Local handicrafts offer a glimpse into the culture and traditions of a particular place. Many of the world’s most admired artisan goods are handmade using age-old methods that illustrate an area’s history, geography, religion, or customs. Here are eight of the most famous handmade works and where they originated.
Morocco is a hub for various artisanal crafts, but the Fassi pottery of Fez rightfully commands the spotlight. Highly acclaimed for its quality and vibrant colors, this style of hand-painted pottery is one of the country’s most beautiful art forms. The former imperial capital is surrounded by naturally occurring raw clay, which is harvested from local quarries, pounded into fine powder, mixed with water, and kneaded into a putty ready to be molded on a potter’s wheel.
Skilled artisans spin the clay into plates, cups, teapots, and tagine dishes, and set them to dry in the sun for a few days before baking them in a kiln. The baked pottery is carefully coated in a white glaze, and then the real work begins — painting every inch in intricate designs. The ceramic pieces return to the kiln for a final baking, and then the process is complete.
The colors and patterns for each piece are not chosen at random. Each region of Morocco has its own color palette, and Fez claims a beautiful, bright blue made from an oxide of cobalt and copper found in the riverbeds nearby. Alternatively, you can find turquoise-and-cream pottery in Safi and light green in Meknes. Check out Fes Bleu Art in the heart of the Old Medina for the most reasonable deals on authentic merchandise.
The tradition of decorating Easter eggs in Poland, known as pisanki, dates back over a century. The earliest evidence of the egg-painting was uncovered by archaeologists in the village of Ostrówek and dates back to the 10th century. (These ancient artifacts now reside in the Museum of Opole Silesia.) The original eggs were made from clay, but it’s now common for real chicken, goose, and duck eggs to be used as blank canvases. "Pisanki" comes from the Polish word "pisac," which means "to write a name that fits a craft well." Pisanki artists use a needle or a special pen with a metal tip to draw designs using warm wax on the shell of a blown or hard-boiled egg in a technique known as batik.
The egg is then dipped into a naturally derived plant dye to color the white part of the shell that is still exposed. Then, the wax is heated so it can be peeled away, revealing an eye-popping white design on a colored background. Alternatively, sometimes the eggs are dyed first, with the wax applied second, before the egg is placed into a pickling solution that removes the color from the shell.
When the wax is removed, the effect is a colored design on a white background. This process can be repeated multiple times to get a multi-colored look. The finished products are presented to friends and family around Easter to wish the recipients a long, healthy life. Pisanki are widespread throughout Poland, and attending an Easter market in a major city is your best bet for checking out this seasonal art. Warsaw hosts an Easter Market at the Ethnographic Museum every year.
Tartan has long been associated with Scotland, and its use in traditional clothing can be traced back to the third or fourth century CE. Originally made from woven wool, tartan is a checkered pattern specific to a particular region. Tartan was and still is the fabric of choice for kilts and other Highlander wear in Scotland. Tartan has been hand-woven throughout the country for centuries, but the village of Lochcarron is particularly renowned for the fabric.
Nowadays, the quintessential plaid pattern is printed on a variety of fabrics, but Lochcarron still produces original tartan made from 100% Scottish wool. The art of hand-weaving tartan was introduced to the tiny municipality of 923 people in 1938, and it’s now the country’s leading tartan manufacturer. If you visit Lochcarron Weavers, you’ll find the finest-quality tartan, cashmere, and lambswool for sale in the most picturesque setting in the Highlands.
Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Handwoven textiles have been part of Guatemalan culture for more than 2,000 years. The ancient art form of backstrap weaving is an ancient Maya tradition that is relatively unchanged and continues throughout the country today. The beautiful blue, pink, orange, and green household textiles and clothing can be purchased at markets and shops throughout the country, but many of them originate from the small villages surrounding Lake Atitlán. Multiple women-run-and-operated co-ops reside in villages such as San Marcos la Laguna and San Juan la Laguna, which adhere to the traditional method of textile weaving.
