The history of weaving part 1- Asia

Page Contents

The origins of fabric

The art of weaving has evolved over the course of thousands of years, through discovery and experimentation. It involves the production of fabric or cloth by interlacing two distinct sets of yarns or threads in a right angle. The (usually pulled taut) vertical strings are called the warp, and the horizontal thread that is intertwined over and under them is called the weft. The way these two strings are interwoven affects the characteristics of the cloth that will be produced.

Warp and Weft

Warp and Weft

Early civilization called for temporary shelters to be built, so knowing how to twine, plait, knot and weave materials such as grass, twigs, string and twine together, in order to build walls, roofs, bedding, baskets and doors, was imperative. The idea of interlacing materials together to create a weave was probably inspired by nature; by observing birds’ nests, spider webs and various animal constructions, the early civilization artisans discovered they could manipulate bendable materials and create objects that would make their life easier.

It is believed that man first learned how to create string 20 to 30 thousand years ago, by twisting plant fibres together. This technique evolved through time, and man was eventually able to stretch and dry fibres, in order to produce finer threads.

A distinct fabric impression in an archeological find (Dolni Vestonice), has lead scientists to the conclusion that the discovery of weaving actually took place as early as the Paleolithic era.

An Ancient Egyptian family's clothes

An Ancient Egyptian family’s clothes

Fabric construction, early woven clothes

Some of the first materials ever used to create actual fabric are help, raffia, leaf fibres, hair, wool, fur, and animal sinews. Textiles have been discovered dating back to Ancient civilizations, such as:

  • Egypt (as early as 5000 BC): skilled in embroidery and specialists in dyeing their fabric, Ancient Egyptians were expert weavers, and primarily used flax and linen. They sparsely used wool, and cotton was unknown to them, during most of their Ancient history.
  • Mesopotamia (Sumerians and Babylonians): they preferred weaving various materials together to produce their textiles.
  • Palestine (3000 BC): The Hebrew people primarily used wool, sometimes mixed with various dyes, and reserved pure linen textiles for the garbs of their religious leaders. They seem to have preferred plain weaves, and were the first to develop metallic yarns and dyeing techniques.
  • Persia: Persians were able to produce gorgeous silk tapestries with vibrant colors and intricate patterns.
  • Greece: Ancient Greeks primarily used wool and linen for their textiles, and used more advanced, warp-weighted looms.
  • Ancient China (3000 BC): In Ancient China, silk was highly sought-after. The empress His-Ling-Shih has been credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing, at around 300 BC, according to legend. Chinese weavers were masters of the art, and were able to produce exquisite textiles and weaves.
  • The Incas: they seem to have been creating textiles made of wool, camel, llama and alpaca hairs, and cotton. They would weave these fibres into a type of fabric called quipus, bu knotting along pieces of string.
  • Early Christian weaving: traditionally, early Christian weaves feature abstract, spectacular forms, which later evolved into narrative elements, and mosaic-style tapestry weaving.
  • Byzantine Empire: silkworm eggs were smuggled from China to Constantinople by monks, and so the Byzantine Empire was able to produce gorgeous, finely woven textiles, as well.

The industrial revolution, and the revival of hand-woven textiles

By the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution had rendered handcrafts obsolete, since modern machines, like the Jacquard mechanical looms, were taking charge of textile production.

Jacquard mechanical looms

Jacquard mechanical looms

Nowadays, wand-woven fabrics and textiles are appreciated for what they are; unique works of art of unparalleled quality and worth. However, interest in hand-woven textiles was revived during the 20th century, thanks to the Art Deco movement, and folk handcrafts organizations in the US and the UK taught crafters to be almost entirely self-sufficient.

Hand woven Bhutanese fabrics

Hand woven Bhutanese fabrics

Weaving villages around the world

Hundreds of weaving villages around the globe, especially in developing countries, serve as a reminder of times past, when hand-crafted textiles and fabrics were the norm. In the age of globalization, cottage industries often face many disadvantages when attempting to compete with large factory-based businesses, however nowadays a new hope has dawned for weaving villages, since modern consumers seem to be appreciative of the unique allure of hand-made products, and tend to be more eager to support companies that follow socially and ecologically responsible business models. Sustainability, ecology, compassion and culture preservation seem to be gradually becoming key issues in the modern consumer’s mind.

Vietnam weaving villages

There are approximately 2000 craft villages in Vietnam, some of which are traditional, while others are modern. About 30% of the country’s households take part in some for of craft activity. Craft villages are important to the nation, because they help counter rural poverty, and reduce the rural-urban income gap. To the people, crafting villages offer the opportunity to be independent by providing jobs and income during off-crop seasons, while improving their quality of life and helping to preserve their culture.

Nowadays, Vietnam weaving villages are slowly becoming major tourist attractions, primarily because of their expert weavers and artisans, who don’t shy away from selling their handcrafted creations in tourist-oriented souvenir shops and markets. Hand-woven cotton, silk and brocade with unique motifs, designs and colors are used to make clothing, bags, purses, handkerchiefs and other items, but their textiles can also be sold in bulk. They are the perfect souvenirs, since they are unique to the people who made them, and the place they are bought from.

A Vietnamese shop, selling handmade products

A Vietnamese shop, selling handmade products [1]

Vietnamese Brocade is a type of woven fabric made from raw cotton, flax or hemp. It is rich in texture, and is usually dyed in many colors, using natural dyes made from plants, seeds and other resources that the artisans collect from their surroundings.

The weaving patterns and designs are distinctly unique, and are primarily derived from the traditional weaving techniques of three ethnic minorities: the Mong people, the Ta Oi people, and the Cham people. Their weaving traditions and techniques are passed down from one generation to the next, through the women in the family [2].

The Mong ethnic minority’s brocade weaving

The Mong people inhabit the northern mountainous region of Vietnam. The key to the beauty of this region’s brocade lies in the usage of wax during the dyeing process; the fact that the areas of the cloth that are covered in wax do not absorb dye has allowed the Mong people to produce stunning, unique patterns.

The weaving village of Cat Cat in Sapa, in the Lao Cai province

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

An artisan who has been weaving brocades for more that 30 years says she doesn’t know why she likes her job, she just does. “I weave cloth to make clothes for my children. Weaving is difficult. If you know how, you can do it and if you don’t, you can’t. My parents taught me weaving and I learned it for a week before I could do it by myself. I don’t sell them, just make them for my family“. The village of Cat Cat is an ancient Mong people village, with a very long history in traditional crafts and weaving. The art of the Mong artisans is unique, and it attracts many tourists, who flock to the souvenir shops in order to buy wonderful embroidered works of art in the form of clothing, handbags, purses and handkerchiefs.

A 27 year old villager says: “We have to make clothes for ourselves and we can only make two sets of clothes a year. It takes us a long time to do this. I have been working this belt for 3 months. I’m very happy when tourists visit our village[3] .

And a 7th grader, who learned the art of embroidery a few years ago, helps her grandmother around the loom: “When I return home from school, I look after my siblings. I embroider decorative items on the sleeves. I could embroider when I was 8[3].

Sapa, Vietnam

Cat Cat villagers going about their daily business [3]

The multi-talented mountain women are expert stone and silver carvers, as well. “I like this job and I pursue it. It’s very difficult but it inspires me a lot”, said Pao, who has been involved in stone carving for 3 years[3].

The brocade village of the White Thai ethnic group, in Mai Chau, Hoa Binh Province

The White Tai people (aka Tay Don or Khao), who are named for the color of their women’s clothing, live in the northern part of Vietnam. Originally from China, they immigrated to Vietnam because of pressure from the Chinese, hoping to find peace, but to no avail. After a series of foreigner-influenced governments and conflict, the Communist Republic of North Vietnam spread to the South in 1975.

The White Tai people are polite, respectful and hospitable. Family is the core of their society. Men and women are sharing equal portions of the workload, may it be plowing, fishing, cooking, caring for their children, clean their house etc. Nowadays the White Tai farmers belong to agricultural cooperatives, and are part of the Vietnamese working class[4].

Early in their history, the Thai cultivated wet rice, which involved digging ditches in their fields to manage the flow of water, and produced one sticky rice crop per year. Nowadays they managed to double their yield, cultivating ordinary rice. They also grow corn, cotton, indigo and mulberry for cloth weaving. They are best known for their colorful, vibrant weaves and brocades[5].

 

A White Thai woman, weaving

A White Thai woman, weaving [6]

Four villages in the Mai Chau valley have formed a coalition, manufacturing brocade cloth with the productive force of more than 300 looms, in order to develop handicraft tourism in their regions. The people of the Lac, Nhot, Van and Pom Coong brocade villagers sell unique handbags, clothes, wallets and pieu handkerchiefs made of brocade.

Gorgeous, colorful White Thai weaves from the southern White Thai weaving village

Gorgeous, colorful White Thai weaves from the southern White Thai weaving village[7]

The Ta Oi ethnic minority people of the central Thua Thien-Hue province

The Ta Oi ethnic minority are very capable crafters, and are best known for their backpack-style rattan baskets, which are traditionally made by men. Rattan is usually gathered from the surrounding mountainous area, however lately supply has been scarce. This has lead the weavers to turn towards bamboo, which grows at a much faster rate. The Ta Oi women process the rattan, and help prepare it to be used in crafting.

