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Tribal Textiles 101
We are fast approaching the end of an era that stretches back to the beginnings of human social organization. The nomadic peoples and their lifestyle, which created a unique woven artform, are vanishing.

This is a direct result of the closing of major national borders in the middle 20th centrury. With border crossings now impaired, migration routes that originally might have stretched thousands of miles are now reduced to tens of miles, and in rare cases hundreds of miles.

In and of itself, the nomadic lifestyle is one of the oldest of all human organizations; herding is much older than farming, and only a bit younger than hunting and gathering. The ownership of flocks necessitates a herding lifestyle. Flocks mean wool. Wool means material for weaving.

Not only is the nomadic way of life over, but even traditional village weaving is rarely being done. As an example, 150 years ago in Asia Minor (Anatolia - Asian Turkey) there were over 50,000 villages where weaving was done on a personal use, non-commercial level. Today there are less than a dozen villages left who weave on a non-commercial basis.

Tribal, nomadic, and village weavings are made with an everyday use in mind. The weavers (always women) usually live in a non-monetary economy and thus use their own wools, dyes, and patterns, weaving the item for the family's usage.

Tribal and nomadic peoples use their own wools (from their own flocks of sheep, goats, camels, horses, etc.), gather the dye materials, do the dyeing themselves, wash, card, spin their own wools, and set up the looms for weaving. Often their looms are only a few sticks in the ground. These portable looms are easy to disassemble and transport. And since nomads are constantly on the move following the grazing patterns of their flocks, this makes the weaver's task easier.

In contrast, most of what we in the West call Oriental Rugs are hand-manufactured for sale in the West. These production weavings are made by hired labor. Commercial weavers use someone else's designs, looms, dyes, and wools. They weave what they are told to make, in the patterns they are told to use, and the pieces are then sold. It is only in this latter context that the terrible stories of child, slave and prison labor have surfaced from India, Pakistan, and China, amongst others.

As a synopsis of the above distinctions, tribal and nomadic weaving is done by women for their families, while commercial weaving (sometimes called production, courtly, or factorium weaving) is done by anyone else: men, women and even children.

As the women do all the weaving in a tribal and nomadic society, it is a way for them to express their individual artistry. This is always done within the context of the tribal design format and the need for utilitarian usage. Each tribal group and specific tribe have their own design format, and in some cases, their own weaving styles. In this way, we can determine the origin of a specific weaving. No country would use the flag of another, and no tribal group would use the design of another tribe (excepting the Baluch and Kurds, who are always exceptional).

As there are no shops in the migratory/nomadic world, weavers create the items they need for their own family's use. Furniture and furnishings are always made by the family as they are needed.

Woven textiles can also be intended for ceremonial usage. Special weavings are used for celebrations of the "rites of passage". For example, weddings , births, funerals, and circumcisions are sometimes celebrated with special textiles. There are unconfirmed reports of "judgement" kilims used by the religious orders in Western Turkey: one stylized format for the judge and another for the defendant.

The dowry deserves a section of its own. In the ancient societies of Central Asia, women owned the yurt (tent/home) and whatever they brought into the marriage was returned to them if the marriage dissolved. The woven textiles women would bring into the marriage would often be put aside and saved for special occasions. Most often, these textiles were woven just for the wedding of the young bride and allowed her to show her expertise and artistry. Many cultures hold such special textiles in chests called dowry chests. In some cases, many generations of textiles are found within the chest itself.

There are also embroidered textiles to ward off the "evil eye". These textiles are used to protect all manner of precious things: young children, breeding camels, and the home itself. In addition, special weavings that are hung in the yurt are believed to bring prosperity and keep away bad luck. Oftentimes, these motifs are incorporated into the utilitarian weavings (bags, hangings, dividers, animal decorations, prayer rugs). One can never have enough good luck.

Prior to the establishment of coinage, there was always wealth in kind. Thus, flocks and herds meant food, wool, hides, fuel, etc. for survival. Wealth in flocks and herds was the source of the raw materials to make more textiles. As humanity grew more sophisticated, they began to value the furnishings of the tent, thus, interior decorations became a way of valuing the people who lived within. Obviously, people who had more time to create beautiful objects were more "wealthy" (at least in time) than those who were too occupied with survival to find the time to create.

It is the dowry that has allowed most of the fine artistic textiles to survive the passage of time and the thousands of moves involved in the nomadic lifestyle. For the textiles and the decorations to have lasted hundreds of years is a tribute to the care they have been given. These textile arts are highly valued by and cared for by nomadic peoples. They left no monuments in stone for us to marvel upon. However, their Rembrandts, Shakespeares, and Picassos were anonymous women who poured their hearts and inspirations into woven textiles. Truly a paean to the weavers art.

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Sun Bow Trading Company
900 C Harris Street
Charlottesville, Virginia 22903

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Sun Bow Trading Company
P.O. Box 1482
Charlottesville, Virginia 22902