The History of Storytelling Through Textiles

Ever since the first textile was created, there have been stories woven into fabric. Whether it be literally or figuratively, textile design does not exist without a narrative. The NY Fashion Center believes, “The use of textiles links the myriad cultures of the world and defines the way they clothed themselves, adorn their surroundings and go about their lives.” What we wear truly tells a story about ourselves and the environments we live in. And knowing how our clothing is made greater connects us to the world around us. Eric Minding states in Oaxaca Stories In Cloth, “Cloth is a language through which a people can tell stories about themselves, their community, and their place in the universe.” Throughout history there have been many examples of storytelling through textiles, yet two techniques tell these tales best; block printing and textile weaving.

MATTER Prints Blockprint
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Block Printing

It’s hard to say what the specific origins of textile printing are, although we can confidently trace the technique back to the early days of China, Japan, Egypt, East and Central Asia. In China, block printing was discovered in 618 CE, when the technique first appeared during the Tang and Song dynasty period. Wooden stamps were created for the purpose of general textile patterns, but also to make Buddhist images. While there’s uncertainty about textile block printing’s beginnings, we do know that India was the nation which fully developed this design technique. 

Since the 12th century, India has produced distinctive prints through handmade wooden carvings and and natural dyes. Gujarat and Rajasthan are the main areas known for block printing within the country. Each has a specific style, telling the story of communities, castes, and environments in each region. In Gujarat, Paithapur families discovered and practiced printing in a style referred to as a “Sodag iri print.” Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, has since been the hub for block printing. While its difficult to pin down the meanings behind each ancient style, MATTER has found a wealth of knowledge in a man from the area who still knows the stories of many prints. Block printing was later commercialised and colonised by Europeans, but nothing compares to the hand printed cotton of traditional Indian technique.

MATTER Prints Weaving
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Textile Weaving

The earliest evidence of weaving, closely related to basketry, dates from Neolithic cultures of about 5000 BCE. There is so much to be said about weaving as a medium, however, the most significant part of the techniques history lies in how it easily lends itself to storytelling. For example, the Q’ero people of Peru have been using weaving for centuries to preserve their cultural history. The handicraft tradition reveals much about the “ancient Andean culture and its mystical cosmovision,” according to Heart Walk Foundation. Record keepers of the pre-colonial Inca period even used knotted strings called “khipus” to convey messages. The people of the Navajo Nation have used weaving to preserve the stories passed down through generations and their rich way of life. Similarly, the weaving style Jamdani holds years of tradition within each textile’s warp and weft. Most widely known for being the textile used for saris, Jamdani fabric is made by skilled artisan communities in Bangladesh. Through years of training and incredible precision individuals are able to create the finest muslin. It’s no wonder this specific weaving technique originally became popular due to “patronage of imperial warrants from Mughal emperors”.

The most literal use of weaving for storytelling appears in the form of tapestries. The art form dates back to ancient times in many regions around the world. Egyptians and Incas used to buried their dead in tapestry woven clothing. Important buildings during the Greek Empire had their walls covered in this textile design. And, during medieval times, French churches used tapestries to illustrate Bible stories to their congregations which were illiterate. From battlefields to ancient myths, tapestries were used to record history. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had a weaver accompany him into battle to take sketches for tapestries to be completed later. It seems that during uncertain times in western history, tapestries were a safer way to preserve moments in time. Textiles are an enduring art form, even more so than paintings, often lasting through travel, different owners, and over time.

Textile techniques aide communities all over the world to express, preserve, and share their culture with others. Colour, texture, and patterns help us to feel the emotions poured into each handmade creation in ways that other mediums will never be able to.

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.

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