Material World

The most famous weavers in India may have plied their looms for generations, but today’s masters could be the last.

Varanasi, India

Cheap knock-offs, China’s rise in the global textile industry and the Varanasi weavers’ own reluctance to take up the twin modern mantles of technology and marketing mean the city’s most colourful industry is in decline.

All the vibrancy of Varanasi, a magical, ancient city built on the banks of the Ganges, is reflected in its silk emporiums, where gold brocade saris in magenta, cerulean and goldenrod riot together.

A silk scarf that can take up to 20 days to make on a handloom costs about 3000 rupees ($53). In comparison, you can pick up a factory-woven one for 300 ($5.30).

Varanasi’s artisans have weaving centres in Kotwa, Cholapur, Lohta, Bajardiha, Ramnagar and Pili Kothi. Collectively, these centres are known as the Benaras Handloom Cluster, a co-operative determined to keep the industry alive and protect the precious skills of its weavers.

For the ultimate in luxury, hunt down the elusive muga silk, the product of a silkworm endemic to Assam in India’s north-east. It’s one of the world’s most glossy and durable threads; fabrics woven of this silk are known to become more lustrous with every (hand) wash and often outlive their owners. One can only hope the weavers of Varanasi enjoy the same longevity.

Ankara, Turkey

The curly haired Angora goat, native to Turkey, produces one of the oldest — and according to many, the most luxurious — textile fibres in the world. For centuries, the Turkish capital’s Angora-goat mohair played an important part in the country’s economy. Early European entrepreneurs tried to herd a few west with little success: Turkey may straddle the Europe-Asia divide but the breeds of the 1800s were only suited to a Middle Eastern climate.

Not to be confused with angora wool (from the exceptionally fluffy Angora rabbit), fabric made of mohair was in use in England as early as the 8th century. It was manufactured exclusively in Ankara until the mid-19th century. Today you’ll find larger herds in the Eastern Cape of South Africa as well as other parts of the world, however it’s worth a visit to its origin city to explore this rich heritage.

Ankara is a city of two halves: the ancient, reflecting Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture around the citadel; and the new, developed post-1920s with wider streets and grand cultural centres showcasing fine examples of Turkish neoclassical, Bauhaus and modernist design.

There are those who refuse to let Ankara’s mohair tradition die, such as Boutique Tricots founder Seyit Murat Ertan, whose ancestors lived in the goat-rearing Ayash region for 500 years. Ertan’s Mohair & Angora collection channels the lost artisans of Ankara for a new, modern Anatolian shopper — and is now stocked at the capital’s Harvey Nichols store.

Marlborough, New Zealand

Most know the Marlborough region for its sauvignon blanc — a supremely quaffable white wine. What many don’t know is that the region is also home to another world-famous crop — one that encases the adrenaline-seeking arms of athletes and the sleek shoulders of fashionistas everywhere.

Some of the world’s finest merino wool is found on the backs of sheep that graze the tussock-covered and bitterly cold slopes of this region. It stands to reason that if they can weather the gusting winds and sub-zero temperatures of a winter here, we might stand a chance of doing the same when wearing their wool. Perhaps even stylishly, if said wool was woven into a single-breasted, midnight-blue suit à la designer Giorgio Armani.

Merino is the Cinderella story of the antipodean wool industry. With bale sales down, a couple of garment manufacturers discovered that merino’s thinner, more pliable thread produced a soft, cotton-like fabric that was durable, light, warm and, crucially, not scratchy. Today, New Zealand’s merino wool market is valued at approximately US$100 million.

Sheep aside, the Marlborough region offers an embarrassment of riches for the luxury traveller: sweeping views, incredible food, fantastic wine (yes, even the occasional sav blanc). And you won’t find a lodge that brings those three things together better than Bay of Many Coves Resort, where you can drink and dine while the sheep graze the mountains above.

Northern Territory, Australia

Since its launch in 1984, the Hermès Birkin has been the luxury bag of choice for fashionistas, celebrities and socialites alike. Thanks to a high demand for the crocodile-skin version, and other luxury brands wanting a piece of that action, the Northern Territory’s croc farm industry is booming.

There are now seven commercially operated crocodile farms in the Northern Territory. Saltwater crocodiles boast particularly small, even belly scales and supple skins — highly prized in the fashion industry — and most are exported to France, Italy and Japan to be used by design houses such as Hermès.

Most of the farms operate in a dual capacity: producing sought-after leather for the world’s leading accessories designers, but also promoting and preserving Australia’s wild crocodile population. Aggressive hunting in the 1950s and 1960s caused a devastating decline in the species’ numbers, but thanks to increased awareness and a ban on poaching, the wild ‘saltie’ population is back up to about 200,000.

Darwin is your port of call; Crocodylus Park, the brainchild of crocodile biologist Professor Grahame Webb, is home to big cats, monkeys and other creatures — although the cold-blooded ones are the star attraction.

Texas, United States

The American cotton industry was built on the backs of African-American slaves in the early 1800s, and the South is a place that still reverberates with a history mired in racial unrest and, ultimately, economic collapse. Today, you’ll still need to brave the heat of the South but you will need to travel 1900 kilometres west of the original plantation houses of South Carolina to Texas.

Texas produces more cotton than any other US state and grows a quarter of the country’s output. It is here that you’ll find 23,000 square-kilometre fields full of the fluffy stuff — but the best (according to perpetually bronzed top sportswear designer Ralph Lauren) is pima. Referred to as the ‘cashmere of cottons’ — and surpassed in quality only by true Egyptian cotton (primarily used in bed linen) — pima’s fibres are stronger and able to absorb colour better than most other cottons. Most importantly, for anyone who’s forked out $150 for a T-shirt only to have it pill by the time you get it home, the fibres are longer, meaning fewer ends that rub together.

Mercifully, the days of slave labour are long gone — today, all harvesting is done by machine, as is ginning (separating the seeds from the fibres), spinning and weaving — but Texas still offers cotton lovers a window into its own farming heritage. The Texas Cotton Gin Museum in Burton holds an annual festival in April, and a barn dance on 18 October.

Words by Natasha Phillimore - Published in Voyeur September 2014
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