African textiles: the kente, royal cloths of the Ashanti

Ashanti Kente Cloth featured in "Measure of Earth: Textiles and Territory in West Africa", Gregg Museum of Art & Design

These colourful strip-woven cloths are the most recognizable of all African textiles. They are known by the name kente and their creators are the Ashanti, an ethnic group native to the Ashanti Region of modern-day Ghana. The term kente is not used by the Ashanti themselves, but may have come from the word kenten meaning "basket". It refers to the checkerboard appearance of the cloths. According to legend the first weaver learnt his skill by studying the way in which a spider - a symbol of treachery and wisdom in Ashanti folklore - spun its web.

African textiles: the bogolanfini, mud cloths of Mali

African textile, bogolanfini or mud cloth
Bogolanfini, The British Museum

One of the best-known types of textile from Africa, along with the Kente, is the bogolanfini, the cloth of the Bamana people from Mali in West Africa. This distinctive fabric features variety of wavy lines, circles, chevrons, spots and other geometric figures in white on a black background. But this is not the only thing that makes this textile so unique and interesting. Bogolanfini translates from the Bamana as "mud cloth" and indeed, the main and most important element of the bogolan cloth's production process is mud. But it's not any ordinary mud you can find around the corner. The mud used for bogolanfini making is collected from the very deepest sections of the ponds which become exposed for a few months at the height of the dry season. This mud then is left in a covered pot for about a year, during which time it darkens.

African masks

African wooden mask decorated with cowrie shells and beads
Bangende mask. Cotton, cowrie shell, beads, raffia, wood 
 Democratic Republic of Congo. From the collection of the Horniman Museum 

The only time I had a chance to have a closer look at African masks was during my visits to the British and Horniman Museums in London. The masks definitely left a strong impression on me...some looked really scary, some were beautiful in their own unique way and others struck with skillfulness and complexity of handicraft work. African masks are not something you can easily forget once you have seen them. Sometimes masks are a realistic representation of the human or animal head but more often they are carved in an exaggerated or distorted way designed to suggest a supernatural presence.

Gilded gods: the metal craft of Nepal

God Shiva metal sculpture in Basantapur, Nepal

In every temple, every monastery in Nepal as well as in many private home shrines you will find at least one metal statue of a Hindu or Buddhist deity. These statues vary in size - from a few inches to as tall as 12 feet - but any of them will strike you with beauty, facial expression and exquisite detailed work. Most of them are made from copper, sometimes from bronze or brass and usually gilded (with gold in its purest 24 carat form because gods and deities deserve the best after all), sometimes painted and additionally embellished with semi-precious stones. The earliest extant Nepali cast-copper sculptures date to the 6-8th century. Little has changed since that time as Nepalese artisans has kept the craft alive passing the skills from generation to generation.

Traditional handmade toys of India

Toys are the simplest souvenirs that one can bring from India. They are light and small, so will not take much space in the suitcase; they are handcrafted; they are unique and have strong Indian identity; they are beautiful. And it doesn't matter what part of the country you visit because every region has its own distinctive tradition of toys.

Chikan embroidery of Lucknow

Indian chikankari embroidery

The chikan or chikankari is a delicate and subtle embroidery done in white thread on a white background, though sometimes yellowish silk is also used in addition to the white thread. The embroidery is characterized by the contrasts in texture provided by the delicacy of fine jali work and heavily embossed stitches on fine fabrics. It is amazingly beautiful with its delicate patterns and the excellence of execution. Noor Jehan, wife of the Mughal emperor Jehangir is said to have introduced it to Lucknow. The earliest samples of chikan embroidery that have survived are from the 19th century. It is not clear where the word chikan came from. It might come from Persian where it means "embroidery", or it could be of Bengali origin where it means "very fine thing".

Traditional Chinese embroidery

19th century Chinese embroidered silk gauze
Mirror Case with Lunar Scene, Qing dynasty, 19th century. Embroidered silk gauze. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Embroiery in China has a long history dating back to the invention of silk four thousand years ago. It is known that the ceremonial garments of the tribal leaders of that time were decorated with embroidered patterns of the sun, the moon, stars, weed, fire and other auspicious symbols.
To date the earliest survived embroidery works are the two 4th century BC pieces unearthed from the Chu Tombs. The patterns of dragon, phoenix, tiger and beast embroidered on silk appear natural and lifelike which gives full credit to the achivements of embroidery art in the ancient China.
The art of embroidery further developed during Qin and Han dynasties. Embroideries of that time represent the artistic style as well as the high level of embroidery and mostly have patterns of ripple-like clouds, soaring phoenix, galloping holy beasts, ribbon-shaped flowers, geometric figures etc, using basically locking method with neat stitching, compact compostion and smooth lines.