The history and teaching of traditional textiles across the globe is colourful and exciting.
From every corner of the globe, there are wonderful tales of how unique textiles once came to be from different cultures, and how they are still magnificently used today.
From the depths of Mexico and South America to pebbled sidewalks along Eastern Europe and Asia, traditional textiles give meaning to the people of these cultures and continue to teach us many lessons today around sustainability and the importance of the circular economy.
The way that sustainability is used throughout these textiles is incredibly interesting (and of course, important!)
Let’s take a trip around the world together and learn more about the way in which traditional textiles are used in different parts of the globe to promote sustainability.
What are traditional textiles?
Traditional textiles can come in many different forms.
Whether a region is well-known for wall hangings, hand-woven rugs, a certain way of knitting or distributing high volumes of fabrics, it is impossible to narrow traditional textiles down to just one type of material or garment.
The most common characteristic that all traditional textiles carry, is that they have been made using traditional techniques – usually from ancient times.
They hold a very significant cultural value and have possibly been used in rituals or ceremonies.
Traditional textiles around the world
Let’s take a look at how these cultures from around the world use traditional textiles to promote sustainability.
Walk the streets of Central and South Mexico and you’ll be swept off your feet by handwoven traditional rugs, knitted scarves and gorgeous traditional Mexican huipiles or tops.
The textiles in this region of the world date back to more than 2,000 years ago and some of the earliest that were prominent for artisans used materials like cotton, palm, willow and maguey plants in their day-to-day creations.
Sustainability has always been part of the way Mexico creates its traditional clothing. An example of this is the traditional huipil or boxy top, which is made using a zero-waste construction. The top is crafted from a single rectangular piece of cloth, traditionally woven on the backstrap loom, meaning the width of the cloth is the same width as the hips of the person who wove it and will most likely wear it. No cloth is wasted to create this iconic garment!
Ireland is very rich in textile history with no shortage of using a wide range of different materials, especially wool and linen.
Jumper making was a prime favourite for the Irish – a tradition that survives to these days in places like the Aran Islands. Woven tweed is another one of Ireland’s old textile traditions and we have to thank the highly-skilled weavers in county Donegal for keeping the world-renowned Donegal tweed alive.
In Derry and Belfast, sustainability was kept front of mind when it came to everyday textiles, and employees in linen shirt-making factories in the 18th century would regularly use leftover fabric scraps to make patchwork quilts.
Sashiko is one of the most prominent traditional textiles from this region of the world, and has been recognised as the traditional Japanese embroidery style. This textile focuses on blending different fabrics together, and proudly works to mend or cover the rips or tears of a garment. As a result, during a time when sustainability in fashion is more important than ever, sashiko is still hitting the mark today. Whether you’re hoping to fill in some holes in jeans, or a few stains on a pillow, sashiko works perfectly for mending fabric.
The Japanese philosophy of Mottanai is the perfect motto when it comes to sashiko, meaning to “not having to waste anything”.
African textiles date all the way back to 5,000BC, during times when flax was being cultivated and turned into linen by Ancient Egyptians.
One of the most popular traditional textiles from West Africa is the Kente cloth, and you can still find this material being worn by people in tribes through Ghana to this day.
Traditionally made from cotton and silk, all colours in the Kente cloth have their own unique symbolic meaning.
Possibly one of the most conscious regions in the world when it comes to using recycled textiles and clothes, India has believed for centuries that all garments, no matter how old, deserve life.
Hand me downs are still a big part of the Indian culture, and saree and kurtas are very often moved through generations, all the way down to new born babies.
Rugs are often made with leftover scraps of cotton and embroidery, which is part of the Kashmiri tradition, where a big focus is keeping old clothes and upcycling them into something that can be used in the future.
If we can be conscious like traditional cultures have been, we can begin to change the way clothes are made today.
Although there has been a big shift in the 21st century across the globe to focus on sustainability, there’s still a lot more to be learnt.
Understanding the way these ancient cultures still use sustainability in their textiles can help us to change the way we think about clothes, and hopefully – start to be part of a more sustainable future.
I also made a blog on what exactly the circular economy actually is which details how this paradigm shift works and how we can all play our part in it.
Go ahead and take a read – there’s some super juicy sustainability takeaways whether you’re a seasoned upcycler or more of a beginner!
I hope you enjoy!