small pebbles and seeds to the cloth. Patterns were also created by folding and binding the cloth to create vivid line based designs. Stitching could also be used to form resists to the dye. Another method of resist dyeing prominent in this region is the decoration of cloths using a cassava paste. Painted entirely by hand, the paste created bold patterns and lines with traditional iconography symbolizing daily life and the makers’ wishes for good fortune.
Origin: Mali, West Africa; Although the idea of applying a fermented mud to a cloth to create a pattern is used in many other regions of the world.
Provenance / History: Mudcloth, or bogolanfini, is traditionally made by the Bamana people of Mali using materials and dyes locally sourced in the region. The technique dates back to the 12th century when the cloth was made to be a highly symbolic and utilitarian textile. Today, mudcloth is a symbol of national pride in Mali. Much of what comes out of the country is the loosely woven, starkly monochromatic white and black mudcloth for the tourist market. Large quantities of this cloth are mass produced and exported. Unfortunately, it is not of the same quality as the vintage pieces from years past, which are becoming more and more rare.
Technique: The creation of mudcloth is an entirely by-hand, multiple step process that takes over a year to complete. The women of a household spin cotton into a thread before it is hand woven on a narrow strip vertical loom. The narrow strips are sewn together to create the desired width for each panel. To dye the cloth, iron-rich mud is collected from streams and ponds, and is fermented for an entire year until it turns black. The makers then soak the cloth in a liquid made of the leaves of native trees, which dyes the cloth and allows for the tannins in the mud to bind the cotton.
Design: A female artist outlines the resist pattern with a stick or metal tool and then the entire background is covered with the fermented mud. This meticulous application is repeated twice to ensure a dark, rich color. Each piece of mudcloth has a history to tell, which comes alive through the symbols and shapes drawn onto each individual cloth. Many of these symbols are secrets passed down from mother to daughter including information on the makers’ social status, character and personal history. Some mudcloth panels even contains African proverbs or items of historical interest.
Origin: Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Provenance / History: Bright and colorful, cactus silks are handwoven by the nomadic Berber tribe of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The textiles are comprised of an all-natural vegetable silk made from the agave plant (a variety of the cactus also known as sabra) found in the Saharan Desert. The material has been prized for centuries for its natural sheen. It is an entirely vegan craft rooted in a sustainable process since cacti grow quickly and require very few natural resources to survive.
Technique: The process for creating the silk and weaving cactus textiles has remained the same over several centuries. Leaves from the sabra plant are crushed and soaked in water over several days to loosen their fibers, then washed and spun to make silk threads. If you’re walking through the souks of Fez, you may see gentlemen spinning sabra thread by hand; they string it up overhead, turning and pulling the fibers sometimes 50 feet away through the labyrinthine alleys to create the silky and strong thread.
All cactus silk is dyed using natural vegetable dyes which allow for bright and colorful pastel and earthy hues. The weaving process is done entirely by hand on looms. Since the silk is lightweight, supple and sturdy, it is mostly used to create small scale carpets, poufs and pillow covers.
Design: Cactus silk almost always features a vibrant and sold colored background with colorful hand embroidered symbols of traditional Berber tattoos. Many of these symbols tell a story of the family who made the textile, and the region where it was created. Often you’ll see recurring themes of Berber architecture like the Kasbah, natural elements such as rivers, mountains and the tree of life, as well as geometric designs that have ritual or historical significance. Since cactus silk textiles are entirely handmade, no two are exactly the same.
Origin: Traditional Indian embroidery from the Kutch and Saurashtra regions of Gujarat in North Western India
Provenance / History: Dating back to the seventeenth century, the Gujarat region of North Western India was the global epicenter of embroidered textile work. Techniques are passed down through generations featuring distinct designs, colors, and hand stitches representative of the caste, garment, and area of origin. Embroidered textiles from this region were traditionally used for wall and door hangings, quilts, marriage costumes and livestock decorations. Viewed as a valuable skill and possession, many embroideries were preserved as part of dowries for women who were married many decades ago.
Unlike the fashion in nearby Rajasthan where women wear saris elegantly draped around their bodies, the closer you get to Gujarat the traditional style of dress changes. Women in this region wear a full, gathered skirt with a backless blouse, or a long tunic over a pair of pants and a veil called a dupatta. The textiles used to create these items of clothing, therefore, are intended less for draping and more for individually designed panels or sewn garments and decorative household items.
Technique: Mirror work from this region is sometimes referred to as shisha embroidery. One of the highly recognized and traditional crafts of India, it features an intricate form of sewing mirrored discs onto the fabric through elegant and complex hand stitches. Often applique and patchwork techniques are mixed with mirror work to create the unique styles representative of this region.
Designs are embroidered on cotton fabric using vibrantly colored threads. A fine awl with a hooked end is held below the cloth and pushed through and back again to create a loop. This process is repeated many times so that a continuous line of chain stitch forms. Mirrors are inset at regular intervals in the patterns and securely stitched using decorative means into the woven base.
Design: A livelihood for women in remote villages, women used Shisha embroidery to depict their daily lives and environment. The patterns often feature flowers, animals, people, birds and spiritual symbols. To create these designs, the women outline the pattern in a chain stitch and then fill it in using a more delicate thread or style.