Textiles serve the everyday needs of people, but they may also serve to distinguish individuals and groups of individuals in terms of social class, gender, occupation, and status with the group. Traditional societies associated special meaning with textile designs. These meanings tended to have specific meanings for particular ethnic groups alone. It was assumed that everyone in the group knew them. However, once the meanings have become lost, it is almost impossible to reconstruct them. The patterns in Javanese batiks, for example, originally had meaning to the wearer, but these meanings are now largely lost. Textiles also have real as well as symbolic value. Under Byzantine emperors, silk was a powerful political tool: foreign governments out of favor were denied trading privileges; those in favor were rewarded with silks.

Textiles have played major roles in the social, economic, and religious lives of communities. In many parts of Europe and Asia, young girls spent many months preparing clothing and furnishing textiles for their wedding trousseaus as a demonstration of their skills and wealth. Traditionally, women have played a far larger role than men in producing textiles. In many parts of Africa, however, men produce both woven and dyed textiles, and in many urban or courtly textile traditions, men were the main producers (e.g., Asian rug weaving, European tapestry).

Textiles are thus a major component of material culture. They may be viewed as the products of technology, as cultural symbols, as works of art, or as items of trade. The textile arts are a fundamental human activity, expressing symbolically much of what is valuable in any culture.

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