Local fabrics are a way to both engage in the past and the present of a place new to you. These 10 textiles are rich in color and history; seek them out when you're on the road.
The textile: Endek
Where to find it: Bali
Once only worn by high-caste families, Endek (a variation of ikat) is now more widely
available, but is still produced on hand looms from dyed cotton, rayon, or silk—and it’s still most often worn as formal or celebratory clothing to, say, weddings and state events. Look for woven (not printed) cloth, which indicates that it was hand-made on a loom. Prices can vary significantly depending on the intricacy of the design, with more complex patterns often being four times the cost of simple ones. You can find the fabric at markets and retail/wholesale stores, including Balitex, near Denpasar. Wear it as a sarong, style it into a turban, or simply wear as a shawl in the summer.
The textile: Kente Where to find it: Ghana
Kente cloth has been woven by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana for about 400 years, most commonly from a mix of cotton and silk. The colors on each piece of cloth have specific meanings: For example, green indicates plants and growth, while blue represents peace and harmony. The colors and patterns (more than 300 have been documented) together become their own messages, such as “You must practice patience in everything that you do,” or “Something that has not happened before.” Kente is often found at markets in Accra and elsewhere, and has been used by designers (both in Africa and beyond) in jackets, shirts, dresses, pants, or bags. Solange Knowles and model Chanel Iman have been spotted wearing the fabric cut into modern styles.
The textile: Yuzen silk Where to find it: Japan
The Yuzen method of painting on silk is defined by its technique: To create the textile, rice paste must be used, and the fabric must be painted by hand. Traditionally, each step of the process is done by an expert in that craft, so it’s not inexpensive—in fact, if you want to find a piece of Yuzen, be sure to look for an artisan who specializes in this technique; knockoffs are legion. It's typically reserved for kimonos—the T-shaped silk robe that is always fastened left-to-right and secured with a belt or sash called an Obi. Today, kimonos are worn both formally and informally, with versions created by Western designers Ann Demeulemeester, Donna Karan, and The Row.
The textile: Kitenge Where to find it: Kenya and East Africa
This vibrant cotton fabric is often referred to as a "communicating textile": It’s a significant part of the visual culture in East Africa and there are thousands of designs, with new ones created for national holidays and other events. The fabric is inexpensive and can be used in a number of ways—as a sarong, dresses, a baby carrier, and anything else you can think of. You can find it in market stalls in major cities in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and you’ll find an even greater diversity in larger cities' fabric-specific markets. Ask around to find a good seamstress and you can both pick out your fabric and have a bespoke dress made—a popular option for fashion-savvy visitors to the region.
The textile: Mapuche cloth
Where to find it: Chile and Argentina
Textiles were so revered by the Mapuche, the indigenous people of southern and central Chile and southwestern Argentina, that if a young woman was known to be a good weaver, the dowry from her husband was expected to be commensurately higher. Women are the only weavers, and the knowledge to create the cloth was passed down from mother to daughter. The textiles were originally woven from alpaca and llama hair, and today are commonly made from sheep’s wool or a mixture of the three; the fabric is therefore warm and durable, most often seen in ponchos, blankets, and belts. It is still worn by the rural Mapuche people and not easy to find outside the Andes, but can sometimes be found for sale at markets. The best place to buy is via one of the several nonprofit organizations like Fundacion Chul-Chul, which works directly with the Mapuche weavers and ensures the continuation of the craft.
The textile: The textile: Marash embroidered cloth
Where to find it: Armenia
Though it's commonplace these days, embroidery was mostly worn or commissioned as art by nobility in Eastern and Western Europe for centuries. But in Armenia, lacework was practiced by all classes. Located in southeast Turkey (but once considered a part of Armenia), Marash is a region known for its extremely intricate embroidery. Its particular style includes both recognizable patterns from Armenian culture, like knots and crosses, and very specific motifs, like “flower of the seven mountains.” Marash embroidery was used for household items and was found in dowries, but was always an exported product too, and it’s still an art form today. Travelers can find it in shops that sell housewares (usually as tablecloths, bedspreads, and pillowcases) and often through churches or other charitable organizations in the country—you might have to ask the locals where to find the best local examples of this beautiful handcraft.
The textile: Sherma
Where to find it: Tibet
Making sherma is an intricate process: First, sheep and yak wool is collected from grazing grounds in the high Himalayas; then, the wool is hand-spun, dyed with natural plant dyes, and handwoven by the women who belong to the shepherding communities where this fabric originated. Weavers work on small, portable wooden looms; this results in the thinner panels typically seen in sherma. The strips are then sewn together and often made into aprons called pangden (which can be worn by women to indicate her journey from one village to another after marriage). The fabric is also common in pillow covers and bags for visitors, which can be found at bazaars and markets throughout the country. Test that your sherma is made from wool and not synthetics by burning a corner—it should burn like hair, not melt like plastic.
The textile: Jaspe Where to find it: Mexico
Mayan art depicts ancient people weaving on backstrap looms, which they used to create sturdy cloths of various types and purposes, including for carrying heavy objects. Jaspe weaving is a type of ikat with much variation in color and pattern (it also comes in solid colors) that is valued for its strength and durability. When the Spanish invaded, they brought Catholicism and their own looms for male weavers, though the telar de otate (back-strap looms) were still used by women. The rebozo, a long, rectangular scarf, is a reflection of the mix of those two cultures—when made from jaspe fabric (as has been traditional for the past few hundred years) it is used for carrying babies and other burdensome items, and also for covering the head in church. The jaspe rebozo usually has a distinctive fringe, or punta, that is part of the design (not sewn on) and sometimes intricately knotted; they can be found in almost any store in Mexico that has a selection of handmade textiles and embroidery, and at markets.
The textile: Tartan Where to find it: Scotland
Contrary to popular belief, tartan patterns weren't originally associated with specific families—instead, the colors indicated the regions where the cloth was made. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that some Scottish clans began creating their own tartans. Tartans have been worn in Scottish highlands for centuries, but remain just as popular today thanks to their use by high-end designers (including Burberry, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood). If you're buying your own, look for tartans that are labeled ‘Made in Scotland’ and are woven from wool, cashmere, mohair, or some combination of those yarns—or ask the shopkeeper where the piece you are looking at comes from.
We hope that you found this article both enjoyable and informative!