Indigenous fashion

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A sustainable ancestral art in today’s fast-fashion world

Thanks to the ecological boom getting more significant worldwide, we observe a real change of thoughts and practices and a transformation in home décor, food, travel, fashion, and everything surrounding us. Indigenous fashion is involved in said changes, stepping hard into a more popular and trendy perspective.

This new era reconnects us to Mother Earth by celebrating ancestral heritage through traditional handmade techniques and natural materials sourcing. But it also helps us be more conscious in the way we choose and consume. The best part is that it also opens our eyes to a mesmerizing amount of diverse cultures all along Latin America. Cultures that, until now, seemed to be forgotten.

What better proof to this statement than the popularity of haute couture, ready-to-wear and mass-market fashion designers who are offering outfits inspired by ethnic groups and cultures. They take inspiration from different parts of the world, revisiting old pieces extracted from history and incorporate them into fashion magazines, adding a touch of novelty to the vintage style.

Inca Princess, Vogue Mexico in Peru

The emergence of collaborations between designers and artisans gives a new voice to indigenous communities allowing them to showcase their ancestral crafts and express their cultural identity worldwide. This creative revolution helps raise awareness of these communities and show us all the amazing art they’ve got to share.

Even better, this makes us realize that it is essential to give the apparel industry a total twist by creating a new fashion concept more conscious and eco-friendly, with full respect for the environment.

In this article, we will share with you some insights and show you how indigenous artisans can alter today’s fast-fashion reality and why we should choose to buy from them.

Small pieces of culture

Thanks to the already mentioned collaborations, wonders such as Wayúu mochila bags from Colombia, Huipil embroidered blouses from Guatemala, or Alpaca ponchos from Peru crossed the Latin borders and arrived in the famous cities of the world. Though coming from the unknown corners of Latin American countries, they’ve stepped hard in people’s closets. Clothes and accessories that were once worn by indigenous tribes are brought to life and combined with contemporary pieces to create one-of-a-kind fashion styles.

We’ll take the Wayuu bags as a quick example. Every single piece ever made holds hundreds of years of story and tradition. Through their geometric and colorful designs, Wayúu women narrate their perception of life. Some patterns represent deities or images of their daily lives. According to legends, the first Wayúu women had a very extravagant teacher: a spider named Wale’ Kerü, who’d teach her weaving techniques with an iron fist.

Wayúu mochila bags aren’t the only ones with a fantastic story behind them. Peruvian ponchos are also beautiful garments. They are cozy and comfortable to the skin and are made with organic material: alpaca fiber. The reason behind this is the durability of this material. Back in the early years of 1000 B.C., a primitive version of the ponchos was made for the dead (pre-Columbian communities gave great importance to the outfit for the afterlife), and they were to last all eternity.

Picture by: IRYNA KURILOVYCH

Ponchos were conserved in Peruvian cultures through the time, and they are now one of the most emblematic clothes of the country. 

Those are only small portions of culture captured in each Wayúu mochila bag and Peruvian poncho, just to give two examples out of hundreds. By wearing them, you’re supporting and appreciating a community and culture full of love, creativity, and life.

Environmental impact of modern fashion

Fashion designers intend to revive indigenous cultural heritage, opting for designs and practices that are much more sustainable and ethical. Their work relates to ancestral knowledge and traditional techniques passed down from generation to generation. These ancient traditions highlight the know-how and handcrafted work of the artisans featuring hand-weaving and hand-dying techniques and the use of the loom, a device dating back to the prehistoric period.

Nevertheless, today’s fashion industry is mainly characterized by the mass-production of garments and never-ending seasons of new clothes. The problem is that this fast-fashion industry faces many current textile problems and harms our environment. Exploiting thousands of people, using toxic chemical agents, and wasting tons of water to produce clothes which makes them a very unfriendly industry for the planet. Wastewaters thrown by textile factories heavily contaminate thousands of rivers all around the world. The chemicals present in non-organic fibers are considered toxic for the animals that make rivers their home.

Toxic fibers such as polyester are responsible for producing three times more carbon emission than cotton. They later become microplastics that end up in the oceans after different processes, polluting water drastically. It is approximated that 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean is composed of microplastics.

Micro plastic pollution, picture by: Dotted Yeti

As if it weren’t enough, the fashion industry’s environmental impact is also related to water consumption. To produce half a pound of cotton, you would need twenty thousand liters of water. Imagine how much water is required to make a t-shirt! Overall, 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions are produced by the fashion industry.

We can reduce these issues by switching to a more sustainable fashion. That’s why we encourage you to give indigenous fashion a try. Their ethical techniques and selection of natural, organic resources give the planet a break from the over-consuming fashion industry.

