Traveling by Cloth: Beautiful Textiles From Around the World

From Japan's kimonos to Scottish tartan and from Uzbekistan suzani to Gandhi's push for Indian khadi, the culture of the world is woven—quite literally—into local fabrics.

Throughout human history one look at a man’s clothing could tell you more than his words: his social standing, wealth, class, military rank and more. Historically cloth was unique to its region and country, tying in—sometimes literally—elements of the land and the people that live there. 

Even today in a globalized society that can swing you from New York to China on a 14-hour flight, whole groups of people have secrets hidden in patterns, dyes and fabrics that are waiting to be explored. These are a few of the most fascinating:

Tartan plaid
(©Gitta Zahn/Flickr, Creative Commons)


Scotland's iconic fabric, tartan, is a print of repeating equidistant stripes and lines used to identify different Scottish families on the battlefield for centuries. The English crushed a Scottish rebel led by Highlanders in the 18th century and banned the patriotic prints—the Dress Act of 1746 after the infamous Battle of Culloden. In 1782, the Dress Act was repealed but Highlanders were still loath to wear the garb until 1822 when King George IV visited Edinburgh, wearing a kilt of his own. The royal visit instilled the tartan to its former glory as the unifying fabric of Scotland.

“What makes tartan is certain color arrangements,” said Patrice George, associate professor at Fashion Institute of Technology. “The stripes are the same vertical and horizontal. It’s also going to be symmetrical tartan if it’s from Scotland, and it would be wool.”

George said that although tartan originally meant to distinguish Scottish clans and family, just about anyone can have a tartan pattern. The Scottish government keeps a record of all recognized, unique tartans. Anyone who registers a unique tartan pattern can have his or her own tartan pattern. There's even a tool on the website to help you create one.

Where to Shop: In Edinburgh, Kinlock Anderson is one of the oldest tartan shops in the city, starting out on George Street more than 100 years ago and now in a retail shop—and museum—location on Dock Street. Kinlock Anderson also services locations in London and New York City, by appointment. For tartan fashion and home goods in Northern Scotland, visit Anta in Ross-shire. While shopping for authentic tartans, be wary of silk tartans that are almost exclusively produced in Hong Kong with varying degrees of quality. You can also find tartan products at the Scottish Tartans Museum located, somewhat surprisingly, in the small Southern mountain town of Franklin, North Carolina.

Kimono-wearing women
(©AR!/Flickr, Creative Commons)


Back to the Edo period of Japanese history, between the late 17th and late 19th century, the kimono was a way to express creativity and fashion sense.

After being treated as only a formal garment in much of the 20th century, the kimono is enjoying a renaissance in women's fashion as young people reach for yukatas, or "summer kimonos," in addition to the traditional kimonos worn at important ceremonies.

“Vintage kimonos are now very popular in the West with what I call hobbyists,” said Dana Lewis of YokoDana Kimono. “There are the kids that like anime and Comic-Con in New York City, for example. The youth culture is very interested and they're not as tied to traditional rules of wearing kimonos.”

The highest, most opulent level of kimonos is "uchikake." Lewis said these are museum-quality bridal, or ceremonial, robes that sell for upward of $10,000 new in Japan. Many brides actually rent these brocade, hand-stitched gowns from merchants for only the most special occasions. “Obi,” the small backpack-looking cloth bundle seen at the back of women's formal kimonos is actually a large piece of fabric—usually nine to 10 feet long—that’s tied around the woman in a ceremonial knot with strict guide lines on how to wear the obi.

"Furisode" is the next level of vintage kimonos. These are the hand-painted kimonos with long sleeves and range in price. The “yukata” kimonos are the next level of kimono and are associated with summer and daily wear. There are modern yukata and there are beautiful vintage yukata as well.

“Be very careful when buying ceremonial kimonos because there are places that are selling them for extremely unfair prices,” said Lewis. “There are a few high-end antique dealers who offer them. That would be a good place for those that want to spend thousands of dollars.”

“Haori” is another level of kimono, sold in separate pieces that can be mixed with other pieces or more Western wear like slacks.

“You can go all the way from wear-around-the-house to traditional where you have to learn certain rules,” said Lewis. “It’s a hot topic right now and only getting hotter. We keep thinking that the fans are going to fade but interest keeps growing.”