A black Ta Oi weave with colored stripes

A black Ta Oi weave with colored stripes

Traditionally, the Ta Oi people weave black cotton cloth with colored stripes. Their wonderful zeng brocade is very sought-after, as it is is quite distinct from the brocades made in other regions, mainly because of the glass beads which are attached to the cloth, during the weaving process. The artisans used to make their own beads using lead, but this resulted in very heavy fabric. Nowadays they use glass or plastic beads.

The Ta Oi use horizontal bamboo poles to weave their brocade, utilizing their limbs and the curve of their backs as indispensable parts of their simple and portable looms. Their designs feature red, black, white and green backgrounds, and geometric patterns which often represent natural themes, such as mountains, animals and plants, inspired by the beautiful scenery surrounding their village.

An artisan says: “Weaving on the ground with my legs stretched straight out in front of me, my back and knees may begin to ache a little. But I can sit weaving for as long as eight hours a day. In one day I can weave into the fabric one hundred gram of beads. When my daughter is married I’ll give her a nice skirt and top decorated with more beads than she has ever worn before”.

A Ta Oi weaver utilizes her limbs and the curve of her back to control her loom

A Ta Oi weaver utilizes her limbs and the curve of her back to control her loom[8]

The Cham people and traditional textile

Historically, the Cham people cultivated a variety of cotton plants called Cac Boi, whose flowers looked like goose feathers when they ripened. The two varieties that were generally preferred were the Lapah Laow, which gave larger flowers, and the Lapah Cham, which had smaller flowers and a slighter, but more durable, yield. They spun their cotton into fibre that they used to weave cotton cloth. Depending on the products the cloth will be used for, the Cham people use two types of traditional looms; the ‘daneng aban khan’, which produces cloth sheets, and the ‘daneng jihdalah’, which produces belt (longer and narrower) cloth sheets.

Apart from cotton, the Cham people also grew mulberry, in order to rear silkworms, thus being able to produce their own silk. According to Chinese literature, the knowledge of cotton cultivation and silkworm rearing dates back to the 6th century.

The Cham people are also experts in dyeing their textiles in a wide variety of colors, such as red, yellow, blue and purple, using natural dyes. These natural dyes were often extracted from leaves, rind, stems and roots of plants that could be found in the nearby forests.

However lately, they seem to prefer buying colored threads from the market, instead of cultivating cotton, spinning it and dyeing the threads themselves, because commercial thread are vastly cheaper, and offer a wider variety of colors to choose from. This, of course, affects the quality and value of their products.

The My Nghiep brocade weaving village

Traditional weaving is well preserved in the My Nghiep village, in the Ninh Phuoc district of Vietnam. The villagers are Cham people, and they traditionally cultivated cotton to produce thread, which they dyed using the resin of leaves and trees. Today, however, they tend to use market-bought colored threads, instead.

My Nghiep weavers

My Nghiep weavers at work[9]

Using traditional dalah and ban looms, the women of the quiet little village weave Cham fabric, which is made in different ways, based on the patterns and the purpose of its use. The villagers turn it into scarves, clothing, sarongs, handbags, wallets, purses and woven storage boxes.

Weaves

A wide variety of Cham weave patterns[9]

Each brocade made by the My Nghiep villagers is unique in terms of its patterns, its motifs and its designs, even when they are created by the same weaver. The background colors are usually red and black, and frequently used themes in their patterns include basic geometric shapes, clouds, dragons and animals. One important thing to take note of is that the patterns on the Cham women’s clothing are usually indicative of their position and class in society.

The Chau Giang brocade weaving village

This village is also known as ‘Phum Xoai’ brocade and is in Chau Phong Commune, in the Tan Chau district of the An Giang province.

The Chau Giang weaving village has 200 artisans. The female villagers start learning the art of weaving from the young age of 10-12 years old. The bark of the Pahud tree and the sap of the Kalek tree are used to dye the brocade, resulting in strong colors which age very well, as they become brighter and shinier as time goes by.

Phum Xoai brocade won awards at six “Made in Vietnam goods fo high quality” fairs. Especially Ikat brocade with a cloud design, or with a design featuring mulberry flowers, are much sought-after by the customers. According to an artisan’s opinion, “the success lies in the dyeing and designing process”[10].

A young weaver in Phum Xoai

A young weaver in Phum Xoai[11]

Nowadays, Chau Giang brocade has found its place in the domestic and international market, and is well known for successfully combining traditional and modern specialties.

The Vạn Phuc silk village

A Van Phuc shop, selling various fabrics and weaves

A Van Phuc shop, selling various fabrics and weaves

Traditionally renowned for its weaving and sericulture, the Van Phuc village is the best known silk village in Vietnam, and is considered to be the origin of the best silk and silk-related industry in the country. Very well developed, and a popular tourist destination, it’s an ideal location for silk products and souvenirs.

History of weaving in Laos

The art of silk weaving in Laos has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations, for over 1000 years. Silk was first introduced to Laos when the Tai Lao people moved from their lands in South China into the regions that now belong to the country of Laos, bringing with them the knowledge of silkworm rearing, silk production and dyeing, and weaving on upright wooden looms.

In Laos, people had been using other kinds of looms, in order to produce different kinds of textiles, and the cultural contact between them is the main reason why Laos textiles are so unique and varied. Laos silk textiles have an astounding variety of colors, designs and patterns, and are highly sought-after all over the world.

Danica, Wild Tussah Founder, looking at silk in Laos

Danica, Wild Tussah Founder, looking at silk in Laos

Silk was used for almost everything, in the past. Women used to breed silkworms and weave silk for their own families. Clothes, decoration, banners, hats and other everyday items, such as diapers for their babies: “In the old days we used silk for everything, even as diapers for babies. Every household in our village raised silkworms and produced silk. The women produced silk sinh in various mutmee (tie-dye) designs, silk blouses, silk sarongs for men, silk pillowcases, silk cushion covers, and silk cradle cloths“.

Silk weaving is intertwined with Laos culture, as it was used in almost every aspect of their social life. Sacred textiles were used by the shamans and healers, and girls collected silk weaves and embroidery for her trousseau, in order to get married: “A girl who is not a good weaver and does not have a substantial collection of woven silk and embroidery for her trousseau by the time she is fifteen will not find a husband. And to make sure that there will be a presentable collection of silk products for the wedding, a girl must start weaving her trousseau from the tender age of five or six[12].

Mulberry cultivation was necessary for silkworm rearing purposes. According to Mme Nout from Xieng Khoung Province, “Caring and feeding silkworms is like taking care of babies. You have to be very patient and you must wake up several times in the night to feed them with finely shredded mulberry leaves when the worms are small. You must also regularly clean out the silkworm trays of droppings. Otherwise the worms will die”>[11].

Silkworms

Silkworms in a Laos weaving village

Raw silk is either yellow or white, but Laos artisans were -and still remain- masters in dyeing it, using natural dyes derived from plants, such as leaves, roots, seeds, flowers, fruits and bark. For instance, the indigo plant is used to make blue, black and green dye, mahogany is used to make dry earth and brick red tones, ebony fruit is used to make grey dye, annatto seeds to make orange dye, jackfruit is used to create yellow and almond leaves are used to make olive green dye.

These natural materials are collected by the artisans’ nearby natural surroundings, dried, shredded and boiled, or fermented, in order to create dyes. They also use insects in order to produce some hues. The dyeing process itself is very demanding, as the dyers need to dip the yarn in dye and then dry it many times, repeating the procedure until they achieve the desired color. This entire process can be very time-consuming, as it can take up to two weeks to achieve the right color.

The weavers usually decide on complex, intricate motifs, and weave their pieces in traditional looms. Commonly used designs include geometric shapes, temples, birds, dragons, elephants, flowers and animals. Some of these symbols are believed to offer their protection to the owner of the piece, or even bring him luck, or prosperity. Furthermore, they are believed to be invisible to the malevolent spirits who would seek to harm the owner.

Some of the most commonly used designs are[13]:

Ancestor spirits: are believed to guide people along life’s journey, and into the afterlife.

Eagles: to protect children and infants.

Elephant lions an elephant birds: symbolize strength and power.

Pegasi: believed to assist military heroes in mythology

Giants: protectors who guard doorways

Gibbons: according to mythology, a mother gibbon saved children from starvation by bringing them food

Naga (river serpents): to offer protection. They are believed to take on humans form, and marrying humans. Connected to water and rice cultivation.

Animals: birds represent the weaver’s free spirit, butterflies are used for little girls’ items, elephants are reminders of military expeditions and represent power and strength, spiders are seen as nature’s weavers, tigers, water buffalos and many others are used to represent almost any aspect of life in Laos.

Plants and plant parts: Ferns, bamboo, flowers and petals, leaves, rice plants, trees, vines, young stems and many others are commonly used designs in Laos weaves.

Natural elements: clouds, lightning, the moon, sun and stars, rainbows, rivers and many more.

Man-made objects: boats, hooks, lanterns, temples and writing characters are commonly used, as well.

The decline and revival of traditional silk weaving in Laos

In the years following World War II, Laos was caught up in 30 years of war, against the French, and later between the Royal Laos Government and the Communist Pathet Laos forces. The strife affected the northern regions of the country the most. The art of silk production, dyeing and weaving almost disappeared. Ironically, the only ethnic groups that upheld their rich weaving tradition during these trying times were the Tai Dam, the Tai Deang, the Tai Moei and the Tai Phuan, who generally inhabit the northern and central regions of Laos.

