Multicultural Cloths

Hmong Story Cloth – The Hmong people are originally from southern China, Burma, and Laos. Because they were nomadic and frequently on the move, their material culture was of necessity light and easily transportable. Traditional Hmong costumes called paj ntaub or “flower cloth” are incredibly complex and beautiful combinations of applique, reverse applique, embroidery, and batik. Traditionally, girls learned these techniques at an early age. Uses of contemporary Hmong flower cloth have expanded beyond the making of traditional costumes to encompass a variety of textile objects. Men now take an active part in the manufacture and sale of these textiles.

Hmong story cloths are banners that use some of the traditional techniques. They are like pictures or paintings made from different types of fabrics that are sewn together. The story cloths describe aspects of Hmong life, including a well-known legend about a woman who fends off the tiger that killed her husband and wants to take his place. Another shows a legendary giant flood that divided the Hmong into families or clans. Other story cloths portray life in a Hmong village, escaping war, entering internment camps or life in America. Many Hmong story cloths made in America today intentionally incorporate written English into their composition in order to teach English as a second language. (Museum of International Folk Art)
Hmong Embroidery – Explanation of Hmong embroidery designs


Kente Cloth – Although Kente, as we know it was developed in the 17th Century A.D. by the Ashanti people, it has its roots in a long tradition of weaving in Africa dating back to about 3000 B.C. The origin of Kente is explained with both a legend and historical accounts. A legend has it that a man named Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku Ameyaw from the town of Bonwire (now the leading Kente weaving center in Ashanti), learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving its web. Taking a cue from the spider, they wove a strip of raffia fabric and later improved upon their skill. They reported their discovery to their chief Nana Bobie, who in turn reported it to the Asantehene (The Ashanti Chief) at that time. The Asantehene adopted it as a royal cloth and encouraged its development as a cloth of prestige reserved for special occasions.

Historical accounts trace the origin of Kente weaving to early weaving traditions in ancient West African Kingdoms that flourished between 300 A.D. and 1600 A.D. Some historians maintain that Kente is an outgrowth of various weaving traditions that existed in West Africa prior to the formation of the Ashanti Kingdom in the 17th Century. Archaeological research has dated examples of narrow-strip cloths woven in West Africa as early as the 11th Century A.D. and perhaps earlier. Some examples of woven fabrics have been found in the caves of the Bandiagara cliffs in Mali. These cloths used in burial ceremonies, probably, during the medieval Ghana, Mali and Soghai Empires, have technical and aesthetic features similar to many of the narrow-strip cloths in many parts of West Africa. Such cloths which the Akans call “Nsaa” are important components of scared royal paraphernalia in most Akan royal courts today and are known to have been traded with articles of prestige by Akan Kings and chiefs early in the 17th Century. Many features of such cloths appear in the early and later narrow-strip cloths woven in Ashanti. Given these historical accounts, it is believed that the Ashanti craftsmen might have learned weaving skills from other peoples living North and West of them and later developed their unique style of cloth.

While Kente Cloth may have its roots in 11th Century West African weaving traditions, weaving in Africa as a whole was developed earlier. Elsewhere in Africa, archaeological excavations have produced such weaving instruments as spindle whores and loom weights in ancient Meroe Empire which flourished between 500 B.C. and 300 A.D. in other African Civilizations in the Nile Valley such as Kemte (Egypt) and Nubia or Kush, there is an abundance of pictorial and archaeological evidence proving the existence of a weaving industry as early as 3200 B.C. (Midwest Trade Group)

Tapa Cloth – Tapa cloth (or simply tapa) is a bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but as far afield as Niue, Cook Islands, Futuna, Solomon Islands, Java, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea (particularly in Oro Province around Tufi) and Hawai’i (where it is called kapa). In French Polynesia it has nearly disappeared, except for some villages in the Marquesas.

