6 Tips for Buying Traditional Textiles This Holiday Season

by Marie Cleland Dec 10, 2008
Forget plastic pyramids or pan flutes you’ll never play. For holiday mementos that are lightweight, easy to pack, heirloom quality and distinctive, consider traditional textiles.
Opt for antique.

Before the advent of high-tech machinery and mass-production, fabrics were made by hand.

Today, even in Third World countries, the textiles you most often see on sale will be machine-made and replicated around town.

If you want a one-off blanket, shawl or rug, antique is often the way to go, even if it means a bit of extra digging.

A souvenir vendor on a La Paz side street might be selling the usual Bolivian mementos at the door, but ask inside and they might have some blankets sourced from a rural Quechua community.

An Uros Islander stitches a blanket

Third World countries are your best bet for readily available and reasonably priced antique stock – capitalism tends to breed throwaway societies where only the best is kept… and then probably in a museum.

Have a budget in mind.

The price of traditional textiles varies widely based on provenance, quality, size, and antiquity.

How much you pay may depend on how serious a collector you are. If you’re just after a special souvenir, you could start with a colourful scarf or machine-made blanket that you won’t be too worried about if you spill red wine on at a picnic.

If you want to make world textiles a hobby, start thinking about investment purchases.

If you want to make world textiles a hobby, start thinking about investment purchases.

Go for the more unusual pieces– say a Berber shawl– and then try and bargain down as much as you can – more so if you suspect it’s been heavily marked up, less so (if at all) when buying from the source.

If you are with a guide or know people locally, ask them what price you should be paying.

Know your limits. Even if you do manage to track down a Moroccan marriage belt like the one you saw in a book, it could turn out to be worth US$4,000, so it’s not a purchase to be taken lightly.

Buy from the person who made it.

Aside from antique products, if you want to buy handmade, you will either need to search for a craft collective in town, or visit the homes and workshops of people who still make fabrics using traditional methods.

This can be an inexpensive way to acquire a lasting memento, and it will hold infinitely more sentimental value if you buy it from the person who made it, rather than a seller far removed from the production process.

Purchase a hand-beaded, hand-woven Karen tunic from a Thai hill-tribe and you will forever remember the beaming face of the woman who put in the hard work and benefited directly from the sale of the item.

Hammocks in Otavalo market, Ecuador

Ask the story behind it.

The attractive patterns and colours that first caught your attention can often be about more than just aesthetics.

If you’re buying from the maker, ask him or her to explain the symbolism or story behind the design.

If you’re buying the fabric in its country of origin from a store or market stall, the seller will usually have a general idea of the tradition behind it, the meaning behind some of the patterns and the regions they typify.

Delve into the story behind the attire of Amantani Islanders on Lake Titicaca, Peru and you may be surprised to hear that it’s the husbands who compete to embroider the most vibrant designs on their wives’ black woolen shawls.

Meanwhile, the neighbouring Uros women stitch folklore and tales of life on Titicaca’s floating reed islands into their brightly coloured blankets.

The author with Amantani Islanders Olga and Joaquin and shawls embroidered by Joaquin

Consider how you will use the fabric.

Unless you are buying museum quality pieces, you’re likely to want to make use of the textiles you buy.

As well as the other aspects listed here, take into account whether you actually like the way the material looks. Do you want it to have a soft or hard texture? The stiffer the wool or cotton, the more durable it will be, suitable for decorating a chair or table. Silk or soft cotton is better for wearing as a scarf, belt or shawl.

The author buying fabric from a woman in Bansko, Bulgaria

Research before you travel.

If you’re serious about buying good textiles on your travels, find out beforehand what patterns, fabrics and textile traditions your destination is known for.

Internet resources vary hugely, but comprehensive sites include textileasart.com and textilearts.net.

Otherwise, these books are a good place to start: World Textiles: A Concise History (World of Art) by Mary Schoeser, and World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques by John Gillow and Bryan Sentence. When you reach your destination, ask your guide or fellow travelers the best places to begin your search.

Community Connection

For more tips on bargaining and market shopping, read How To Rock Foreign Markets and Bazaars Without Feeling Like a Schmuck.

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