After a long period of decline, a revival of the country’s rich weaving tradition was sparked by the fact that tourists and foreigners couldn’t get enough of the wonderful designs and patterns of the artisans’ hand woven silk. Nowadays, Laotian women are happy to practice their ancient art, and help their families with their additional income. With their beautiful creations, they actually help promote weaving tourism.

The weavers of Xieg Khoung Province

Expert silkworm breeders, silk producers and dyers (using natural dyes), the Tai-Dam and Tai Phoun people who inhabit the northern regions of Laos are well-known for their high-quality products.

The phoxay weavers of Vientiane province

They migrated south some years ago, in order to escape warfare. Some women worked in the nearby city, and specialized in high-end silk products. Upon returning home, they were able to teach valuable new skills to the other local women, and have nowadays gained access to markets, thus improving their income.

The cotton weavers of Savannakhet province

The Phuthai weavers of Savannakhet province cultivate a native short-fiber cotton variety, which they weave into rough, yet comfortable indigo-dyed chechered cloth.

The weavers of Bolikhamxay province

The Tai-Phuan, Tai-Deang and Tai Moei weavers of this province also migrated south from northern regions of Laos. They delve in cultivation of rice farms, silk production and specialize in weaving skirt borders, tablecloths and scarves.

The weaving village of Ban Phanom, in Luang Prabang Province

Women working on their weaves

Women working on their weaves[14]

This little village is a source of high-quality handmade woven goods, mainly using both cotton and silk. The traditional methods, techniques and patterns are apparent in the handicraft of the village’s women. Their weaves are done with thick cotton threads of varied colors, and the patterns and designs are woven from silk.

The weaving village of Ban Xang Khong, in Luang Prabang, Laos

A shop selling locally-made weaving products

A shop selling locally-made weaving products[15]

Ban Xang Khong is a traditional weaving village located near Luang Prabang. Known for selling paper that is made of the by-products of mulberry cultivation, the village is full of weaving looms. Whereas the villagers use other regions’ silk as well, they are skilled at creating beautiful and intricate designs and weaves.

The weaving village of Muang Vaen in Huaphan

Muang Vaen is a mid-sized weaving village situated on the side of a lush river valley. Charming and rustic, with its wood frame houses with bamboo walls and reed roofs, surrounded by stunningly beautiful landscape, the village offers an authentic weaving tourism experience.

The villagers, who are hospitable, open and gracious, weave reed baskets and naturally dyed textiles of very high quality. Each piece is unique, and the villages sell their creations to visitors, along with cotton scarves, shaman cloths and blankets of unparalleled beauty.

History of weaving in Thailand

Thailand’s weaving history revolves around a plateau region in the northeastern part of the country, called Isan. Its borders with Laos are marked in the north and east by the Mekong river, and to the south the edge of the plateau falls steeply into the plains of Cambodia.

Traditional textile styles in Isan were naturally heavily influenced by its neighboring countries. The Lao Loum, Phutai and Tai Phuan ethnic groups were mainly influenced by Laos, whereas the Khmer Sung group (aka highland Khmer) were mostly influenced by Cambodia’s culture. Thailand’s expert weavers evolved these ancient techniques over time and mastered them, thus creating their own traditional styles, with many variations between villages.

The earliest fabric available in this region was probably hemp, dating back to 200 BC, with cotton being introduced sometime around 500 BC. The most ancient silk fibers discovered in Thailand, in the ruins of Baan Chiang in upper Isan, which is widely considered to be Southeast Asia’s oldest civilization, date back to approximately 1000 BC. The knowledge was probably passed along by ancient Chinese weavers, who traveled to the area to trade.

Thai silk production and weaving is mostly seen in the northeastern region of Thailand, which is called Isan, and especially in the Khorat Plateau. The manufacturing processes of Thai silk are singular to their weaving culture, and the silk produced in the northeastern part of the country features very interesting designs and colors. The silk that was produced in the Khorat plateau was traditionally only used to cover the villagers’ own needs, and was not seen as a valuable trade commodity. Attempts to develop the silk weaving industry in the region remained fruitless, since the people showed little interest in expanding their production and starting to export their silk.

Thai silk’s popularity rose suddenly, when Jim Thompson, an Amerixan OSS officer, started creating and branding his own version of ‘Thai’ silk, which was quite different from the kind of fabric that was traditionally woven in the region. Nonetheless, his clever marketing established Thai silk as a valuable commodity.

The King Rama V of Siam (1968-1910) was very interested in silk production and admired the skill of his country’s weavers. He developed the silk weaving in central Isan to serve the court’s needs, by introducing semi-mechanized equipment[18]. This area is the main area of silk production even today, including Jim Thompson’s factories.

On the other hand, though, the artisans in upper and central Isan persevered, and their textiles maintained their traditional structures. In lower Isan, the Siamese were controlling Ankor from around 1431, until 1867, when Cambodia became part of French Indochina. This region’s textiles are clearly influenced by Cambodian weaving.

After the East Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998, unemployed workers were forced to move from the big cities, back to their villages. The King and Queen of Thailand funded rural development by creating training programs, providing equipment in an attempts to increase their people’s income.

Nowadays, Khorat is the epicenter of Thai silk industry, and Thai silk is highly sought after all over the world, mainly because of its unsurpassed quality and beauty.

The silk production process

The silkworm that has been bred traditionally in China and the countries around it is called ‘Bombyx mori’. The little worms are fed exclusively with mulberry leaves for an entire year, before building their cocoons. In order to produce high quality silk, the cocoons are boiled in vats of water, separating the threads from the insect inside of them.

These cocoons can produce threads that vary in length, ranging from 500 to 1500 yards long. The threads’ color also varies, from light yellow to very light green. Since these threads are so thin, Thai women have to painstakingly combine many threads together by hand, in order to produce usable fibers. This tedious process takes up a lot of time, as it takes around 40 hours to produce a pound of Thai silk.

Even though the process is tiresome and tedious, this hand-reeled thread is one of the reasons why Thai silk is of such high quality. It can be used to make three grades of silk; two lightweight versions, and also a heavier version.

In order to remove its natural yellowish hue, Thai silk is soaked in hot water and bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Afterwards, it is washed and dried, ready to be woven using a hand operated loom.

Hand-woven, natural Thai silk is of the highest quality, as the fabric is one of the smoothest, most flexible and attractive textiles in the world, as it features a unique luster, with a two-colored blend. The color of natural, hand-woven Thai silk changes when viewed from different angles against the light.

In order to protect and promote genuine Thai silk, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture has incorporated the usage of a peacock emblem which guarantees the authenticity and quality of the product. It comes in four different colors, depending on the fabric’s type and production process;

  • The Gold peacock; used for Premium Royal Thai silk, made using native Thai silkworm breeds and hand-woven traditionally.
  • The Silver peacock; used for Classic Thai silk, made using specific silkworm breeds and traditional methods.
  • The Blue peacock; used for Thai silk, which is quite possibly chemically dyed.
  • The Green peacock; used for Thai silk blend, which is a product made by blending silk with other kinds of fabric.

Thailand’s traditional weaving styles: the Mat Mi (ikat) technique[17]

After careful measuring of the yarns to the exact width of the fabric, artisans are to tie off areas of pattern which are intended to resist the natural dyes that they use to color the rest of their weave. Eight additional colors can be created by mixing three primary colors; red, blue and yellow, all very popular hues that have been traditionally used to color fabric with an over-dye technique.

The natural dyes were made of materials that could be collected from the nearby forests, such as stick lac, indigo, jack-fruit wood, cumin root and jungle vine. Some color materials were boiled with the silk in order to dye it, whereas others were used directly on the fibers in order to stick better. After World War II, chemically dyed textiles made their appearance, and have remained a favorite until modern times, since the process of dying the fabric using chemicals doesn’t require quite as much time or effort.

The traditional weavers mentally planned their designs, without using any plans or drawings, sometimes using older textiles as reference. Dying a weave was a time-consuming process which involved tying areas were meant to resist the color, then dying the rest of the fabric, then untying the previous sections and tying others, dying the rest of the fabric using the next color and repeating until all areas of the fabric were dyed in the desired color. Nowadays the process remains the same, but, as mentioned before, the dyes are usually not natural.

    • The Lao Loum and Thai Phuan styles: very similar to each other, these styles have been used to weave silk mat mi tube-skirts. However, the Lao Loum usually paired them with multicolored cotton striped waist bands, whereas the Tai Phuan preferred red silk striped waist bands. The mat mi usually featured geometric motifs, dragons, animals, spiders, snakes, plants, flowers and trees, and also fruits, which were regularly woven onto a red and black striped warp.
    • The Phutai style: Much like the Tai Phuan, the Phutai used intricate waistbands with their silk mat mis. They favored red, yellow and green weaves, and they predominantly used black or dark purple as the background color for their ikat creations. They used a two shaft twill to weave their skirts, and usually mixed ikat yarns and plain colored yarns in their weaves, creating a dot matrix effect. This method of weaving is called mi luang.
    • The Khmer Sung: The Khmer Sung, who inhabit southern Isan, wove their skirts with three shafts. Their favorite pattern for women’s skirts seems to have been a special ikat pattern, which was called “mi hol”. The mi hol was a long cloth, which was worn as a pantaloon by women, in the chongkraben fashion, as men would do. An ancient design with strong taboos, the mi hol seems to have managed to resist the passing of time.

