Native, traditional, Eastern, or often times called, “fixed” dress, that of the indigenous peoples of East-Asian territories, may seem to be the antithesis of the current Western standard of the sartorial etiquette which relies on constant fashion change and the unwavering push for newness. However, these precious, contextually and sentimentally loaded, incredibly detailed traditional textiles are finding their way into the hands of Western designers and customers. Either sold as the authentic pieces of culture they are, straight from the indigenous hands who made them, or upcycled/recycled into fashionable accessories, traditional textiles from the Akha Hill tribes of East Asia are popping up in the homes and closets of savvy, socially conscious consumers around the world, particularly in the UK and US.
For some of these tribes, like the Hmong who live in the hills of Laos, Thailand and China, the dissemination of these handmade textiles (which they have every part in making from growing the hemp for making the fiber to sewing the end product into garments) is one of the few tangible ways of preserving and sharing their cultural heritage. As Western influence and inexpensive materials make their way to the remote areas of this purely oral-tradition tribe (meaning they have no written language), the skillful art of the traditional Hmong embroidery technique becomes threatened.
For others, such as the Bengali women of India, opportunities to create handmade kantha quilts in their home to sell abroad provides them with financial freedoms otherwise denied women residing in such areas. With a salary they can afford to put their children through school, combatting the sex-trafficking epidemic that is so prevalent in this area, affording independence and stability for at-risk women.
No matter how they reached the Western markets, the story behind these intricate pieces of textile art, and that of those who made and wore them, need to be preserved. H. Leedom Lefferts Jr., a Lao cultural expert, says in his article promoting the importance of the conservation of Lao material culture, that “Textiles weave indigenous cultures together; they thus provide strands of meaning and action which can be picked up by observers to understand cultures and assist them in coping with the pressures of modern life.” Designers are taking note of the customer craving authenticity and history in their adornments, and what better way to satisfy that need than highly intricate, handmade traditional and ceremonial textiles from age-old tribe techniques.
Sometimes classified as “vintage” fabric, these recycled textiles can be found in mainstream stores such as in the furniture upholstery of Anthropologie, West Elm, and Sundance Catalog. They are also often upcycled into fashionable accessories such as bags, shoes, and garments as in the case of Elliot Mann and Sophia Costas, and the Etsy sites Dazzling Lana and Fairlyworn, to name a few.