The cloth is known by a number of local names although the term tapa is international and understood throughout the islands that use the cloth. The word tapa is from Tahiti and the Cook Islands, where Captain Cook was the first European to collect it and introduce it to the rest of the world. In Tonga, tapa is known as ngatu, and here it is of great social importance to the islanders, often being given as gifts. In Samoa, the same cloth is called siapo, and In Niue it is hiapo. In Hawai’i, it is known as kapa. In Rotuma, a Polynesian island in the Fiji group, it is called ‘uha and in other Fiji islands it is called masi. In the Pitcairn islands it was called ahu.

All these different words give some clue to the origin. Masi could mean the (bark of the) Dye-fig (Ficus tinctoria), endemic to Oceania, and probably the one originally used to make tapa. Somewhere in history, during the voyages of migration the hiapo or siapo was introduced from Southeast Asia, the Paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). The bark of this tree is much better to use, and put the use of the Dye-fig into oblivion. Only its name remained in Fiji. Tapa finally, has the meaning of border or strip. It seems likely that before the gluing process became common to make large sheets (see below) only narrow strips were produced.

Tapa can be painted, decorated by rubbing, stamping, stenciling, smoking (Fiji – “masi Kuvui”) or dyeing. The patterns of Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian tapa usually form a grid of squares, each of which contains geometrical patterns with repeated motifs such as fish and plants, for example four stylized leaves forming a diagonal cross. Traditional dyes are usually black and rust-brown, although other colors are also known.

In former times the cloth was primarily used for clothing, but now cotton and other textiles have replaced it. (Wikipedia)

Bògòlanfini (mud cloth) – is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. It has an important place in traditional Malian culture and has, more recently, become a symbol of Malian cultural identity. The cloth is being exported worldwide for use in fashion, fine art and decoration.

In traditional Malian culture, bògòlanfini is worn by hunters, serving as camouflage, as ritual protection and as a badge of status. Women are wrapped in bògòlanfini after their initiation into adulthood (which includes genital cutting) and immediately after childbirth, as the cloth is believed to have the power to absorb the dangerous forces released under such circumstances.

Bògòlanfini patterns are rich in cultural significance, referring to historical events (such as a famous battle between a Malian warrior and the French), crocodiles (significant in Bambara mythology) or other objects, mythological concepts or proverbs. Since about 1980, Bògòlanfini has become a symbol of Malian cultural identity and is being promoted as such by the Malian government.

In traditional bògòlanfini production, men weave the cloth and women dye it. (Wikipedia, Discovering Mud Cloth – Smithsonian)

Indian Saree

Sari is as old as the civilization of India. Known records date back to at least before Christ. Cotton was grown and woven into fabric in India five thousand years ago.

Sari was worn by women in various draping styles. Men also used to wear cloths similar to sari but it was called different names like “dhoti”, “Lungi” etc.

Saris origins are obscure, in part because there are so few historical records in India. Yet, we know that Indians were wearing unsewn lengths of cloth draped around their bodies long before tailored cloths arrived.

One of the earliest depictions of a Sari-like drape covering the entire body dates back to 100 B.C. A North-Indian Terracotts depicts a woman wearing a Sari wound tightly around her entire body in the trouser style.

This elaborate body-hugging style represented in the terracotta may have evolved among India’s temple dancers in ancient times to allow their limbs freedom of movement while at the same time maintaining their standards of modesty.

There are many sculptures of Graeco-Indian Gandharan civilization which show a variety of different Sari draping styles.

Tailored clothes arrived in India with the arrival of Muslims. Hindus believed that any cloth pierced by needles was impure.

It is commonly believed in India that today’s petticoat or “Ghagra” and the blouse or “Choli” which are worn under the Sari are later additions which started with the coming of British in India. Increasing number of upper class women in the early 20th century did adopt items of European style clothing as the fitted blouse and slim petticoat. This was also adopted due to the fashion of transparent chiffon Saris during that particular period. Some of the wives of Indian Kings draped themselves in Saris that were made by Parisian designers.