Influenced by Indian saris, the Khmer Sung tube skirts were wider and longer than other Isan textiles, and the number and quality of the patterned bands that adorned the end of each cloth indicated the status of the wearer.

  • The Buriram style: In lower Isan, the Buriram textiles have traditionally been woven by Lao people. They were woven with two shafts, and striking red band ends, which is why they were also known as “tin daeng”, which means “red hems”. The patterns and designs of these fabrics were similar to the Khmer Sung long cloths, but the textiles themselves were quite a bit narrower that their Khmer Sung counterparts. Sometimes red waist bands were added to the mat mis, like those of the Tai Phuan.
  • The Ubon Ratchathani style: the Lao Loum and Tai Phuan weavers in Ubon Ratchathani wove mat mi tube-skirt textiles of the highest quality, to be used by the Siamese court. They would use silver and gold threads in continuous supplementary weave bands, alternating with mat mi bands. The usage of silver and gold thread of various qualities was limited to the Siamese court. Sometimes local people would imitate these textiles for formal costumes, using lower quality metallic-colored yarns.

Weaving villages in Thailand

There are quite a few weaving villages in Thailand, especially around the Isan region, where visitors are welcome to experience and appreciate the weavers’ everyday life, since cottage industry has nowadays been successfully resurrected. Tourists and textile aficionados from all over the globe can now get the chance to watch the artisans at work, see how their wonderful woven textiles are traditionally made, examine the silk worms and their cocoons, explore the entire process of silk production and discover each village’s signature style.

The weaving village of Ban Reng Khai

Ban Reng Khai is a silk weaving village in Isan, the northeastern part of Thailand. The know-how of silk production was passed down through the generations, and silk weaving has become an inextricable part of the people’s traditions. In the past, however, due to economic problems, most of the villagers had to move to larger cities in order to find work, and sent part of their meager income to their families back home. This dependence on the people who moved towards the larger cities is one of the main reasons why craft skills were abandoned for a while, and the chain of passing down the traditional methods of silk weaving through the generations was broken.

Village children walking to school

Village children walking to school [19]

All this changed, however, with the arrival of a Dutch artist and textile specialist, Ms. Lea Laarakker Dingjan, in 1985. This pioneer of a woman fell in love with the unique quality of the surviving silk fabric that she found in the village, and decided to devote herself to rebuilding the village’s silk industry. Driven by the ideals of ethical marketing, she managed to revive the ancient craft, taught the villagers how to appreciate the worth of their hand-woven, unique textile, and encouraged them to branch out to new markets.

A Ban Reng Khai farmer

A Ban Reng Khai farmer[19]

By establishing new markets for the silk within Thailand and overseas, Ms. Lea managed to secure a steady income for the villagers, and also developed a program which improved their everyday life quality. By using some of the profits from the sale of silk, and also some of her own funds, she installed new electricity facilities, a better water supply, and a healthy sanitation system.

A beautiful garden in Ban Reng Khai

A beautiful garden in Ban Reng Khai[19]

The sustainable marketing plan she set in place ended up allowing the children of the village to go to primary, secondary and vocational school. The people who had been forced to seek employment in other cities could now be reunited with their families, and were able to work in the silk production industry, which paid enough to ensure them and their loved ones financial independency and a higher quality of life.

The weaving village of Ban Khok Mo

The little village of Ban Khok Mo is inhabited by Thai-Lao people whose ancestors migrated there sometime during the Rattanakosin period (sometime after 1782). Weaving has traditionally been viewed as a way to acquire some extra income when farming work decreased. The fabrics that are produced by the villagers are unique and extraordinary, usually featuring Sin Tin Chok Silk (which is used for a kind of traditional tube skirt), Mat Mi silk and traditional-style designs with floral patterns.

A little shop in Ban Khok Mo

A little shop in Ban Khok Mo [20]

The silk weaving village of Chonnabot

Chonnabot is a village in the isan region of Thailand which rarely, if ever, gets any tourists visiting. The people are usually working the fields and tending to their farms, and on their spare time they weave silk using the same traditional methods which have been passed down by their ancestors.

Chonnabot silk weaving village

Chonnabot silk weaving artisan [21]

The village’s official center of silk weaving, Sala Mai Thai, is dedicated to the conservation of mudmee, the weaving technique which made Chonnabot’s weaves famous all over the world.

Indeed, Chonnabot’s textiles are regarded as some of the country’s finest, best quality silk, and most of their orders come from the Royal Palace.

History of weaving in the Philippines

The Pre-Colonial Era

According to various accounts of early explorers of the pre-colonial era, the Filipino people used fibers made from natural materials, such as abaca (Manila hemp), maguey, pineapple, cotton and tree bark, to weave textiles, clothes, rugs, hats and baskets, along with quilts and bedding. Weaving was an inextricable part of the Filipino people’s lifestyle. All clothing items, such as the Malong and the Tapis, were made of hand-woven fabric. The quality of the weaves was based on how soft, tightly woven and clean their patterns were. Favorite themes included thick multi-colored stripes and clear patterns.

Tattooed Warriors in taditional garments

Tattooed Warriors in taditional garments

Various regions of the country are very well known for their intricately woven textiles, ranging from the pinya cloth, a sheer kind of weave which is made of fibers that are extracted from the leaves of the pineapple plant, to colorful tapestries and waist cloths of different tribes, made of cotton or other, Western materials.

The Filipino people were also masters in basket weaving, since necessity lead them to construct light, hardy and comfortable baskets in which they could safely and relatively easily transport their belongings. They also made storage baskets, lunch baskets, as well as trapping baskets, which were used to trap fish in rice paddies, each featuring their own special technique.

Apart from fabric and baskets, the Filipino people would weave beautiful mats to be used as bedding. They were usually seen as a woman’s work, and were made of leaves of the pandan or the buri palm. Decorated with stripes, simple linear patterns were formed using natural fibers, which were typically stripped, boiled and dyed before being woven together. Mats were so popular that they were sometimes used as currency in markets.

Spanish Colonization

For Filipinos, with Spanish colonization (1565-1898) came a permanent shift from a weaving lifestyle and living off the land to one of fighting for their independence. Woven products were still seen as wealth, and often used as a commodity for trading.

The Spanish colonization, even though it meant the introduction of many modern facilities, such as hospitals and schools, along with new technology, new industries, new crops, a new religion and an appreciation for arts and literature, didn’t seem to respect the Filipino’s culture. The Spanish didn’t shy away from exploiting the people for cheap labor in their quest for gold, all the while demanding from them to become more ‘civilized’ and ‘cultured’.

The traditional fabric that caught the attention of the Spanish was the nipis, a very versatile kind of textile that was made from woven stalks of the abaca plant. The various techniques of making and embroidering nipis were passed down through the ages from generation to generation. This colorful, striped or embroidered kind of textile was traditionally used for making clothed and other everyday items for both men and women. Nipis was introduced into the international market in the late 19th century.

Nipis intricate design

Nipis intricate design[22]

The Filipino people, influenced by the Spanish religious practices, started using new materials in new ways; long stalks of coconut or buri palm (called palapas) were woven together into plaits, which were sometimes decorated with crepe-paper flowers.

Hand-woven mats still retained their popularity, and were now made to order, sometimes bearing the letters ‘mr’, ‘mrs’ and ‘recuerdo’. They were often offered as gifts for special occasions.

American Colonization [23]

During the American colonization, the artistic focus was primarily turned towards the new and exciting avant-garde art, which was gaining popularity worldwide. The USA colonization introduced new food, new cars, new types of clothing (jeans and t-shirts) to the Filipinos, who were influenced by the Americans’ lifestyle of consumerism and over-consumption.

Weaving villages in the Philippines

The Yakan weaving village in Upper Calarian, Zamboanga

A wonderful and very authentic weaving destination, the Yakan village is inhabited by one of the 13 Moro (muslim) groups of the Philippines, the Yakan, who originaly lived in Basilan, but were forced to move to the mainland of Zamboanga because of political unrest and strife. Traditionally, the Yakans would use hand-woven fabric to make their everyday clothes, however nowadays they tend to wear modern clothes, saving their hand-woven pieces for special occasions.

A Yakan woman selling weaves

A Yakan woman selling weaves[24]

The artisans make their indigenous local treasures using fibers made from used pineapple and abaca plants, along with dyes made from herbal extracts and plants, tree bark, roots and other natural materials. Their patterns are usually very colorful and intricate, and each one is unique. Their weaving patterns are inspired by the natural patterns in their surroundings, like a Palipattang pattern would be inspired by the rainbow, and a Bunga-sama pattern would be inspired by the designs on the skin of a snake.

Rainbow inspired pattern

A rainbow-inspired pattern[24]

Skaneskin inspired pattern

A snakeskin-inspired pattern[24]

Other products that visitors can find in the Yakan village include Maranao brassware, gong and wooden boats.

The village of Mabilong in Lubuagan

A Mabilong weaver at work

A Mabilong weaver at work [25]

Traditionally, the Mabilong weavers would use bark fibers called Buteg, and later evolved into using Sag-ut, a native kind of cotton which was cultivated in the upland farms. Later on, the weavers would use fibers made from naturally grown Isut trees, and would make dyes using natural ingredients. Thus began the tradition of Kalinga weaving, which features colorful designs and beautiful patterns. Over time, the village artisans have gradually developed their own unique weaving style.