Where to Buy: Lewis recommends Ichiroya for authentic, online kimono purchases.

Ikat, Cambodia
(©PRO2008+/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Cambodian Ikats

The Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles, or IKTT, was founded in 1996 by a Japanese textile expert who rode through war-torn Cambodia on a motorcycle. Kikuo Morimoto asked from village to village if there were still silk worms and traditional weaving practices, gathered artisans who still knew the craft and began revival work on the opulent fabrics.

Sericulture—the business of raising silkworms and manufacturing silk—was a driving force in Cambodia’s economy with some of the best silk produced within the country until the 1970s civil war that put a halt to raising silk worms and weaving. UNESCO gave Marimoto a grant in the mid 1990s to document the decline of sericulture; later he set up the IKTT village Project Wisdom From the Forest; it's an hour outside of Angkor Thom.

A traditional Cambodian ikat is made of silk and worn by women as a long skirt called "Sampot Hol." Men wear ikats as an ensemble called "Sampot Hol Kaban." The cloth is dyed with natural materials like the lac insect for red dyes, prohut tree bark for rich yellow and green hues and indigo for deep blue tones.

Where to Shop: The IKTT boutique in Siem Reap is stocked exclusively with products made at the IKTT village. 

Turkish rugs on display in Turkey
(©garycycles7/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Turkish and Persian Rugs

The production of quality Turkish and Persian rugs came to a heyday between 1800 and 1910 during what collectors and experts call the “Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving.” Rugs created in this period—and predating this period—were created with natural dyes from plants, and some of the most opulent Persian rugs even used gold and silver threads. Rugs produced after 1910, following the introduction of chemical dyes, lack some of the luster and luxurious colors of the rugs created before then. 

“Almost all rugs from [The Second Golden Age of Persian Weaving] are with royal families or in a private collection," said Gary Tobin, spokesperson for Claremont Rugs. "There are some available from that period that usually don’t reach the market.”

Despite the Turkish moniker, the rugs were historically created in not only Turkey, but also in Iran—modern-day Persia—and other surrounding areas.

“Most of the rugs are influenced by what the weavers see around them,” said Omri Schwartz, gallery manger of Nazmiyal Collection. “The 19th century is called the revival. The 17th century was when a lot of the original production was occurring. [In the 19th century] they were copying the 17th century rugs that they saw so there are a lot of floral and garden designs.”

Turkish rugs, Schwartz said, are heavily tied to their origin locations. Oushak rugs are Turkish rugs from Oushak, Turkey, for example.

“Persian rugs are going to be finer rugs depending on the region," said Schwartz. "City-made rugs are finer rugs. Tribal rugs are going to be coarser with less symmetry. The patterns are going to be more jagged and the rugs are usually going to be smaller in size.”

The fineness of a rug is typically measured in knots per square inch, or KPSI. Schwartz said that while KPSI can be one way to measure value, the evaluation process is ultimately subjective. Wool and silk make up the bulk of antique and modern Turkish and Persian rugs with colors and weaves influencing quality. Both types of rugs have motifs influenced by origin.

Where to Shop: Although Schwartz said that many high-quality rugs usually end up far from their origins, there are still lovely rugs to be had at shops the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul like the store Hakan Evin, owned by a third-generation rug salesman. While many Persian rugs come with a heftier price tag than many travelers are willing buy, window shopping doesn’t hurt. The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., has a wide collection of oriental rugs. The Ardabil Carpet, one of the oldest rugs in the world, is displayed on the floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.

Navajo rug weaving
The Navajo believe that Spider Woman taught them to weave and craftsmen weaved blankets with the intricate patterns until the 1900s. (©Marshall Segal/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Navajo Rugs and Blankets

Navajo weaving is said to have begun hundreds of years ago when the Navajo tribe took lessons from Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and Arizona. Dr. Mark Sublette, president of Medicine Man Gallery, located in Tucson and Santa Fe, said that the Navajo credit Spider Woman, one of the deities, in teaching them to weave. The angular, almost spidery patterns of authentic Navajo weaving certainly lend to the myth. 

When early settlers came to the U.S. and found Native American tribes throughout the Southwest, the Navajo were noted then for weaving blankets, but by the early 1900s, the Navajo had started creating rugs in favor of blankets to trade with the incoming settlers.