The concept of beauty in ancient India was that of small waist and large bust and hips, as is evident in the sculptures of those times. And Sari seemed to be the perfect dress to flaunt those proportions as it exposes the waist of a woman and emphasizes the waist and bust with the pleated fabric. Sometimes women wore accessories like Girdle (a belt) with elaborate design around their waist to emphasize the hip area. (Puja)

Mexican Embroidery – Mexican textiles have existed for more than 7000 years, but now in many villages’ traditional embroidered blouses, back strap woven huipiles, loomed quechquemitls and belts are worn only by the grandmothers. Mexico’s indigenous textile culture is in danger of extinction. The embroidered designs on blouses and huipiles are particular to specific towns and ethnic groups. The textiles identifies the groups and villages that various textiles come from, sometimes it is ribbons or the way they comb their hair. The 7000 years old time line ends with these grandmothers.

These wonderful colorful textiles link the indigenous peoples with culture and cosmovison of their native culture. As grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters sit with other family members to make the garments they discuss style, techniques but something else more important, behaviors, customs of marriage, child birth, the herbs used for healing, how to make a tamales etc. (Mexican Textiles)

Embroidery of India – Embroidery of India includes dozens of regional embroidery styles varying by region. Designs in Indian embroidery are formed on the basis of the texture and design of the fabric and the stitch. The dot and the alternate dot, the circle, the square, the triangle and permutations and combinations of these make up the design.

The most ornate and tedious form of Indian embroidery is the Zardosi workmanship. This form uses metal thread instead of the usual silk or rayon. The fabric, usually silk or velvet, is marked with the pattern and then the craftsman covers the pattern with metal thread embellishing it with stones or beads. Many rich women from the late 16th century had many dresses that had embroidery in them.

Another form of embroidery from India is the Ari work. This work is done by stretching the fabric on a frame and creating the stitches from a long a needle. The needle also carries sequins, beads, and other embellishments to decorate the pattern. (Wikipedia)

Amate – Amate is a form of paper that has been manufactured in Mexico since the pre Hispanic times. Amate paper was extensively produced and used for communication, records and ritual during the Aztec Empire; however, after the Spanish conquest, its production was mostly banned and replaced by European paper. Amate paper production never completely died, nor did the rituals associated with it. It remained strongest in the rugged mostly inaccessible mountain areas of northern Puebla and northern Veracruz states, with the small village of San Pablito in Puebla noted its shamans’ production of paper with “magical” properties. This ritual paper use drew the attention of foreign academics in the mid 20th century, which alerted the Otomi people of the area of the commercial possibility of the paper. They began to sell it in cities such as Mexico City, where the paper was adopted by Nahua painters from Guerrero to create “new” indigenous craft, which was then promoted by the Mexican government.

Through this and other innovations, amate paper is one of the most widely available Mexican indigenous handicrafts, sold both nationally and abroad. Most attention is on the Nahua paintings of the paper, which is also called “amate” but Otomi paper makers have also received attention not only for the paper itself but for crafts made with it such as elaborate cut outs. (Wikipedia)

Native American Weaving – The best-known native textile art in North America is the weaving of Navajo Indian blankets and rugs. These impressive (and expensive) rugs are still made in a style that was traditional in Mexico and the southwest United States long before the arrival of Europeans: kneeling before a vertical wooden-frame loom and using a shuttle to weave colored threads together into large-scale geometric designs. Originally Navajo and other Southwest Indian blankets were made of hand-spun cotton thread, but after the Spanish brought domestic sheep to the region the people primarily switched to wool.

Though Navajo rugs are the most famous weavings in North America, they are certainly not the only one. Finger-weaving has been important throughout the continent since ancient times, and finger-woven blankets, tapestries, and clothing are still made in many tribes. The chilkat blankets of Tlingit people are one of the finest examples of finger-woven Indian blankets. Seminole sashes and patchwork are another important Indian textile art. A more recent tradition is star quilts or blankets, which originated among the Sioux tribes (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda/Assiniboine) and spread throughout the Great Plains. Quilting was one of many crafting techniques that Native Americans borrowed from European traditions and adapted into something unique to their culture.

