Every textile tells a story if you know what to look for, especially the antique textiles you’ll see in museums and elegant shops throughout Asia and Southeast Asia.
The raw material – cotton, silk, plant fibers or camel hair – tells you where the weaving was done. The colors speak volumes about when it was woven. And the patterns reveal the icons and symbols of the culture. Was the weaver a professional? If so, the textile is probably worn only on special occasions. Prized pieces are often given as gifts and passed down from one generation to the next.
Contemporary textiles typically combine the old and the new, especially in fabric used for household goods and clothing. These are the fabrics of the market place and are designed to appeal to international travelers as well as locals. And no matter how much you tell yourself that you’re not to buy more “stuff,” you’ll find textiles are the most irresistible…and packable!
Here are three distinctive parts of Southeast Asia that boast some strikingly beautiful and complex textiles – India’s Gujarat, China’s Guizhou and Indonesia’s Flores and Sumba.
Textiles of Gujarat, India
Gujarat, on the western coast of India, is the location of some of the oldest trade routes in the world and boasts weaving techniques that can be traced back 7,000 years.
The state is rife with more than 25 different ethnic groups, each with their own weaving patterns and motifs that express their culture and history. Some of the most famous styles come from the Great and Little Raan of Kutch, such as Ahir, done by Ahir peasants with designs of birds and animals, and decorated with small mirrors known as abhia. Other styles include Rabari, Kharek, Suf and more, all distinguished by their unique stitchery and designs.
Gujarat produces perhaps the widest range of woven fabrics of any state – patola, double ikat, mushroo and more, but what you must bring home are those made using a classic technique called bandhani or Bandhej. It’s a kind of tie-dye technique but looks nothing like the shirts you’ll see at street fairs in the US. Rather than tying off huge swaths of fabric before dyeing it, the Gujarati artisans tie tiny knots in silk or cotton fabric. Once it’s dipped into a richly colored dye and allowed to dry, the craftsperson unties the knots to reveal a delicate pattern of dots, squares, and stripes. At one time bandhani was only used to make saris but today you’ll find everything from scarves to sheets.
Where to see textiles: Visiting The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad will educate your eye, so you’ll know a treasure when you see it. This textile museum is said to be the finest in India. Be sure to make an appointment.
Should you find yourself in Bhuj near the Little Raan of Kutch, wander the market with its multitude of textile offerings. Then head out to Kala Raksha, a grassroots social enterprise comprised of artisans and experts in all of the different crafts of Kutch. Here you can shop and explore a local museum replete with heirloom textiles. Many Kala Raksha products are sold in shops throughout Gujarat.
There are more types of traditional Indonesian textiles than you can count on both hands. One reason for the great variety is that Indonesia is an archipelago of thousands of islands. Nearly every inhabited island has its own unique methods of weaving and dying. Today, there is much travel and trade between the islands, so you are likely to find classic techniques in ceremonial pieces and household fabrics where ever you go.
The classics to take home are batik and ikat. Although these wax-resistant dying methods originated in Java, you’ll find them throughout the islands. Liquid is painted in various designs on fine cotton fabric (batik) or directly on the threads to be woven (ikat). When dipped in layers of multi-colored dyes, the wax-blocked designs block the dye and create a textile of lovely patterns, images and symbolic designs.
The designs in ikat textiles are created in the dying of the threads, but the completed fabric may also be dyed. The islands of Flores and Sumba are famous for their tenun ikat. Prized tenum ikat patterns depict symbols of daily life and cosmology and are typically used in ceremonial clothing.
Where to see textiles: The Museum and shop, Dunia Danar Hadi in Solo, Java is devoted to a rich collection of batik, including those that were once worn only by royalty. You can watch batik-making here and in other workshops throughout the islands. You’ll also find quality batik work in Jogjakarta, Java.
The small but lovely Threads of Life museum and shop in Ubud, Bali has a wide range of traditional and modern ikat. Video’s show the various techniques used and workshops are also held here where you can practice some of the techniques yourself.
A family-owned museum—Museum Batik Yogyakarta—has a fine collection of textiles and also offers workshops in dyeing.
The textiles of the Miao and Dong people in this southwestern province of China literally tell of their history and beliefs in pictorial illustrations and symbols. A woman’s marital status and home village can be identified by the color and pattern of the clothing she wears.
The Miao are known among textile collectors for their fine embroidery skills, weaving and batik dying. Since this is the last region in China to open to Westerners, most of the traditional methods of its ethnic groups remain the same as they were centuries ago.
The Miao embroidery is so complex that it may take as long as seven years to make a wedding dress. For good reason, the traditional festival costumes worn by the young women are passed down from one generation to another…whole or in part as textile patches. In some of the more than 400 festivals that take place in different regions of Guizhou, the young women dance and show off their skirts of hundreds of pleats and heavily embroidered collars in hopes of catching the eye of a young man from a neighboring clan. A prized possession of every young family is an elaborately decorated baby carrier.
The different sub-groups of Miao are identified by the style of dress and the motifs. You can find the Long-Skirt Miao, Short-Skirt Miao, Big-Flower Miao, Small-Flower Miao. In Shiqing Miao village, the women use silk felt as a decorative medium for their jackets. The Peking knot and folded silk work are hallmarks of the Wangxiang Miao. And there are many more….
The Dong are famous for their indigo dyeing. It’s a laborious process of weaving, dyeing and pounding and possibly rubbing the fabric with hide dipped in pig blood and polishing it with egg white. To create a single bolt of indigo-dyed, shiny silk or cotton takes two weeks.
Where to see textiles: The Beijing National Costume Museum has an entire hall devoted to Miao clothing and jewelry, but to find the most authentic and beautiful pieces for sale, you must travel to the villages of the Miao and Dong people.
In Guizhou, be sure to visit the market in Kaili, where locals from different villages congregate to sell their work. Then, stop by the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum to see more samples of textiles and descriptions of some of the different minority groups.
Whether you buy a swatch for framing, a large piece for covering your table or an indigo shirt to wear, you’ll be taking home a cultural souvenir to remind you of your journey for many years.