How human hands can turn a cotton boll or silk cocoon into thread, and then turn that thread into cloth is, to me, the epitome of ingenuity. And I’m intrigued by hand-decoration and embellishment of cloth, which breathes life into fabric and turns it into a work of art and beauty.
As a huge fan of handcrafted textiles, I’ve been consciously and unconsciously collecting functional and decorative pieces for nearly two decades.
Two recent additions to this collection are a lace linen placemat and a linen table runner embroidered with edelweiss flowers. The woman who runs Au Triannon, the little shop in Luzern, Switzerland, where I found them, told me her supplies were starting to dwindle as the women artists got on in years and their eyes and hands started to fail; their daughters had had no interest in hand-crocheting or embroidering linen, and these arts were fading with the turn in generation.
Kente weaving in Ghana seems to have escaped this inter-generation crisis. Woven by men on simple looms as 4.5-inch strips, the art of Kente continues to intrigue many people; how does the weaver achieve complex geometric designs, with perfect symmetry and colour balance, on such rudimentary equipment? The weavers can produce Kente with names and messages on them—an increasingly common request by NGOs and tourists. The Kente weaver I met on a visit to Ghana in 2012 was a youthful man with strong arms and a serious but pleasant demeanor. He works under a huge fig tree in the outskirts of Accra, displaying his kente strips on frame in the sun. He has steady business from Ghanaians and foreigners, even in the face of imports of machine-made Kente cloth from China, he told me.
Ethiopia is another country with a long weaving culture. I have never returned from Addis without (yet another) Gabi. This comforting, warm, nubbly wrap is used by the people of the mountains to guard against the cold and wind. I use these gabis as throws and spare blankets, but the proper way to wear a gabi is around your neck and shoulders, like a shepherd.
Coming back from a recent visit to Addis, the Bole Airport customs guy looked in my bag and in the ensuing banter over the gabi, declared that gabis are for “old people.” O-well!
You can learn how to tie your gabi here: https://youtu.be/ED1–xhYrTo
Several designers are starting to turn Ethiopian hand-woven cloth into stunning designer wear for the Western market, most prominently the US-based Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kedebe. But my favourite Ethiopian fashion designer is Aster, who operates in Addis and makes easy wearing but funky pieces in stunning dyed gabis, blanket-stiched together by hand. She gets the colours just right – rich ochres, ambers, moody browns and maroons. And I’ve just discovered http://www.zaafcollection.com/, also in Addis, who create amazing luxury leather goods with Ethiopian fabric detail.
The SouthEast Asia fabric culture dates back to the Silk Route (207 BCE – 220 CE. Handmade batik fabric is a precious commodity now as it was in the days of the Emperors, Mughals and Sultans, and batiks have been found in Asia and the Middle East dating back over 2000 years.
The art of the batik is still alive and well in Indonesia, with mega marts like Pasaraya in Jakarta devoting entire floors to Batik fabric, outfits and accessories. From smaller shops and individual sellers, you can still find delightful old hand-painted batiks. Clever people that they were back then, half of the batik was painted one design and the other half a completely different one, allowing a woman to display one design during the day and the other in the evening.
Ikat is another iconic fabric from Indonesia. Astonishingly, it’s made using a technique in which the warp or weft threads, or both, are tie-dyed before weaving— sheer mathematical genius. The House of Hermes has Ikat as one of their tableware designs.
Back in Africa, the Kuba cloth is woven from fibre of the raffia palm by men in the Congo. The cloth has geometric patterns, always in black, ochre and cream. Sometimes it has a pile which making it look wonderfully luxurious, but scratchy. People often make cushions or frame Kuba pieces as art, or sometimes sew them together into larger pieces. But Jutta Gavidia of Pinkopallino Design integrates Kuba into her iconic furniture designs with iron and wood.
Like Kuba cloth, the Mud Cloth of the Bamana people of Mali, also mostly in black and earthy colours, lends itself to making luggage and soft furnishings, since it’s so thick and hardy. I’ve seen some amazing travel bags made out of it in Nairobi.
The Toureg people of the Sahel are called the Blue People because of their love for Indigo cloth, which they wear from head to toe to protect against the sun, sand and wind of their dry climate. The cloth is dyed with indigo, the dyestuff that comes from Indigofera species or Lonchocarpus cyanescens, and it rubs off on their skin. The indigo cloth is sometimes hammered to produce a high shine.
Indigo has been used in fabric decoration since time immemorial, and is part of the centuries-old textile traditions throughout West Africa and Asia. It is the colour of choice for the much-prized Adire cloth, a traditional Yoruba hand-painted batik. Good pieces of this cloth can sell for thousands of dollars.
Nigerian artist Nike Okundaye of Nike Arts Gallery is keeping alive the ancient art of Adire, by training women in co-ops and serving as a global ambassador for the craft she has practiced for over half a century.
India’s fabric tradition is as old as it is vibrant. From block-stamped cotton that is then quilted in straight lines to divine painted silks and pashminas, the India is where world-renowned luxury designers like Oscar de la Renta and Olivier Desforges go when they need hand-created or hand embroidered fabric. And speaking of embroidery, India’s artistic gifts in this domain can only be admired and enjoyed, never understood.
One of my favourite hand-made pieces of all time is a hand-embroidered Ayacucho-style wool-on-wool runner from Peru. The colourful flowers with vines coming out of them have a short pile giving the piece a 3-D effect. I had always associated Peruvian fabric with narrow-striped cloth in black and brilliant neons, so finding this embroidered piece in a little shop in Lima was eye-opener to the diversity of this Andean country. Peru, of course, is also well known for its two other luxury fibres—alpaca wool and pima cotton.
Thanks for reading, and please add a comment on other iconic handmade textiles that you know of, own, or just love!