An intricate Mabilong weave design

An intricate Mabilong weave design[25]

Through the years, the Mabilong people have kept the tradition alive, and use traditional methods to weave their textiles, in order to preserve their culture and acquire an extra source of income.

The new generation is being taught how to weave, in hopes for a more stable future

The new generation is being taught how to weave, in hopes for a more stable future[25]

Some of their beautiful creations include large blankets (kagoy), wrap-around skirts (ka-in), g-strings (Be-e), and various belts and headbands.

The Iraya Mangyan village in Puerto Galera

The puerto Galera Mangyan village was founded by philanthropist Jaime Zobel de Ayala and his wife, Donya Bea, in the 1990s, in order to preserve the cultural treasures of the Iraya-Mangyan tribe. It provides shelter and sustenance to many Iraya-Mangyan families. From a few houses, the community has grown and now it has an elementary school and a medical facility.

The lovely Iraya Mangyan village

The lovely Iraya Mangyan village[26]

A local woman, Lisa says[26]: “This used to be just a forest area, and our houses didn’t look like these”, referring to the well-built new homes that now house over 300 Iraya families.

Visitors can experience first-hand what the Iraya tribal people’s everyday life is like, as well as see how their traditional handicrafts and art are made. Being that their creations are one of their sources of income, travelers are encouraged to buy their products and help improve their lives and preserve their culture. The finished weaves and handicrafts are displayed in a large hut in the village, which is reserved for this purpose.

The large hut where the weaves are displayed

The large hut where the weaves are displayed[26]

This weaving village, however, is not your typical weaving tourism destination, even though it is, in essence, very authentic. Tribal women are seen casually weaving local nito vines or colorful native vines into baskets, mats and other products, right next to a computer center which will be used to teach the children of the village.

Iraya Mangyan women tentatively weaving baskets.

Iraya Mangyan women tentatively weaving baskets. [26]

“We make these products out of nito vines that can be found abundant around the village. First, we collect the baging (nito vines). We clean and dry them under the sun, then we start putting them together. The fastest we can make a batch is about a week.” says Lisa.

The future looks a little bit brighter for the next generation

The future looks a little bit brighter for the next generation[26]

Don’t let that paradox discourage you, though, since this village is one of the few truly authentic places where a community of indigenous people are trying to make their mark and earn their living with their handicrafts. Their hand-made products are unique, a cultural treasure that must not be allowed to die.

History of weaving in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history can be tracked back to the 7th century, when it was founded by the Khmer, the great ancestors who built the Angkor Wat. Their empire encompassed a large part of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and over time it became a naval trading center. As a very important part of the ocean silk trade route, which spanned from China to South India, the empire flourished. However, due to constant attacks by Siamese, who had established the kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand, the Angkor empire started to decline, until its eventual demise in the 15th century.

Cambodia’s relations to its neighboring countries of Thailand and Vietnam have been tense historically. Later, French colonization and political strife managed to further shake the country’s stability and independence.

Nowadays, Cambodia covers a mostly flat area of fertile land and abundant water sources, blessed natural resources which would have allowed the country to prosper, were it not for the constant civil strife.

Life in Cambodian villages revolves around self-sufficient agriculture, sericulture and weaving.

Types of traditional silk fabric in Cambodia

Cambodian traditional silk fabrics can generally be divided in three main groups, based on their intended use and their techniques of weaving and dyeing the textile.

Ikat Cambodian fabric

Ikat Cambodian fabric[28]

  • The Ikat technique fabric, aka Chong Kiet: a tie-dye method that involves tying parts of the fabric that are meant to resist dyeing, untying them, tying up other parts and dying the next color. A multitude of fabrics falls under this category, such as the Pedan, which is normally used in wall ornaments, the Samphot Hol, which is a hip wrapper, and many others. The most usual motifs include temples, Buddha scenes, Apsaras, elephants, lions and nagas. Some Pedan pieces, especially older ones, feature motifs that are so unique that they do not repeat the same patterns throughout their length. Pedan represents Cambodian ikat fabrics, whereas the simpler Samphot Hol is used mainly in skirt making. The Samphot Hol can be divided into four sub-categories, depending on the fabric’s color and design:
    • The traditional Samphot Hol: it consists of five predominant colors; yellow, red, black, green and blue, which are derived using natural dyes made from natural ingredients.
    • The Samphot Hol Por: it has a brighter tone, and a wider color variety, since it is dyed with chemical substances.
    • The Samphot Hol Kaban:it is exclusively worn by men, and they feature much larger than normal end pieces, with intricate patterns. Sometimes worn using the Chong Kaban method (like trousers).
    • The Samphot Hol Ktong: it usually features small motifs and stripes interspersed with woven ikat. These motifs, which could reach the impressive number of 200 per piece, are preserved in the artisans’ memories, and have never been documented in any way.
Samphot Phamuong textile

Samphot Phamuong textile[30]

  • The Samphot Phamuong: it is usually woven with a weft-faced twill texture like the Hol, but the yarn that is used for the warp is a different color than that which is used for the weft. The resulting textile has a unique lustre and texture. The most luxurious and beautiful type of Cambodian fabric, the Chorabap, which is used for weddings and special occasions, belongs to this group. Its motifs are woven with silver or gold fibers, and the ending result is stunning. Raban, another type of textile that belongs to this group, is woven using the same method as Chorabat, but it used colored silk yarn instead of metallic colored fibers. Anlounh is another type of fabric, which features multicolored stripes, and Kaneiv is made with yarn which featured randomly applied colors along its length.

Finally, Bantok’s motifs are minuscule, and repeatedly woven across the fabric.

Cambodian man relaxing at home, wearin a kroma

Cambodian man relaxing at home, wearing a kroma[29]

  • Sarong and Kroma: unlike the previous two groups, which are made of pure silk, this group includes textiles which are made of cotton, silk, or a mix of the two. Textiles of this group are intended to be used in order to make clothes for farmers and everyday people, especially Sarong, which are a type of wrapped skirt that is widely worn throughout the country. The most common Sarong types are:
      • The Sarong Sor (aka the White Sarong), which has very distinctive white lines.
      • The Krola Phnom Srok, which features a Tartan-checkered texture.
      • The Muslim Sarong, which is mostly woven by the Cham people, which is made using a mix of silk and cotton fiber.
      • White twill woven Sarong, which are made using undyed yarn.

    Kroma is used to make head covers, towels, belts and sometimes Cambodian people use it to wrap things, in order to protect them. It usually comes in red and white, blue, or black, but brighter colors such as yellow and green with thin black stripes can also be found.

Weaving villages in Cambodia

Unfortunately, due to the constant strife the country is facing, it is very difficult to locate, much less visit, any weaving villages, even though they undoubtedly exist, if we were to judge from the many hand-woven fabrics that can be found in markets around the country. Even though even accurate maps scarce, we do know that most of the weaving villages are located in the Bati, Samrong and Prey Kabas districts. However, nowadays nearly all of the raw silk used for weaving is imported from Vietnam, but most weaving villages, such as those in the Takeo province, are still using natural ingredients to create dyes. The bark of the Bror Hoot tree or the Gamboge plant are used to create the color yellow, whereas the lac stick (the nest of an insect) is used to produce the color red. The Cam Poo fruit is also used to make the color red, and black can be obtained by dying the fabric separately three times, first using red dye, then yellow, and finally blue.

Prey Chung Kran weaving village

Prey Chung Kran weaving village

Weaving village at Phnom Penh

Weaving village at Phnom Penh[31]

Weaving Village at Phnom Penh

Weaving Village at Phnom Penh

Koh Dach features a traditional silkweaving village

Koh Dach features a traditional silkweaving village[32]

History of weaving in India[34][35]

Cotton textile weaving is an ancient tradition in India. There is archeological evidence that Alexander the Great encountered fine flowered muslins and robes embroidered in gold when they travelled to India. There are some accounts of them seeing cotton trees, as well.

Chanderi vintage silk fabric from India

Chanderi vintage silk fabric from India[33]

Silk also has a long history in India, and has been considered a “pure fabric”, so it has been used to produce religious vestments and for special occasions. Wild silk fibers excavated from sites in Indus valley were dated back to 2450-2000 BC, and were apparently processed using methods that qere quit similar to those used for the production of Chinese silk. Upon closer examination, it was revealed that some of them were spun after the moths had left their cocoon, similar to the way Ahimsa silk (which was promoted by Mahatma Gandhi) was made.

Silk weavers have traditionally been using the cocoons of indigenous Tussah, Eri and Muga moths, instead of their domesticated counterpart, the Bombyx Mori silkworm. Eventually, the domesticated species was introduced as well, and nowadays India produces all five different kind of silk, including ‘regular’ silk:

  • Tussah silk (aka Wild Tussah silk): it is produced by the Antheraea Mylitta moth, and it is extracted from the cocoon after it has been vacated by the moth.
  • Oak tussah: It is produced by the Antheraea Pernyi moth, which originated in southern China.
  • Eri silk: it is produced by the moth Philosamia Ricini, and is a favorite mainly in northeastern India.
  • Muga silk (aka Assam silk): it is produced by the Antheraea Assama moth, and has a shimmering golden color.
Gorgeous tussah silk

Gorgeous tussah silk

Silk handloom-woven fabric was exported to the West, and traded to Mediterranean countries via Parthia and Syria. These fabrics were influenced by Chinese prototypes design-wise, and were considered luxury goods. Eventually they became very well-known and sought-after, often presented as gifts to important personas and royalty.