Handwoven fabrics and natural resources

Latin America is home to an authentic textile culture where indigenous communities promote hand-woven fabrics made through different techniques. Some of them feature a handloom which does not require electricity compared to automatic weaving machines. Not to mention even more ancient techniques that are native to each culture.

Loom weaving. Picture by: Luizandrade

But Latin America is also home to quite a few natural fibers and fabrics. As we already stated, organic materials are essential for making sustainable clothing, and there’s more than one option.

Due to their connection with nature and their respect for the environment, indigenous communities use natural resources to make their creations. In Ecuador, they will use the vegetable toquilla straw fiber to make the famous Panama hat, and Colombian tribes will use the Fique, a biodegradable fiber to create bags.

Speaking of hats, we can also mention an iconic Colombian element: “sombrero volteado” (or twisted hat). They are natives from the Colombian savannah and made with Caña Seca natural fiber, which comes from a palm found near swamps. Sandals are also made with this type of fiber.

Sombrero Volteado (Twister hat)

Each country happens to have its preference for materials, but we’ll highlight some other popular ones. As we presented to you before, alpaca fiber is a trust-worthy material that results in beautiful and durable garments. Alpacas are not harmed in any part of the process and, contrary to cattle, have a very light environmental footprint.

Mexicans contribute with Kapok, a natural fiber that comes from a self-sufficient type of tree. It is one hundred percent biodegradable, and it is actually lighter than cotton, but still warm nevertheless.

Dyeing techniques from indigenous tribes are also an answer to the negative environmental impact of the fashion industry. They prefer natural dyes that come from different types of flowers, trees, or other natural elements. These dyes do not contain any of the toxic chemicals that do so much damage to our oceans and rivers.

     Natural dyeing, Picture: Sebastian Pacheco Fonseca

Their creations are made to be long-lived, enduring as long as possible, since they are made with high-quality materials. All of their decoration and dyeing processes are handmade by people responsible for the quality of the product and its symbolism. This is indeed meaningful artisan work, which is also a pillar for these cultures’ economy and the world’s global wellness. 

The value of ancestral knowledge

To give you a better understanding of ancestral techniques and their significations, we must go back to the Pre-Columbian period when visual art was considered the meaning of an expression. At that time, Pre-Hispanic cultures use to communicate about their cosmology, feelings, and relationship with nature through their art. 

A great example of it is the Andean textiles within the Paracas culture, an influential civilization of ancient Peru (from approximately 800 BC to 100 BC). The Paracas are renowned for their complex weaving techniques and figurative embroidery designs. 

Most of their textiles were made of cotton and embroidered with camelid fibers (using the hair of llama, alpaca, or Vicuna) featuring lively colors obtained from natural resources of plant, animals, and minerals. Some of these ancient textiles were found at a cemetery in Peru, which housed 420 mummified bodies wrapped in embroidered mantles. These woven fabrics were dating back to thousands of years preserved unimaginably, thanks to the arid conditions expected in the coastal desert. 

The name “Mummy bundle” was given to describe the practice of wrapping mummies into bundles using several layers of textiles. These woven textiles were sometimes more than 80 feet long, presenting as much as 500 figures in a single fabric, organized in a specific linear style with repeating geometric designs and adapted colors for each embroidery. That’s how we realize the complexity of this work and the knowledge and expertise required to create these textiles. 

The Larco Museum and the National Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Peru, and the British Museum in London, feature a permanent exhibition of these Paracas textiles, which were also taken a few years ago to the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and are considered national treasures. Pre-Columbian cultures were masters of embroidery, and there are samples of more than 3000 years old (300-200 BC), which are perfectly preserved. 

The origins of these hand-woven textiles strongly influenced today’s Peruvians weavers who continue to preserve traditional Andean weaving techniques.

Preserving cultural heritage

Woven textiles within indigenous communities are connected to the environment and the human being’s physical and spiritual needs. We can observe the ancestral know-how in each creation, from the knots, unions, ties to the embroidery itself. Interlacing natural fibers to create garments is considered a way of expression for each culture. 

Among the designs and creations of indigenous people, we can mention tapestries, blankets, brocades, painted fabrics, three-dimensional figures, feather art, hammocks, dresses, shoes, hats, and in general, all typical pieces of these different communities.

They are the Guardians of their Ancestral identity, and this makes their legacy remaining authentic. Nothing is created without meaning.

Developing indigenous artisanship seems to be a great alternative to mass-production clothing. It fits into the growing slow-fashion movement, which follows a more conscious consumption while respecting our environment.

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