"Rugs were made for sale, though saddle blankets were made for self use and are still made by a few weavers," said Sublette. "All Navajo rugs are made of wool. Until the last 50 years, the wool was obtained from sheep that they raised, sheered and spun. Today, only about 15 percent of the wool is handspun. Most wool is now bought from the trading posts or commercial outlets."

Patterns in the rug range geographically around the major trading posts of the Southwest: The Burntwater rugs generally have diamond patterns with deep browns and burnt orange hues while Ganado rugs are slashed with vivid reds against nearly-matte black hues and crisp white accents. Other well-known patterns include Klagetoh, Red Mesa, Crystal and Wide Ruins.

Where to Shop: Sublette said that ATADA, The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, is a good place to start. For collectors, he added that a "nice example of a 1900-1930 Navajo rug" might cost $1,500 and an authentic, early blanket could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Reputable antique galleries are also a source of high-quality, authentic blankets and rugs. Crown Point Rug Auction, in Thoreau, New Mexico, offers the chance to purchase contemporary rugs directly from Navajo weavers with a monthly auction. 

Suzani, Uzbekistan
(©Maryjo/Flickr, Creative Commons)


For the authentic suzani fabric, head to Uzbekistan; it's a local style that dates back hundreds of years. After the end of the Soviet Era in the 20th century, the embroidery became ultra popular with Westerners visiting Nurata, Burkhara and other Uzbekistan cities. The floral motif that suzani is known for was originally produced as a respite from the dry climate with rugs and embroidery decorating outdoor gardens and homes. Though suzani comes from Uzbekistan, today there are groups of craftsmen and women who are producing the fabric in neighboring Tajikistan and other areas. 

Where to Shop: Online retail agents who work with craftsmen are one of the best ways to find high-quality, ethically sourced suzani embroidery. Sites like Uzbek-Craft and Ozara work with locals who craft the home goods.

Kente cloth weaving
(©Rachel Strohm/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Kente Cloth

The folk fable passed down with kente cloth says that, in the 18th century, two Ashanti men—in Ghana—were hunting when they met a spider that was weaving a web. Inspired by the beauty of the web, they went home and produced the first kente cloth and presented it to their king. The king asked that the black and white fabric be woven out of colorful silk.

“We offer kente tours [and] give the history of kente cloth,” said Eric Boakye Yiadom, administrator of the Andawomase Kente Centre. "We take visitors systematically through all of the kente-making process and allow visitors to try their hands on the weaving process—including spinning, warping, setting up the loom and the actual kente weaving." At the end of the kente tour, visitors even don the kente cloth, dressing as a typical Ghanaian.

Where to Shop: Cloth straight from the loom is for sale at the visitor center in Andawomase, Ghana, with instructions on typical wear and styling. Closer to the coast, travelers can visit the Aid to Artisans Ghana, a nonprofit organization that sells Ghanaian crafts.


Indian Khadi fabric loom
(©Austin Yoder/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Indian Khadi

To understand khadi, it's important to start with a glimpse of Mahatma Gandhi and the British Indian occupation of the 19th and 20th centuries. Gandhi, born in Indian in the late 19th century during British empirical rule, saw India taken over by a lack of available work and an adoption of British fashion. Simply, the British ruled Indian and Indian citizens took to British fashions, abandoning hundreds of years' worth of their own textile production. That mean less work for Indians who had depended on textile production for their livelihood.

Gandhi, the pacifist founder and leader of the Natal Indian Congress, wore khadi fabric and promoted the weaving practices himself; you might call it an early "buy local" movement. Iconic images of Gandhi include his rail-thin frame wrapped in khadi fabric, perched over a 15- or 6-point khadi loom—called a charkha—spinning cotton for khadi. He turned the fabric into a national symbol of India.

"It thus became a material to which people from diverse backgrounds could relate to," said Ektaa Jain in his doctoral research paper for the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "To put it simply, 'khadi was the material embodiment of an ideal' that represented freedom from colonialism on the one hand and a feeling of self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency on the other. It embodied the national integrity of all as well as acted as a marker for communal harmony and spiritual humility."

Gandhi united the country by encouraging the production of khadi in local villages and cities. The fabric is cool in the summer, warm in the winter and—more importantly—helped start to pull much of India out of poverty due to Gandhi's urgings.