The princess with the silkworm head dress - Xinjiang province, China, 7th-8th century AD

The princess with the silkworm head dress – Xinjiang province, China, 7th-8th century AD

Sericulture was, according to legend, smuggled out of China and into India by a Chinese princess, who was married to a prince of Khotan, in Central Asia. She hid the cocoons in her hair, and introduced them to her new home country, thus making Khotan rich and prosperous.

A handbook of administration, called the Arthasastra, which dates as back as the 3rd century BC, offered instructions on how to distribute materials to spinners and weavers, and gave permission to widows and retired prostitutes to work on the looms for a living. It also listed the taxes that weavers were expected to pay, as well as penalties for bad practices.

Textile production was initially done by weavers who worked entirely in their own homes, sometimes with the help of their family members. The entire process of ginning the cotton, separating the fibers from the seeds, carding it in order to fluff it up and spinning it into thread or yarn took place in each weaver’s house, using spinning wheels and handlooms which were passed down from one generation to the next.

Working at home, the weavers were free to work at their own pace, whenever it suited them. For example, if the heat became so unbearable that the yarn would begin to snap, the weavers would stop working and wait for the weather to improve. When they finished their weave, the weavers would sell it to merchants and peddlers who traveled from village to village, or they would take it to the weekly village market themselves in order to sell it in order to make a living.

In ancient and medieval India, the textile industry was dependent on political figure’s decisions. The textiles were divided in two main categories: plain cloth, for the common people, and luxury textiles for royalty and rich foreigners.

The most common type of cotton cloth was coarse, which was meant to be used for everyday clothing for the common people. However, some artisans evolved their art, and were able to produce very high quality cloth in a variety of patterns. Indian weavers eventually became masters at making superior cloth, and their skills were renowned all over the world. Indian cotton cloth especially, was in high demand in many other countries, such as China, Iran, and also in the Middle East and Africa.

As demand rose, after 1200AD, which marks the start of the Muslim period in India, weavers gathered together to form new settlements of hundreds and thousands of artisans. This created production cores which helped increase cotton cloth supply and further extend the country’s exports. Furthermore, these settlements provided marketplaces, where commerce flourished. Silk weavers settled mainly around temples and major cities, since silk fabric demand was higher when vestments were needed for special religious occasions, or wthin the royal court.

Another benefit of these settlements was the compartmentalization of labor; the artisans didn’t have to spin yarn themselves. They relied on people in villages and little towns around the area, who ventured to take advantage of the rising price of cotton yarn. Yarn makers would buy cotton from the marketplace, spin it, and then sell the thread to the weavers.

In time, the yarn making process was assigned to many different people, who would take part in only one aspect of the process, further compartmentalizing the industry. There were craftsmen for every step of the process; ginning, carding, spinning, weaving and dyeing were all eventually done by different people.

Marco Polo has left thorough accounts detailing the people and industries he came upon in his travels to India. He mentioned seeing the most beautiful, finest cloth in the entire world; buckrams, which seemed to be made of spider webs, and he also explained how he had seen the artisans dyeing their cloth with indigo.

From 1500 onwards, the market for Indian cloth expanded all over the world, and traders from Europe started coming to India in order to buy textiles. In order to ensure that the weavers had enough information to produce large quantities of the right kind of textile, the one that the traders would be able to sell in their destinations, a routine was put in place, which is known as the ‘putting out system’ (aka dadan pratha in Hindi).

The traders would work closely with their favorite weavers, giving them half the asking price beforehand, in order to order the kind of fabric they wanted. This way the weavers would be able to get their supplies together and start working as soon as possible, and the traders were certain they would be the ones doing business with the weavers, instead of their competitors, since they had already given a deposit. The rest of the asking price would be given to the weavers upon completion of the order. Some traders hired agents who were responsible for making the arrangements with the weavers, and kept a cut of the deal.

However some traders became entangled in politics and became so powerful that they started dictating the prices. The weavers were no longer able to support their families, and their income greatly decreased, to the point that at 1700 AD the weavers were in very bad shape, desperate to cover their families’ daily needs.

Jahangir investing a courtier with a robe of honour watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the court of Jahangir at Agra from 1615-18

Jahangir investing a courtier with a robe of honour watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the court of Jahangir at Agra from 1615-18

Indian textiles were most important to the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, with the former eventually creating trade centers in India known as ‘factories, and the latter switching to monopolizing Indonesia, and trading in Java.

Unknown weaving mill from the early1900s

Unknown weaving mill from the early1900s

The demise of the weaving industry in India was eventually cemented by the introduction of textile mills. The British would buy cotton from India and process it in their own mills back home, where British workers were being exploited in the worst way. This led to the production of very cheap cotton cloth, which soon replaced Indian cotton. As a result, the weavers were forced to give up their work and find another way to make a living.

In an effort to counter this, the Indians eventually set up their own textile mills. Machine-woven textiles were the straw that broke the camel’s back. The weaver’s textiles were obsolete, and the artisans, craftsmen and even farmers who took part in its production were left without employment.

Conditions in Indian cotton mills weren’t any more humane than in their British counterparts. Workers were expected to work for 12-14 hours without stopping, not to mention the health risks related to the cotton fluff floating in the air.

Contemporary Indian textiles

Indian women wearing traditional style saris

Indian women wearing traditional style saris

Nowadays, traditional weaving has seen a dramatic resurrection, as it is appreciated for the art form it actually is. The Indian textile heritage has thankfully been preserved thanks to the women’s sari, which is often made by high quality fabric. Formal saris may be made of silk or cotton, sometimes brocaded in floral designs or other complicated patterns. Everyday saris are often striped or checked, and made of cotton. Sometimes they are block printed with gold or silver floral sprays, or are colored using a tie-dye technique. Ikat is often used when there are traditional diamond or trellis patterns.

A common practice in India is embroidery, usually done either by the village women, or by male professionals. The textiles which are made for the courts and temples of old India are of the highest quality, don’t resemble typical exported fabrics at all.

Phulkari (aka flower work) is a favorite of Pinjab embroiderers. The cotton is embroidered with a bright colored floss silk thread, to create beautiful designs. Another favorite woven Indian product with hundreds of years of renown, are its uniquely beautiful woven carpets.

By far the most popular and rarest kind of textile that India produced in the 19th century was Kashmir. Originating from the charming Vale of Kashmir, which is known as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Kashmir shawls were very highly sought after all over the world, and were considered a great gift.

The history of Kashmir weaving

Antique Kashmir hand-embroidered red wool paisley Shawl

Antique Kashmir hand-embroidered red wool paisley Shawl

Kashmir (aka cashmere and pashmina) fibers come from animal husbandry, and more specifically from the Tibetan or Central Asian goat, which was imported from Tibet. These goats have a second undercoat under their coats which serves as additional insulation. Other fibers which were molted from wild sheep and goats from the Himalayas were also used to create fabric. The yarn was dyed with natural tints, made of such materials as indigo, logwood, saffron and cochineal.

By the beginning of the 19th century, kashmir shawl weaving had evolved into a full-fledged industry, which employed many specialist artisans, such as the warp makers, the warp dressers, the warp threaders, the pattern designers, the colorists and the weavers. After the shawls were woven, the cleaners would remove any extra or loose threads, and the menders were responsible for touching up with needlework. After being washed, stretched and packed, the textile was ready to be sold.

The cone design which is often associated with kashmir shawls supposedly originated from the cone shape of the date palm, and it would symbolize fertility and renewal. Other theories claim that it originates from the shape of a curled leaf, or that it was influenced by the artistic taste of the Mogul Emperor Babur, who is said to have worn a jeweled ornament in his turban, which was almond shaped.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, kashmir shawls featured predominantly floral patterns, however they evolved into abstract designs over time.

Sadly, the kashmir weavers’ market was closed for good after the Franco-Prussian War in the 1970s, which devastated the Drench market and the demand for kashmir products.

Weaving villages in India

Weaving in Indian villages is one of the largest cottage industries in the country, with several people involved in the process of silk, cotton and other natural fiber textiles production.

Each region has is own weaving style; for example, the weaving villages of Tamil Nadu produce a wonderful kind of fabric called Madras Checks. The villages of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa are famous for their gorgeous Ikat textiles, whereas West Bengal villages take pride in their Daccai, Jamdani, and Taant textiles. In Madhya Pradesh you would find excellent Chanderi patterns, whereas in the villages of Jammu and Kashmit you would discover the world’s finest Pashmina and Shahtoosh shawls.

The Sevilimedu silk weaving village

A large antique handloom

A large antique handloom[38]

The Sevilimedu silk weaving village in Kanchipuram is inhabited by artisans who weave high quality textiles in their own homes. The antique handlooms take up a large part of the villager’s main living spaces, like they have done for generations, but life seems to revolve around them naturally.

Everyday life in Sevilimedu

Everyday life in Sevilimedu[38]

The weavers painstakingly prepare their looms before they begin working on their actual weave, a process which can take up to ten days. The silk the villagers prefer using comes mainly from the neighboring region of Karnataka. Nearby, a government-run silk farm is utilized to teach younger generations the secrets of sericulture, and help them acquire a steady source of income through cottage industry.