Star quilts are made by piecing a mosaic of cloth diamonds into the shape of the traditional eight-pointed morning star design of the Sioux. Before the evolution of star quilts, traditional Plains Indian blankets were made from painted, quilled and beaded buffalo hide. When the buffalo herds were exterminated this craft largely died out, but some Plains tribe artists still make buffalo robes and blankets today from the hides of animals raised in captivity. (Native Languages)

Native American Burlap Weaving Lesson Plan

Discuss and show examples of Native American craft art, basketry, rugs, clothes. Emphasize that these crafts were decorative as well as utilitarian, made for everyday use and also for ceremonial use. Discuss the use of symmetrical designs in Native American art.

Batik is a cloth that traditionally uses a manual wax-resist dyeing technique. Batik or fabrics with the traditional batik patterns are found in (particularly) Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, China, Azerbaijan, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, and Singapore.

Javanese traditional batik, especially from Yogyakarta and Surakarta, has notable meanings rooted to the Javanese conceptualization of the universe. Traditional colors include indigo, dark brown, and white, which represent the three major Hindu Gods (Brahmā, Visnu, and Śiva). This is related to the fact that natural dyes are most commonly available in indigo and brown. Certain patterns can only be worn by nobility; traditionally, wider stripes or wavy lines of greater width indicated higher rank. Consequently, during Javanese ceremonies, one could determine the royal lineage of a person by the cloth he or she was wearing.

Other regions of Indonesia have their own unique patterns that normally take themes from everyday lives, incorporating patterns such as flowers, nature, animals, folklore or people. The colors of pesisir batik, from the coastal cities of northern Java, are especially vibrant, and it absorbs influence from the Javanese, Arab, Chinese and Dutch cultures. (Wikipedia)

African-American Quilt

Secret messages in the form of quilt patterns aided slaves escaping the bonds of captivity in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War.

Slaves could not read or write; it was illegal to teach a slave to do so. Codes, therefore, were part and parcel of the slaves’ existence and their route to freedom, which eventually became known as the Underground Railroad. Some forms of dance, spirituals, code words and phrases, and memorized symbols all allowed the slaves to communicate with each other on a level their white owners could not interpret. Codes were created by both whites aiding the slaves, and by Blacks aiding the slaves. The Blacks included other slaves, former slaves or free men and women. In slavery, secrecy was one way the blacks could protect themselves from the whites; even the youngest child was taught to effectively keep a secret from anyone outside of the family.

Most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions the slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans’ method of recording their history and stories was by committing it to memory and passing it on orally to following generations. Quilt patterns were passed down the same way. It is interesting to note that, in Africa, the making of textiles was done by males; it was not until the slaves’ arrival in North America that this task fell to the females.

The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. Each pattern represented a different meaning. Some of the most common were “Monkey Wrench”, “Star”, “Crossroads”, and “Wagon Wheel”. Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves. Quilts hung out to air was a common sight on a plantation. Neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious. It was all part of a day’s “work” for the slaves.

Characteristic of African culture is the communication of secrets through the use of common, everyday objects; the objects are seen so often they are no longer noticeable. This applied to the quilts and their patterns, stitching and knotting. It has been suggested that the stitching and the knotting on slave quilts contained secret information, too, as map routes and the distances between safe houses. Using the quilts, spirituals and code words, the slaves could effectively communicate nonverbally with each other and aid each other to escape.

There is still controversy among historians and scholars over the quilt code theory, and whether or not escaping slaves actually used codes concealed within quilt patterns to follow the escape routes of the Underground Railroad. As oral histories leave no written record, there is no written proof that the codes in the quilt patterns actually existed. What remains are the stories passed down through the generations from the slaves themselves, and, following the code of secrecy, many of the stories were never told. (Quilt Codes)

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