Where to Shop: Locally made fabric at Mother Earth in Kolkata, India, and The Bombay Store—with several locations throughout India—is sourced straight from the artisans. Khadi is traditionally made from cotton, silk or wool and usually is worn as a long shirt or dress.

Kantha quilt
(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Kantha Quilt

Quilts made of kantha, Sanskrit for "rags," are double-sided throw blankets or quilts created by poor women of Bangladesh to cover their families and friends. The first record of kantha quilts dates back 500 years ago with the complex quilts taking years to weave, sometimes requiring several generations of women to complete the quilt's stitched story.

“[Kantha quilts are] everywhere now but it was really just poor people who made them and now they’ve been made into a viable consumer products,” said George. “They’re pretty and simple and ways for women to earn a living.”

Where to Shop: There are responsible, ethical vendors that offer kantha quilts and bedding online like Dignify, but if you’re in Bangladesh head for the capital, Dhaka. The Dhaka New Market (Mirpur Road, Dhaka 1205, Bangladesh) offers handicrafts and clothing in addition to stalls with hundreds of other items. Head to Aarong—a boutique with more than half a dozen locations around the city—if you want to skip the crowds and find ethically-sourced kantha embroidery and clothing.

Irish linen
(©Tomislav Medak/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Irish Linen

Linen has a long history in Ireland, dating back hundreds of years in daily use as military uniforms and in more luxury wares like tablecloths and other home goods.

Linen home goods are still widely used, embellished with traditional Celtic symbols and knots. Belfast—still rebuilding after of years of conflict—was one of the main production points during the peak period of Irish linen, but today these luxury goods can be had in Dublin, Ireland, and from reputable dealers across Europe.

Where to Shop: With locations across Ireland, Kilkenny Shop is well regarded as one of the biggest linen sellers in the country. Fergusons Irish Linen is based in Northern Ireland and stocks high-quality products; visitors can also tour their Irish linen factory.

Lopi Sweater, Iceland

Lopapeysa Sweaters

Lopapeysa is associated with the national identity of Iceland. Icelandic youngsters and elderly wear the sweaters during national pride events and, for some, as part of daily attire. The Lopi pattern took off in the 1950s in knitting circles and among friends. As the pattern became more sought-after, Icelandic people adopted the ringed pattern as part of the national identity.

The sweater is typically produced in neutral tones associated with sheep's wool, and is tied back to the agricultural and agrarian community in Iceland. The fiber is thick and traps heat well. While the main colors are gray, white, black and brown, there are other colors of lopi wool that are used for more expensive pieces. Lopi wool is also used in hand-made cardigans, tea cozies and other items around the country. 

Where to Shop: Stop in at one of the three Handknitting Association of Iceland stores for a hyper-local experience. Lopapeysa sweaters, lopi blankets, cardigans—all made in Iceland—and more are crowded and stacked on shelves for browsing.

Paisley pattern
Paisley appears on cotton, silk and other fabrics due to its worldwide popularity, but authentic paisley is printed on Kashmir or silk. (©190.arch/Flickr, Creative Commons)


“The paisley shape symbolized the tree of life and originated in Ancient Babylon, in present day Iraq,” said Patrick Moriarty of Paisley Power. “People describe the shape as a teardrop but this is rather misleading as the paisley form is most definitely connected with natural growth. It can imply birth, life, harvest and fertility.”

Moriarty said that high-quality paisley should be one woven piece and not several pieces stitched together, and noted that the value of a shawl increases with the number of colors used to weave the material. Many modern paisleys are digitally produced and then printed on high-quality silk and hand-rolled while antique fabrics were hand woven.

“Some designers are digitally printing their silk paisley fabrics … then hand-rolling the edges to justify the relatively high prices,” said Moriarty. “There is, however, a huge diversity in quality of digital prints. Ask where a digitally printed textile was produced; some of the best printers are located in the Lake Como region of Northern Italy.”

Where to ShopLiberty of London opened its first store on Regent Street in 1875 and “they still continue to follow their original intention of providing good taste at modest cost,” added Moriarty. Etro, in Milan, is a more high-brow dealer of modern paisleys with seasonal offerings that are inventive and luxurious.