Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

10.7: Textiles (Ongoing)

  • Page ID
  • All cultures have used textiles for over 5,000 years or more, not only as a necessity but also as a decorative art form. Some textiles have been prized and traded for centuries as the silk from China by the Silk Road. During the 18th Century, explorers, traders, and settlers collected and traded textiles from different parts of the world, encouraging the growth of the raw materials in the expanded lands. The raw material was harvested from animals, plants, and even insects, then cleaned, sorted, spun, and woven to create a fabric with elaborate or straightforward designs.

    The industrial revolution eventually changed the way fabric was processed, and machines took over for the hand labor, producing thousands of meters of fabric in the time it would take one weaver to create a meter. Sewing machines emerged during the 19th century and spawned a new production line of textile manufacturers. However, in most of the world, in homes and by artists, textiles are still made traditionally by hand on small looms. Almost every culture has unique and specific methods and outcomes for creating fabric based on natural materials available and historical traditions and definitions. Weaving is the art of textile production when two yarns are woven at a right angle to each other, producing some type of fabric or cloth. The warp is the yarn attached to the loom, and the weft is the yarn woven through the alternating warp yarns to create a pattern.


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    Scotland Wool Sheep Tartans

    Scotland is known for its green grassy lands with roaming sheep (10.36) grazing. It is also known to be bitter cold and their solution was to weave a heavy tartan wool cloth for clothing and blankets. The plentiful sheep provided the wool (10.37) for spinning (10.38) and dyeing into multiple colors. Tartans were woven from six to eight colors forming a unique plaid pattern (10.39) created by local weavers who designed the special patterns for a family or small town. These distinct designs are traditionally passed down for centuries.

    14.27 Sheep
    Before and after cleaning
    14.28 Before and after cleaning
    Combing and spinning
    14.29 Combing and spinning
    14.30 Tartan


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    Ghana Cotton Plant Kente

    Ghana is located on the west coast of Africa, almost on the equator, a climate suitable to grow cotton, the material used in kente cloth. Using strip hand looms the brightly colored strips (10.40) of cotton are woven into patterns of geometric designs. Each design has a story the weaver artistically designs into the pattern and every color has a meaning that is part of the design and story of the fabric. Originally the patterned fabric was reserved for royalty, today kente cloth (10.41) is the traditional garment of Ghana.

    Kente cloth
    14.31 Kente cloth
    Kente cloth variations
    14.32 Kente cloth variations


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    Mali Cotton Plant Bogolan

    Bogolan is Malian cotton fabric dyed with mud. The cotton is woven in narrow strips (10.42), sewn together and dyed in a bath of mashed leaves to turn it yellow. When it is dry, the artist has to visualize the pattern and fill in with mud around the planned images or concepts, pressing the mud into the cloth to totally penetrate the fabric (10.43). Sometimes multiple coats of mud are used to achieve the proper color and look before the material is stored in jars to ferment for a year. They create elaborate patterns (10.44) that have been designed over the years, originally used in rituals or as status, today a traditional fabric for clothing.

    Weaving cotton
    14.33 Weaving cotton
    Cloth drying
    14.34 Cloth drying
    Bogolan cloth
    14.35 Bogolan cloth


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    China Silk Worm Silk

    Silk weaving in China is a centuries old process and has been an economic staple of China and a desired fabric for trade along the Silk Road. Silk is derived from worms that feast on mulberry leaves and then spin a silk cocoon (10.45). The silk cocoon is boiled (10.46) to kill the worm and the cocoon unwound into thin strands. The strand is combined with other threads of silk (10.47) to make it stronger and are ready to be dyed in any color. Once the silk is dyed, it is woven into elegant fabric. Silk has a shimmer to the surface of the cloth because the structure of the fiber is a triangular prism that catches the reflecting light, causing a shimmer (10.48). Silk weaving is one of China’s greatest inventions and has been around for over 4,000 years.

    Worm and cocoon
    14.36 Worm and cocoon
    Boiling silk
    14.37 Boiling silk
    Silk thread
    14.38 Silk thread
    Silk fabric
    14.39 Silk fabric


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    Japan Cotton Plant Kasuri

    Kasuri (10.49) is a Japanese fabric dyed with specific patterns, usually geometric in design. The formal name for the pattern is ikat, a technique to make the pattern look blurred and is achieved during the weaving process. The pattern may only be dyed on the weft threads and when the other thread is added during the weaving process, it creates the blurred pattern (10.50). Kasuri is a traditional folk-art process starting in the middle of the 18th century and refined over the last century. Although the technique did not originate in Japan, it became a popular and traditional fabric (10.51).

    14.40 Kasuri
    Kasuri pattern
    14.41 Kasuri pattern
    Weaving Kasuri
    14.42 Weaving Kasuri

    New Guinea

    Country Fiber Origin Type
    New Guinea Tapa Tree Tapa

    New Guinea, a large island located in the South Pacific, is the second-largest island after Greenland. Indigenous people have lived in the area for more than 40,000 years and some traditions, including making tapa cloth, continue today. Tapa cloth is a unique New Guinea product made from bark (10.52). The bark is removed from the mulberry tree, and the outer bark is stripped off leaving a white sheet (10.53) that is soaked in water and dried in the sun. The bark is beaten with wooden mallets called “ike” (10.54) until it is thin and then several layers are combined and beaten again into a large sheet. The final step in the process is to paint the large sheets with island designs. (10.55).

    Stripping bark
    14.43 Stripping bark
    Beating bark
    14.44 Beating bark
    Rubbing patterns
    14.45 Rubbing patterns
    Tapa cloth
    14.46 Tapa cloth


    Country Fiber Origin Type
    Peru Wool Alpaca Ponchos

    High up in the Andes Mountains, the Peruvian people domesticated the alpaca (10.56) and used the wool to weave their outstanding blankets, ponchos, and hats. The wool is collected, carded and spun into yarn for weaving. Alpaca fleece is a silky, long and lustrous fiber and when woven, can be flame-resistant. Weaving is not about just the final utilitarian product but is deeply ingrained in the culture and society of the people. They use rich colors to dye the wool and weave with the bold colors to create brightly colored clothing. The Aguayo (10.57) is the most common item of clothing, a long rectangular cloth used to carry any item or a small child on their back.

    14.47 Llamas
    14.48 Aguayo

    United States

    Country Fiber Origin Type
    United States Wool Sheep Blankets

    The Navajo people have occupied the Southwestern United States for thousands of years creating their own style of weaving designs. They raise dibe (sheep) in the arid land (10.58) and harvest their wool as well as growing cotton. The Navajo use an upright loom (10.59) to weave the fibers from cotton and wool. The textiles have strong geometric designs and the complex designs (10.60) were usually created in the maker’s head as she let her strings and spirit guide the design. Originally, the blankets and rugs were utilitarian and could be found in most Navajo homes or were traded with nearby tribes, today they are highly regarded and bring a high price at market.

    14.49 Dibe (sheep)
    Weaving rugs
    14.50 Weaving rugs
    Navajo pattern
    14.51 Navajo pattern
    • Was this article helpful?