10 of the Most Exotic Fabrics in the World
Exotic fabrics from faraway lands.
We love exotic fabrics and we’re inspired by them every single day! These fabrics are lovely to look at, but more importantly, they invite you to touch, they connect you to a specific place and people – and they’ve each got a story to tell.
Take a look at these exotic textiles and their fabric by the yard counterparts. The originals are quite labor-intensive. New or vintage pieces can be hard to find and expensive. In some cases, the art of making them is becoming lost as keepers of the craft die out. The history of how they each came to be is fascinating. Here are ten that will make you fall in love with the exotic lands from whence they come.
Textiles travel well and as a result, made for good trading currency in the past. But over time they can disintegrate or become unrecognizable. That means it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where one of our favorite fabrics, the ikat, originated. We do know that many Asian countries employ similar techniques.
The word ikat itself is Indonesian, and came to Europe through the Dutch. In Cambodia, the fabric was considered one of the finest textiles in the world. In danger of disappearing during the Khmer Rouge regime, ikat in Cambodia survived because Kikuo Morimoto, a Japanese textile expert, rode through the war-torn country going from village to village looking for artisans who still knew the craft.
Ikat is not just a print or pattern, but also a complicated dyeing technique. First there’s the tedious process of marking, tying, and dyeing the design into the yarn before the fabric is woven. Then it is woven with an intentional bleed and blurry lines.
Double ikat is a process where both directional weave elements of the yard, the warp (lengthwise) and the weft (horizontal) are prepared with this technique. Tenganan in Bali, Indonesia, is one of just three places in the world still producing double ikat.
In Tenganga, the yarn is dyed with natural materials such as papaya leaf, candle nut, and turmeric. The yarn is soaked for three nights in the pigmented mixture and then hung out to dry for six weeks. A turmeric-stained product, creating a yellow yarn, becomes the base color. The finished yarn is wrapped into wooden frames, grouped, and tied to prepare it for the next stage of dyeing.
The second color to be applied usually takes two weeks, dyeing and drying several times until the desired intensity is achieved. The third layer can take upwards of 12 dippings over three months. Once the dyeing is completed, the ties are removed showing the complex coloration achieved by this lengthy process.
Creating ikat is definitely not for the faint hearted! Ikat artisans have mad skill and years of practice.
Made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, Tapa Cloth comes from the South Pacific and found its way into Southeast Asia through migration.
It is made by stripping the bark away from a three-inch diameter stalk of the tree. Then it is soaked in water, and pounded with a traditional mallet. When the fibrous mixture is thin and even, the sheets are glued together using arrowroot or tapioca. Natural dyes are then rubbed over stenciled patterns to transfer the designs. When the dyes are dry, artisans go over the patterns with a brush, accentuating the patterns.
These days, tapa cloth is worn on formal occasions such as weddings, or in Tongan culture, specific times when the wearer wants to show respect.
Yuzen is said to have originated in the late 17th century. The name for this technique comes from the artist Miyazaki Yuzensai, who applied the designs first onto folding fans and later, onto kimono.
Yuzen is the art of dyeing kimono fabrics using paper stencils. It enables highly detailed, intricate expressions and allows for a broad variety of colors. The ability to replicate designs makes yuzen an affordable favorite among young women. Dye houses in Japan often have a collection of thousands of paper stencils.
Kimono patterns are either dyed into the fabric or woven using colored thread. In Yuzen, patterns are hand-drawn directly onto the fabric and gone over with the stencil and paint.
One of the most exotic and rarest textiles of African culture is the Kuba cloth. It’s named after the Kuba people in the Congo who invented it. Sometimes known as bark cloth, raffia is now the standard material for making kuba.
Because of the brittleness of the textile, it would tear easily in the rainforest where many of the Kuba people live, and needed to be patched regularly. Eventually, the patchwork was done in symbolic designs that are abstract, geometric, and fluid.
Mostly found in colors of black, brown, red, yellow, orange, blue, and green, Kuba cloth is more difficult to find than most other African textiles.
The Kuba Kingdom is a matrilineal society that arose in the 17th century and now resides in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a loose federation of 18 subtribes bound by social and political ideologies.
One thing that ties the clans together is the Kuba cloth. The entire community is involved in making Kuba. Men collect the raffia leaves, boys prepare the fiber and turn it into silk-like threads for weaving, women produce the fiber for the embroidery, men weave the base fabric and women soften the base cloth by pounding it. Finally, men stitch the embroidered pieces together.
