What designates something as art? Is it age, quality, the artisan that made it? Authentic vintage African cloth found in dusty corners of thrift stores in Williamsburg come with a price because it is fashionable and created by hand long ago. But at one point, that piece of cloth was produced for sale to a consumer - tourist or local.
It is no secret that “global style” is everywhere these days. We all admire, or more likely are jealous of, that one person who has an amazing dwelling filled the trinkets and bobbles they picked up during their many travels. In many cases, those enviable collections are the result of expert thrifting and nights spent digging through the seemingly endless bowls of online marketplaces that sell all sorts of “global decor”. But how often do we stop to consider the artisan/craftsperson who made it or the individual design elements used and inspired through generations.
Global design’s influence on contemporary aesthetic is no new concept. In many ways motifs, geometric patterns, and natural materials used in the art traditions across the African continent, Middle East, the South Pacific and Americas were influential throughout much of the twentieth century. This, in turn, led to a resurgence in the tribal art sphere, with art collectors seeking out the original works that inspired these artists.
In many cases, this is also applicable within the design world. The use of vintage African cloth - or cloth created to replicate the look of traditional mud cloth - is also seeing a resurgence. People love to incorporate traditional crafts (from all over the globe) into contemporary settings. When done appropriately, it not only honors these objects’ heritage, but it also adds character and style to a space. But with trends come imitations and replicas, mass produced pieces of cloth that look similar but lack the story. They lack the presence of the hand that made it and the tradition of taking time to make a piece of art that shows the skill required and lasts the test of time.
Weaving, dyeing (Indigo and Mud Cloth), and printing are passed down from parent to child. Techniques are learned, recipes are shared, and skills are developed through years and years of training. Artisans then take traditional motifs and expand upon them, taking a creative initiative to develop new patterns, textures, and combinations.
Many brands are embracing the artisan to consumer model. Buying directly from the people whose livelihoods are these industries. Furthermore, consumer interest is shifting as interest in expertly crafted goods that take time to produce but yield a higher quality and unique product rises.
But we also live in a rapidly globalizing economy and if an industry fails to provide an income than it usually becomes redundant. Creating a demand for beautiful textiles perfected through generations is vital to keeping these traditions alive, while directly benefiting the person who made it and preserving it for the future.
As a consumer, when you purchase cloth to use in your home or to wear, you are letting it become part of your story. It ages along with you and becomes living, breathing art. These objects have the potential to enrich the lives of those that own them, while directly benefiting the person who made it. This is not to say that buying second hand isn’t important (sustainability is also vital to consider), but it challenges the consumer to buy something intentionally, with the idea of owning it forever.
Celebrating expert craftsmanship by merging contemporary design with traditional crafts and techniques is vital for ensuring that these sorts of industries continue to evolve and exist, while simultaneously preserving your vintage cloth of the future.