The skilled women use a backstrap loom made from a piece of bamboo and wield their own body weight against a belt (or a backstrap) to increase or decrease the tension in their loom. Not only are the finished products 100% handmade, but they’re also naturally colored using homemade dyes created from various plants, tree bark, flowers, and fruit — making them eco-friendly and sustainable. Check out a free demonstration of the weaving process, shop for local goods, and even sign up to make your own scarf at Atitlán Women Weavers or Casa Flor Ixcaco Weaving Cooperative in San Juan.
Indigenous women in Bolgatanga, a village in northern Ghana, keep their heritage alive by upholding the tradition of hand-weaving “Bolga baskets.” Originally used to filter a home-brewed alcohol known as pito, these baskets now have many important uses throughout the region’s communities. One of the most important is as a source of income. Northern Ghana suffers from infertile soil and sporadic rain, making agriculture a challenge. Women offset the shortfalls of crop production by weaving baskets and partnering with international companies to earn extra income for themselves and their families.
Only 10,000 of the 225,000 people in the 19 communities of Bolgatanga possess the skills to weave these baskets, which are made from sturdy, sundried elephant grass known as veta vera. The laborious process includes splitting each piece of straw with one's teeth, twisting it by hand, and dyeing it before the weaving even begins. Then the base is created, followed by the sides and rim, and lastly, the handles are added. The entire process takes up to five days to complete. There are many fair-trade organizations that partner directly with the craftspeople of Bolgatanga to sell their products. Baskets of Africa and Bolgatanga Baskets are two such fair-trade wholesalers.
From elaborate teak woodwork to kantha quilts, India is a handicraft hub of talented artisans. Folding wooden tables, known as choktses, were first made to accommodate the nomadic lifestyle of Ladakh’s people, but today, appreciation for the intricate, hand-carved furniture is steadily growing. Wood-carving is the most important art form in small Himalayan villages such as Wanla and Chomlagsar. The villages are the main producers of the wooden tables adorned with highly detailed, brightly colored motifs of religious and nature scenes.
Choktses are not just souvenirs — they’re an integral part of the region’s culture and commonly used in monasteries, restaurants, and homes. The effort that goes into each table is immense, with the pieces of table first cut from logs, and then intricately carved with the artist’s free-hand designs transferred from stenciled paper. The raw table then undergoes polishing, varnishing, and painting before it’s finished. The Moti Market in the city of Leh is a great place to shop for these one-of-a-kind pieces.
Batik is an art form that has swept across Asia and other parts of the world, but its origins are securely rooted on the Indonesian island of Java. Batik, stemming from the word "ambatik," which means “dotted piece of cloth” in Malay, is the craft of applying wax onto a white piece of fabric using a pen called a tjanting. The fabric is then dipped into a dye bath and the areas covered in wax remain white. The artist applies a second round of wax and dips it into another dye bath, and the areas covered in the second batch of wax remain the color of the first dye.
This process is repeated until the desired pattern and colors are achieved. Java is known for its traditional art, but for none more so than the varying forms of batik found across the island. Pekalongan is a city with several villages that produce the elegantly decorated fabric. Pesindon and Wiradesa are other must-see batik-producing villages. hose eager to learn more and view authentic batik antiques should stop by the International Batik Center in Pekalongan.
Carpet-making is a way of life in many Bulgarian households in the Balkan Mountains. Since the 17th century, Chiprovtsi has been a major producer of internationally acclaimed kilimi, or handwoven floor tapestries. In 2014, the town was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Today, almost every home in the small town has a vertical loom that women use to hand-weave two-sided tapestries designed with geometric patterns depicting humans, animals, and birds. While the women are responsible for the actual production and design planning, the men are in charge of processing and dyeing the wool.
Originally, red and black were the only two colors used, but modern-day carpets now incorporate yellow, green, blue, and brown thread. Tourists can admire this generational craft at the Chiprovtsi Carpet Festival, which takes place in early May every year and includes an outdoor exhibition. Carpets are available for purchase in small stores around Chiprovtsi, such asKirpa, or in larger, more accessible stores in Sofia, such as Tchushkarcheto Velika Ivanova.