Textiles Around the World

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What do Turkish rugs, silk scarves from China and knitted Irish sweaters have in common? They're all textiles! In this lesson, we'll explore a few of the many types of textiles made around the world.

An Amazing Variety of Textiles

People around the world make textiles and they've been doing it for centuries. Archaeologists have found examples of woven textiles dating back to prehistoric times. In the most basic sense, a textile is made from combining fibers from sources like plants and animals to make fabric which is then used for items like clothing, blankets, and rugs. In many cultures, textiles play various important roles. Historically, some were reserved for ceremonial purposes while others were reserved for, and worn only by specific classes of people.

Depending on where they live and what's available, people use different materials to make textiles. For example, in Scotland and Ireland, people use wool from hearty breeds of sheep. In Africa and some island nations of Asia, they use tree bark and the dried palm tree leaves to make a textile called raffia. In many parts of the world, people grow cotton and other plants in order to make textiles from their fibers. Now let's look at a few materials and how they're used to make textiles.

Methods Used to Make Textiles

Silk is a luxurious textile that comes from an unusual source -- insects! Silk is spun from silkworm cocoons and raising and harvesting silkworms so that they may produce silk is called sericulture. Interestingly, the best quality silk comes from worms fed with mulberry leaves. Eventually, the cocoons are boiled to so they can loosen and then the fibers get spun into thread. China is famous for fine silks and the process of making silk was invented there around 2700 BC. But why is silk found in other places? Because trade along the fabled Silk Road spread the use of silk through the Middle and Near East, and then Europe. Today, countries worldwide use silk. Here's an example of silk from Malaysia. It's a detail of fabric used for skirt cloth, also known as a sarong, which is a simple item of clothing that wraps around the body. Made in the late 19th century it's a striking fabric with rich patterns woven in silk and gold threads.

Example of silk fabric, a detail from a sarong made in Malaysia

People also make textiles by weaving, which requires a technology called a loom. By crossing vertical and horizontal threads on the loom, threads interlace into a fabric. Many woven items are made from animal fibers or wool. Weaving is one of the oldest ways to make textiles and it's done all over the world. Here's an example of a woven rug from Finland.

Example of a woven rug from Finland

You probably think of sheep when you think of wool, but wool can also come from many other animals, including sheep, goats (mohair and cashmere) and rabbits (angora). Wool can even be made from a fuzzy arctic animal called a musk ox. These creatures, similar to extremely furry cows, are known for rare wool called qiviut, made of the animal's fine under hair. It's very soft and very warm.

Ways to Decorate Textiles

Textiles have practical purposes and thusly, are often worn to keep warm, or to send cultural messages. But they can also be very beautiful. People in cultures around the world decorate textiles in many ways. Let's look at two of them: embroidery and dyeing.

Textiles may be dyed by coloring individual threads or whole pieces of fabrics. A dye is a substance (often in a liquid or paste form) that permanently changes the fabric's color. For centuries, people have used dyes from natural materials. For example, in many Mexican rugs, marigolds were used to make yellow dye and a plant called indigo was used to make blue dyes. Artists dyed the threads with the color and then wove them into the rugs. People also use dye to create patterns on pieces of fabric, sometimes with the help of a resist, which is a substance applied to fabric that prevents the dye from sticking. Dyes and resists may be applied with stencils, stamps, brushes, or by tying knots. Here's an example of newly tie-dyed dresses hanging to dry in Jaipur, India.

Tie-dyed dressing hanging to dry in Jaipur, India

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