Sevilimedu textiles

Sevilimedu textiles[38]

The Kanchipuram saris woven here are famous for their excellent quality and are generally used as wedding attire and for formal occasions. The traditional technique followed by the village’s artisans dictates that the borders of the saris should always be added to them by weaving them together, as one piece, instead of being sewn on afterwards.

Depending on the quality of the finished piece, along with the quantity and quality of the thread used, Kanchipuram saris can be quite expensive, with their prices ranging anywhere from £400 to £500, or even more! The gold thread that is often used in these weaves is actually real silver, coated in real gold, and the saris prices depend on the amount of gold thread used in the fabric.

The Saulkuchi silk weaving village[39]

A weaver at work

A weaver at work[40]

Sualkuchi is located about 35 kms from Guwahati in Kamrup District. A very famous weaving village, it is considered as the center of Assam silk production. The traditional techniques of silk weaving have been passed down from generation to generation, and can be traced back to the 11th century. Assam silk textiles (aka Muga silk) are generally not dyed, since that would ruin their wonderful naturally golden color.

Gorgeous golden-hued Saulkuchi textile

Gorgeous golden-hued Saulkuchi textile[40]

History of weaving in Bangladesh[41]

The most exquisite and practical muslin textile of Bengal, the Jamdani, has been made in the Dhaka district in Bangladesh for many centuries. The history, tradition and culture of Bangladesh are all inextricably connected with this gorgeous textile, which was mentioned in the Arthashashtra, the ancient book of economics which offered strict rules and general guidance concerning economics in some of the areas which are nowadays parts of modern Bangladesh. Mentions of fabric that resembles Jamdani can be found in historical sources, and it is believed that Alexander the Great was referring to this kind of textile when he declared he saw some “beautiful printed cottons” while he was in India. Roman emperors are believed to have paid great amounts of gold for this luxurious cloth, as well. This ‘Gangetic muslin’ has been a highly-acclaimed trade commodity for more than 2000 years.

Wonderful Jamdani fabric

Wonderful Jamdani fabric

The production of Jamdani muslin cloth is very time consuming and labor intensive, so the weave has always been viewed as a luxury textile, only available to rich families and royalty. The background color for Jamdani cloth is unbleached cotton yarn, and the design is woven using bleached cotton yarn. This way, the design appears lighter than the background, and comes forward.

It is normally worked on a pit brocade loom, and it is fabulously rich in motifs, which are woven by using separate bobbins for each color. Popular themes include geometric, plant and floral designs, and it is believed that they have been influenced by the fusion of Persian and Mughal cultures, from thousands of years ago.

A gorgeous Jamdani weave in bright blue

A gorgeous Jamdani weave in bright blue

The weaving method is very similar to tapestry work. Small shuttles of colored, gold or silver threads, are passed through the weft. Some of the most popular floral designs are the terccha, which features diagonally stripped woven floral sprays, the panna hazaar (aka a thousand emeralds) which features flowers interlaced with the design using gold and silver thread, the kalka (paisley), whose design is influenced by the painted manuscripts of the Mughal period, and the phulwar, which is usually woven with a black blue black, grey or off white background color. Traditionally, the most popular colors of Jamdani include black, grey, off white and red.

The patronage of the Mughal rulers was what actually helped lift the skill of muslin weaving to an art form. The patrons were great benefactors, and helped nurture the art of muslin weaving throughout the entire region, by setting up workshops in every village, and promoting the best weavers, all the while of course monopolizing their work.

After the British conquest in India, British agents took over and made great efforts to monopolize the industry for themselves instead, which resulted in massive amounts of textile being exported to Europe, most of which was Jamdani.

The textile’s decline started in the middle of the 19th century, because of the massive imports of cheaper (and lower quality) yarn from Europe, along with the decline of Mughal power in India. The weavers suddenly lost their most powerful supporters, and the Jamdani industry gradually fell.

Despite its unavoidable decline, Jamdani fabric has survived into modern times, and for the past few decades the Bangladeshi government has been making real efforts towards reviving the traditional Jamdani industry, by contacting and doing business with the weavers directly. Commercial stores strive to work with weavers from Bangladesh who are struggling to keep the tradition alive, and various organizations are supporting designers who choose to create new Jamdani designs. Nowadays, Jamdani muslin is used for saris, scarves and handkerchiefs, and is only starting to regain its former glory.

Kantha embroidery

Kantha embroidery

Apart from Jamdani saris, Bangladeshi women have traditionally embroidered their saris, utilizing an old technique called Kantha. It is still the most popular form of embroidery in rural Bangladesh. Traditionally, the entire cloth would be covered with running stitches, which created beautiful motifs depicting flowers, animals, birds and geometrical shapes, as well as scenes from the villagers’ everyday lives. Due to the stitching, the cloth ends up having a slightly wavy, wrinkled look. Kantha fabric is used in sari production, and also for shawls, boxes and pillows.

Weaving villages in Bangladesh

Clusters of little weaving villages, with bamboo huts set among lush green paddy fields, can be found around the capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka.

The weaving village of Tangail (aka dream weaving city) [43]

A weaver from the village working on a beautiful weave

A weaver from the village working on a beautiful weave

Around 100 km away from Dhaka, the capital of the country, situated on the banks of the Louhajang river, lies the wonderful Tangail village. Its rich heritage in all things cultural makes this village a glorious traveling destination for those who enjoy good food, original music and quality textiles.

A worker weaving on the loom

A worker weaving on the loom

Tangail is one of the most important textile and handicrafts center in Bangladesh. Visitors can enjoy listening to the clanking sounds of an entire village of artisans who are working on their pit looms and handlooms. The cotton and silk saris that are woven in the village are very brightly colored, and the combinations are amazing. Another popular product is the Nakshibuti, which is a free-style design kind of woven fabric the creation of which requires a deep understanding of the local tradition and a great appreciation of the artistic values of the people’s culture. Apart from textile production, Tangail artisans excel in bamboo, clay, metal and silver related crafts.

History of weaving in China[45]

Legend has it that Empress Hsi Ling Shi, the wife of Emperor Huang Ti, was the first person who accidentally discovered that silk could be turned into fiber for weaving.

Hsi ling chi gathering mulberry leaves

Hsi ling chi gathering mulberry leaves

One day, as the princess was sitting under a mulberry tree sipping her tea, a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. She immediately fell in love with the gorgeous, shimmering threads, and, upon further investigation, she soon realized what had happened. Thus began the history of silk, China’s most important textile.

Silk spread gradually through the known world, and silk garments began to reach faraway places, and was coveted as a luxury textile. The demand for this gorgeous fabric was such, that eventually a trade route was established, which is now known as the Silk Road, named after its most sought-after commodity; silk textiles. The Silk Road stretched for miles, connecting Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea, from where silk would be transported all over the known world.

Realizing the value of their gorgeous commodity, the Chinese managed to hold a global monopoly on silk production for around 3 millennia, and smugglers who were trying to export silkworms out of the country were promptly executed. Under penalty of death, no one dared to even think about stealing this lucrative secret.

Around 200 BC some Chinese immigrants to Korea brought with them some silkworms, thus sparking Korea’s own silk industry. By around 300 CE, sericulture had spread to many surrounding regions, such as India, Japan, and Persia.

Monks Smuggled Silkworms Across Asia In Hollowed-Out Walking Canes (Source: http://listverse.com/2013/11/02/10-amazing-moments-in-espionage/)

Monks Smuggled Silkworms Across Asia In Hollowed-Out Walking Canes

The secret of sericulture reached Europe around 550 CE, when a monk who was working for emperor Justinian managed to smuggle silkworm eggs to Constantinople inside one of his walking canes. The Byzantine Empire managed to keep the secret for many years, and became prosperous trading silk.

During the seventh century, the Arabs, who conquered Persia, discovered sericulture and silk weaving, which spread like wildfire through Africa, Sicily and Spain, as the Arabs swept through them.

By the 13th century, Italy was a major player in the silk trade game, and dominated the market, trading extensively in silk products. Italian silk became so popular that the king of France invited Italian silk makers to his country, in order to kick start their own silk industry.

In Medieval times in Europe, silk was considered a luxury textile and was reserved for the very rich, and for nobility.

Li brocade is an ancient textile craft invented by the Li people, an ethnic minority group in South China’s Hainan province. It was invented by the Li people more than 3,000 years ago. Woven with cotton yarn and silk thread, the brocade can be made into women’s skirts and bags. The loom used is a simple one, made of several crabsticks, which a weaver can carry around and work anywhere. The Li have no written language, and thus have no way of recording how to make the brocade. The skill was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. If the younger generation doesn’t inherit the skill, Li brocade will fade into extinction.

Li brocade’s artisans seem to favor two major colors; black and blue. The main themes that were used in the weaves included[46];

Human figure patterns

Human figure pattern- man and woman (left), Hercules pattern (right)

Human figure pattern- man and woman (left), Hercules pattern (right)

Animal patterns: it would include dragons, snakes, frogs, cows, deers, horses, sheep, chooks, bears, cats, dogs, fish, turtles, birds, deer, butterflies, doves, turtledoves, magpies, shrimps, crabs, spiders, bats and many others.