Kuba is the literal incarnation of the phrase “it takes a village”!
The Sanskrit word for “rags”, kantha is made by poor women in Bangladesh and India using fabric scraps that are stitched and layered together. The practice dates back 500 years, with more complex quilts sometimes taking years to weave.
Made with a minimum of three layers that make up a backing, a flannel, and a quilt top, each fabric that makes up the kantha “quilt” is ironed, layered, and then run through with a basting stitch.
Since the kantha is made of scraps, no two will ever be the same, making for interesting and unique creations.
These days you can find kantha quilts used as bed covers, tablecloths, pillows, bags and more – they’re a standard in boho chic décor.
Yakan is the name used for both the indigenous Muslim tribe native to the tropical island of Basilan in the Philippines and for the textile they create.
Before the 1970s, the Yakan textile was made using abaca, pineapple, and bamboo fibers. But as armed conflicts grew in the region, the Yakan tribespeople resettled on the bigger island of Mindanao and replaced these materials with vivid colored cotton instead. The overall technique remained the same.
The textile is usually made for two traditional articles of clothing—the badju (men’s button up shirt) and the sawal (trousers). The use of diamond repeat patterns and other symmetrical patterns are drawn from Islamic geometry. These woven creations are bright, bold, and often used for special occasions such as weddings and rituals.
Made by hand, one meter of the textile often takes four to five days to weave. That’s not your typical fabric by the yard!
Different than tie-dye, Shibori is a Japanese method of creating patterns by twisting, binding, wrapping, folding, and stitching. It’s an ancient technique dating back as far as the 8th century.
The main dye used for this technique is Indigo because of its ease in creating contrasting resist patterns on fabric.
Designs are often drawn on the cloth before these are outlined with a stitch, and then pulled, bound, or folded to achieve the desired effect. Some techniques are easier than others, like Miura shibori, where there are no knots involved. Instead, it uses a hooked needle and involves plucking sections of the cloth to create tension.
In contrast, Nui shibori has the textile maker outlining the design with a running stitch and then pulled tight to gather the cloth. This technique is more labor-intensive but gives greater control of and a lot more variety of the pattern.
Kumo shibori involves pleating the cloth evenly, resulting in a spider-like design. You’ll need strong hands to do it, but the result is amazing.
Kitenge is a colorful printed cloth of African origin similar to the sarong, most often worn around the chest, the waist, or as a big fabric to carry a baby. These are inexpensive informal pieces of clothing printed using a batik technique. The African batik is made by using a paste of starch or mud that resists the wax used in the process.
Patterns are drawn with the paste on to the cloth and then dyed. These days, most Kitenge cloth is made with rolled prints, which makes the cloth faster to produce and get to market.
One of the most sought-after carpets is the Moroccan Berber rug. Originating from the Berber people of Morocco, these carpets are known for their undeniable beauty and quality. These carpets do not come cheap, as in addition to their design, they are also painstakingly labor-intensive, with women weaving the ten kilos of raw wool it takes to make one carpet. It takes one month to prepare the wool and another month transforming it into a carpet.
The results are vibrantly-colored floor rugs, saddle bags, tent hangings, and women’s shawls. With geometric shapes or triangles, diamonds, chevrons, and zigzags, the patterns of these weavings symbolically represent the identity of the Berber people.
From the Persian word for needle, Suzan, suzanis are traditionally part of a wedding dowry made by brides or the bride’s family. Originating from Uzbekistan and surrounding Central Asian countries, the earliest suzani dates back to the 15th century and were used as tapestries or blankets. The most common designs on suzanis are floral motifs and medallions, although suns, moons, stars, and pomegranates are also included. As with many of the beautiful textiles on this list, suzanis are time-consuming to create.
The background for suzani was traditionally composed of strips of fabric measuring 14 to 20 inches in width. These depended on the finished size of the item or its purpose. The strips are basted together and the embroidery design would be transferred to the fabric before stitching. After transferring the design, the basting stitch is moved and each strip would be embroidered separately, and then reassembled when all sections of the design are completely stitched, resulting in the irregular pattern giving Suzani their distinctly mismatched look.
Aren’t textiles interesting? The next time you’re on the hunt for exotic fabrics, we know you’ll imagine the painstaking techniques and undeniable skill of the human mind and hand that went into crafting it! (Now about caring for these amazing fabrics, we’ve got the low down right here.)