Rooted in the soil of the earth: geographical origins of textile practices


Left: embroidered blouse with brocade sleeve, 20th century (Gujarat, India), cotton, silk, gilt metal, synthetic fibers, 32 cm long (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru); right: chintz bedspread with a tree motif, c. 1700–25 (Coromandel Coast), cotton, 217 x 176 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Left: embroidered blouse with brocade sleeve, 20th century (Gujarat, India), cotton, silk, gilt metal, synthetic fibers, 32 cm long (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru); right: chintz bedspread with a tree motif, c. 1700–25 (Coromandel Coast), cotton, 217 x 176 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Shaped by diverse geographical terrains and climates, textile traditions across the Indian subcontinent are deeply tied to its ecosystems, which govern the cultivation of resources like plant fibers and natural dyes, and regulate suitable conditions for animal rearing. These factors also determine the material conditions for production as well as people’s preferences for clothing. From soft cotton fabrics and lustrous silks, to metallic embroidery and vibrant dyeing techniques, the subcontinent’s regionally distinctive traditions are deeply reliant on local resources. Let’s traverse through these unique geographies to better understand the roots of textile traditions and practices.

Left: Bandhani Chakla, early–mid-20th century (Gujarat/Rajasthan, India), silk, cotton, 74 x 71 cm (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru); right: Kashmir shawl fragment, 19th century, wool, 6.3 x 11 cm (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru)

Left: Bandhani Chakla, early–mid-20th century (Gujarat/Rajasthan, India), silk, cotton, 74 x 71 cm (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru); right: Kashmir shawl fragment, 19th century, wool, 6.3 x 11 cm (Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru)

Map of South Asia (underlying map © Google)

Map of South Asia (underlying map © Google)

Ecological determinants

Nestled between the mountainous Himalayan range to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south, the Indian subcontinent spans an expansive area. This includes the arid deserts of the West, the hilly terrain of the Western and Eastern ghats, tropical coasts along the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, extensive mangrove forests in the Sundarbans, and fertile basins along the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers. Across these topographies, varying factors such as soil fertility, irrigation, weather patterns and ecological biodiversity determine the availability of resources and the cultivation of crops used to make fabrics. Some of the common raw materials used in textile production include natural fibers and dyes sourced from local plants, animals, and minerals.

Weaver, Malana Village, Himachal Pradesh (photo: Saurabh Chatterjee, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Weaver, Malana Village, Himachal Pradesh (photo: Saurabh Chatterjee, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

People and environments

The cultivation of textile resources also reflects the unique abilities of textile-making communities to adapt and respond to their environments. For example, in cold mountainous regions, it is common to see animals such as sheep, goats, and yaks being reared for wool to make warm clothing, blankets, shawls, and carpets. In contrast, the hot and humid climate in other parts of the subcontinent requires the production of light and breathable fabrics such as cotton. Beyond determining the immediate needs of people, the environment and availability of different types of resources have also inspired communities to create textiles that incorporate rich designs, patterns, and visual aesthetics.

To this day, many textile practices in the region continue to remain rooted in their natural environments. Working in tandem with their surroundings, artisans innovatively use materials in different forms, shapes, and colors to keep their regional crafts alive. As indigenous textiles are dependent on a flourishing and well-nurtured ecosystem, traditional practices of production and consumption have inherently been sustainable and eco-friendly.


Additional resources

Take a short course on Textiles from the Indian Subcontinent with The MAP Academy

Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon, 1997).

John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard, Traditional Indian Textiles (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991).

Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Tirthankar Roy and Giorgio Riello, How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500–1850 (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2009).

Jonathan D. Sauer, Historical Geography Of Crop Plants: A Select Roster (Florida: CRC Press, 2019).

 

Drawing from articles on The MAP Academy

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Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Rooted in the soil of the earth: geographical origins of textile practices," in Smarthistory, February 10, 2023, accessed February 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/rooted-in-the-soil-of-the-earth-geographical-origins-of-textile-practices/.