Gangong bird pattern (left), turtle pattern (middle), sheep pattern (right)

Gangong bird pattern (left), turtle pattern (middle), sheep pattern (right)

Plant patterns

Flower pattern on Sai tight skirt (left) and plant pattern in hunting (right)

Appliance and architecture patterns: which would include depictions of houses, boats, cars, cradles, hoes, coins, towers, and so on.

Pavilion and cradle pattern in Meifu dialect

Pavilion and cradle pattern in Meifu dialect

Man in a boat and Man in a house pattern in Ha dialect

Man in a boat and Man in a house pattern in Ha dialect

Geometrical patterns: which included a wide range of shapes and designs, such as crosses, fylfot pa, saw teeth, water waves, clouds, thunder, round shapes or circles, wells and other geometric objects.

Geometry pattern in Qi dialect’s costume (left) and fylfot pattern (right)

Geometry pattern in Qi dialect’s costume (left) and fylfot pattern (right)

Chinese character patterns

Chinese character patterns- Ha women’s headband (left), brocade wall hanging (middle) and run dialect’s wedding dress (right)

Chinese character patterns- Ha women’s headband (left), brocade wall hanging (middle) and run dialect’s wedding dress (right)

Other famous Brocades in China[47]

Cloud Brocade

Cloud Brocade

Cloud Brocade: Also known as Nanjin Yunjin Silk Brocade, this kind of brocade looks like colorful clouds, hence its name. Both high-quality silk and exquisite skills are required in order to produce this cloud effect. Commonly used materials included gold thread and peacock feather yarn. From the Yuan to the Ming dynasties (1271-1644), cloud brocades were used mostly for imperial clothing.

Dai Brocade: Made from either cotton or silk, the Dai brocade is a product of the Dai minority. Since early in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the Dai have produced muslin, a kind of cotton cloth. The cotton brocade weavers use naturally colored yarn, in order to create a smooth kind of textile. When making silk brocades, the Dai usually dye the silk red or black before weaving it into brocades.

Dong Brocade

Dong Brocade

Dong Brocade: This is the signature brocade of the Dong minority. Much like the Dai brocade, it can be made of either cotton yarn or silk, or a combination of the two materials. Dong brocades are distinguished by their patterns, which are mainly of flora, fauna, and Chinese characters. Dong brocades are commonly used to make children’s sleeveless garments, quilt facings (coverings), or scarves.

Lu Brocade: Mainly produced by people in the south and the north of East China’s Shandong Province, the Lu brocade is distinguished by its bright colors and strong textures. In the 1980s, the Lu brocade experienced a strong revival as its production adapted to the needs of modern life.

Miao Brocade

Miao Brocade

Miao Brocade: Produced by the Miao minority, this kind of brocade is popular in Guiding, in the Guizhou Province of Southwest China. As decoration, it is used to embellish the collars, fronts, and sleeves of women’s garments. It is also used to make everyday costumes and quilts.

Sichuan Brocade: Sichuan brocade was first produced in Chengduo the Sichuan Province in Southwest China during the Han Dynasty. It became the primary kind of traditional silk brocade. After Sichuan became linked to Middle China, its brocade-making skills were spread throughout the country. Sichuan brocade flourished during the Tang (618-907), Song, and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, with more designs, patterns, and colors being used. Especially during the Tang Dynasty, Sichuan produced a large quantity of very high quality silken goods. The magnum opus (greatest work) of this period included designs depicting bundles of flowers, red lions, and the Chinese phoenix.

Yao Brocade

Yao Brocade

Yao Brocade: According to the history of Xiangzhou, the Yao brocade technique originated from the Yao minority. Yao brocades are widely used by Han people as dowry when young women are married. The main patterns of Yao brocades are of flora, fauna, and geometrical shapes. This brocade is woven of dyed yarn or silk thread. While marriage is obviously a festive occasion, not all brocades are suitable for festive occasions. In some places, brocades of different colors suggest different emotions. In Quanxiu of South China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region, red brocades suggest happiness and are propitious (favorable), while orange or green brocades suggest mourning and sadness.

Suzhou Brocade

Suzhou Brocade

Suzhou Brocade: Produced in Suzhou of East China’s Jiangsu Province, this was once the most famous brocades in China. The art of making Suzhou brocades was lost at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but was soon revived at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Suzhou brocades are characterized by harmonious colors and geometrical patterns. The brocades are classified according to size. Larger brocades, also known as heavy brocades, are mainly used as mounted pictures or for large decorations, while smaller brocades are primarily used to decorate small articles.

Zhuang Brocade

Zhuang Brocade

Zhuang Brocade: Produced in Guangxi, this is the brocade of the Zhuang minority. The Zhuang brocade is produced on a weaving machine operated by one woman. It uses silk down (short and soft silk hair) and locally produces silk threads to make articles such as quilt facings, tablecloths, and scarves. The most usual patterns of Zhuang brocades are mainly depicting figures, flora, fauna, and geometrical shapes.

Weaving villages in China

The Miao village of Qingman[49]

The picturesque village of Qingman

The picturesque village of Qingman[49]

One of the last Chinese villages where people still practice the art of weaving without machines and electricity, the way the used to in the old times, is the Miao village of Quingman. It is about two hours; drive from Kaili, and is best reached by private car. The villagers don’t speak English, and only a few of them speak Chinese, therefore a Miao-speaking guide is essential. There are no restaurants or motels in the village, only a small shop where visitors can buy water and snacks, and on market days the villagers set up their stores to sell their textiles.

This remote little village seems frozen in time, as most modern luxuries that are part of the western world’s everyday life are nowhere to be found. An electricity wire here and there, maybe a television set, but that’s it.

The village’s houses are made of wood, and are built on stilts and tightly packed together, in order to maximize farmable land, since the Miao people’s main income comes from farming. Both men and women work in the fields, and women also have to take care of their children.

An artisan at work in her home

An artisan at work in her home[49]

Time flows slowly in the village; girls may spend up to two years to embroider their wedding garments, and maybe even another year embroidering their firstborn’s baby carrier. They also find the time to dye their fabric using indigo that they have grown themselves, and sew their family’s clothes with it.

A group of women setting up a large loom

A group of women setting up a large loom[49]

The village’s traditional weaving technique requires spending a long time on the task, as well; it can take five women up to a full day to set up the giant stationary loom, and then the actual process of weaving can take forever, as the artisans are only able to weave about a yard of fabric per day. The fact that this art form is so time consuming may explain why weaving is dying in the Guizhou area.

A beautiful traditional hand-woven textile from the Miao village of Quingman

A beautiful traditional hand-woven textile from the Miao village of Quingman[49]

Somehow, in the midst of harvesting crops and rearing their children, the village’s women manage to find the time to hand weave bolts of cloth the traditional way. The tradition is passed down from one generation to the next. In order to set up their looms, they have to carefully measure the threads, cut them, comb and then separate them, and finally wound them onto a giant spindle. Bamboo slats are placed under the threads, in order to prevent tangling. The village’s wonderful textiles, some of them traditional checked silks, are highly sought after, even by successful fashion designers from Beijing, or even from other countries, like Japan.

Footnotes

1. Bac Ha Market in Lao Cai
2. Vietnamese Brocade
3. Vitality of Mong traditional village in Sapa
4. Tai Don, White Tai in Vietnam
5. The Thai Ethnic Group in Vietnam – What You Need to Know
6. Vietnam top 10: Mai Chau homestay
7. Southern White Thai weaving village, Vietnam
8. Ta Oi Handicraft
9. Cham Brocade in My Nghiep Village – Ninh Thuan
10. Phum Xoai Brocade – Unique in Designs and Colours
11. Tourism Event Speciality
12. The Saoban Weavers of Laos
13. Motifs in Hilltribe Weaving Design
14. The village of Ban Phanom
15. The village of Ban Xang Khong
17. Antique Thai Silk Textiles: Mat Mi (Ikat) textiles of Isan
18. Thai Village Economy Increased with Silky Smoothness
19. A Silk Weaving Project in a Thailand Village
20. Ban Khok Mo Weaving Village
21. Exploring the Isaan: The silk weaving village of Chonnabot
22. History of Philippine Weaving
23. The history of Filipino weaving
24. Zamboanga: Yakan people and their weaving
25. Mabilong Weavers
26. Mangyan Village in Puerto Galera: Discover Indigenous Arts and Crafts of the Iraya-Mangyan
27. Iraya women of Puerto Galera preserve traditions thru weaving
28. Traditional Textiles in Cambodia
29. Welcome to Cambodia!
30. Traditional Clothes
31. Cultural Weaving: Visiting the Weaving Village at Phnom Penh, Cambodia
32. Attractions in Kandal Province
33. How to differentiate the real vintage Indian silk clothing from the fake ones!
34. Indian Textile History
35. History of textile industry in India
36. The Weaving Industry of india
37. Market pressures on an ancient art
38. Sevilimedu Silk Weavers
39. SUALKUCHI – A Land where dreams are woven in Gold
40. THE ASSAM EXPERIENCE – DAY 2
41. Jamdani
42. Jamdani: Weaving history
43. Itinerary: Threads and Villages day trip
44. Tangail and its crafts
45. History of Silk
46. Classification of Li(黎族) traditional brocade patterns of Chinese textile and its application for modern fashion product design
47. Famous brocades in China
48. Lists of intangible cultural heritage and Register of best safeguarding practices
49. Traditional Village Life in China: The Miao Village of Qingman

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