Textiles: The Fabrics of Our Lives

Different cultures specialize in different types of artistic media. We think of the French and we think so much of photography, film, light, and painting, for example. We think of the ancient Romans and their beautiful marble and stonework. In many countries and communities, textiles have been and still are a part of the artistic culture.

In India, textiles are such a vital part of life even today. There are different regions that are known for different types of fabrics, and certain cities that are known for certain prints, weaves, etc. My ancestral town of Kanchipuram is known for silks, there are certain prints that one would recognize are from Rajasthan, and of course there is the globally popular Pashmina scarves. Given that millions of Indian women wear saris on a daily basis, with the sari typically being a 6 yard piece of fabric, it is only natural that India would be a very heavily textile-oriented culture. Walk into any fabric or sari shop, and ask, say, to look at red saris with a paisley print–the salesperson would immediately pull out 10 bolts of fabric that fit the description!

Many indigenous Central and Latin Americans wear the unmistakable woven cotton fabrics in all variations of colorful stripes, and we can see their goods sold all over the world (such as Guatemalan purses). Interestingly, very similar fabrics and patterns can be found in Bhutan. The Nordic countries are known for their intricate knit patterns in their woolen sweaters, very necessary to ward off the chills in extreme northern climates. There are many centers of wool and silk in northern Italy, though probably less than centuries ago, and women delight in wrapping themselves with shawls and richly textured sweaters. Many Native American tribes in the Americas made good use of animals that were hunted for food and used their durable skins, decorating them with feathers, shells, and other natural materials.

West African royalty swathed themselves in kente cloth, the different colors symbolizing different attributes. This is just one example of how royalty denoted themselves from commoners. We think of the classic European royal purple, or the bejeweled Russians, magnificent robes and garments for the aristocrats in all cultures. This might seem like something antiquated, but if we reflect on royalty today, they still distinguish themselves by their outfits, often wearing luxury brands that are no longer their exclusive domain, though unaffordable for most people. Think of the countless blogs dedicated to the Duchess of Cambridge and her wardrobe, some of which include suggestions on how to duplicate her look.

Books from the 18th and 19th centuries focus heavily on the details of what the characters are wearing. Tolstoy’s Kitty is wearing a dress that shows off her shapely ankles, and then at her ball, is in a cloudlike dress. Every girl who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with vicarious delight as Ma took the girls into town to get fabrics for their new dresses, calicos or muslins or poplin. Jane Austen’s characters also take notice of what the others are wearing, and judge them accordingly.

We cannot ignore the significance of textiles in religious contexts. Hindu priests wear simple white cotton dhotis with a simple colored woven border, whereas Episcopalian priests and Catholic clergy are decked out in opulent robes and colors. We recognize the stripes on a Jewish tallit, or prayer shawl. Many African-American communities take pride in dressing up for church, wearing elegant suits and magnificent hats.

Fashionista or not, one cannot help but be impacted by the significance of textiles in our daily lives. It is something that we are often too much in a hurry to pay attention to in America, a culture that is so based on practicality. But if we just take a moment, we might appreciate the swish of a dress, the shine of a silk tie, or the tantalizing texture of a hand-knit sweater.

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