Although silk was indeed a highly sought after and frequently traded ware that lends the Silk Roads its name, fabrics and clothing made from other materials were also exchanged along these routes and formed part of the broader network of cross-cultural interactions taking place within the field of textile production and design. Whilst the earliest evidence of silk weaving dates from between 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, there exists plenty of textile fragments made of other materials including wool, cotton and hemp plant fibres, uncovered from archaeological sites in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, North Western China. These textiles can reveal much about the setting and environment in which they were produced as well as shed further light on the different modes of living that existed along the Silk Roads. These modes of living included nomadic, sedentary agriculturalist, urban, and the varied lives of people who were consistently moving across the Silk Roads engaged in mercantile, scholarly, and diplomatic activity. Today clothing and textiles remain outstanding elements of the inter-cultural exchange that took place along these historic routes.
Textiles up to 3000 years old have been found in Xinjiang where at the time nomadic pastoral farming was dispersing across Central Asia. From later periods, in the same region, there exists archaeological remnants of clothing belonging to travellers from China, the Greco-Roman world, Parthia (North Eastern of modern Iran), Sogdia (parts of present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and the Kushan Empire (in the Northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent), all of which point towards extensive contact between these varied groups. Evidence for this exchange and eventual mutual influence can be seen in garment types, textile designs, and techniques of production, with sericulture and the popularity of silk garments, cotton and, wool amongst some of the best examples.
As well as the exchange between East and West that connected China to Mediterranean regions, and China with Korea and Japan, there was also extensive exchange taking place between regions to the North and South, between the pastoral nomads who roamed seasonally across the lands to the north of the Iranian plateau and sedentary agriculturalist populations in China. These two different styles of living precipitated the popularity of textiles made from different materials with different production techniques and specific types of fibres pointing towards these different modes of living. For example, pastoral nomads tended to use a lot of wool from the sheep they grazed across the steppe requiring large pastures to support themselves whereas sedentary agriculturalists remained in one place to tend to the mulberry plants required for sericulture.
Alternatively, cloth making required a different set of skills, including processing wool and hides, manufacturing thread, and developing stitching techniques. Resources obtained from livestock remained the primary raw material of these craft industries. Sheep’s wool was used to manufacture felt, while belts, harnesses, headgear, clothing, and footwear were made from the skins of domesticated livestock. In terms of clothing type and functional design, scholars, diplomats, artisans, merchants and farmers adopted a manner of dress appropriate to their immediate environment. In the Iranian Plateau, Khorasan region was a renowned centre for silk, wool, and cotton textiles, while Nishapur was noted for its cotton cloth, scarves, and turbans that were often exported to Iraq and Egypt. In nomadic societies, herders made items that met immediate requirements related to climate, lifestyle, and mobility.
An excellent example of a specific clothing type being introduced to new regions via exchange along the Silk Roads is the popularising of the wearing of trousers amongst men in China. Mongolian nomads were the primary suppliers of horses to their neighbouring regions and it was during the Han Dynasty (221–206 BCE) that Mongolian horses were first introduced to China via trade. The introduction of Mongolian horses, and with it the practice of horse riding, had a deep impact on Chinese culture, particularly within clothing styles and garment types leading to the widespread adoption of trousers as an item of clothing that was closely linked to mobility along the Silk Roads.
Much of the inter-cultural exchange taking place can be evidenced in the design and ornamentation used on clothing and textiles. Stylized flora and fauna were very popular imagery used across Central Asia whilst other textiles used identifiable figures from the myths and epic poems of other regions, images of which had probably first been seen on other objects exchanged across the Silk Roads and then imitated, in turn creating a shared vocabulary within textile design. Textiles and clothing continued to transform and gain complexity over time by taking on an extended number of influences from other regions. However, they never lost their uniqueness or embedded cultural elements, resulting in a diversity of designs, fabrics, methods of production that capture well the exchange between nomads, merchants, and agriculturalists along the Silk Roads.