From Wilson, Kax. History of Textiles, 1979




            The record of ancient and medieval Indian textiles exists mostly in literature and sculpture. There is archaeological evidence of a cotton textile industry at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley around 3000 B.C., and a few fragments survive from much later periods. Most of the extant textiles are dated after the seventeenth century, because the monsoon climate has been very destructive to early specimens. The Greeks with Alexander the Great wrote of the fine flowered muslins and robes embroidered in gold they had seen in India. They may also have seen the cotton fiber that grew on trees.

            A handbook of administration, the Arthasastra, tentatively dated to the third century B.C.,1 dealt with methods for distributing materials to spinners and weavers whether the workers were guild members or worked privately at home. At that time few occupations were open to women. Indeed, women who elected not to marry were not allowed to hold jobs. However, weaving was permitted to widows and retired prostitutes. The Arthasastra gave the penalties for fraudulent practices and listed the taxes to be paid by weavers. Among the textiles mentioned were white bark cloth from Bengal, linen from Banaras, cottons from south India, and several kinds of blankets, the best described as being slippery and soft.

            In ancient and medieval India the textile industries were politically controlled, and if a ruler was favorably disposed towards the arts, weaving prospered. Differentiation was made between the rural textiles woven for the masses and those made in state workshops for royalty and the well-to-do in other countries  (Plate 48). The best workmanship was found in the ritual hangings for temples, and even in modern times it has been considered preferable to destroy worn ones rather than allow them to fall into foreign hands.

          Few good commentaries survive from the early medieval period (900­ - 1200 A.D.) when terms were used inconsistently. Fabric names apparently repre­sented the places where they were woven, and details about weaving techniques were scanty.

            The Muslim period in India extended from around 1200 A.D. to 1760 when the British took over. A succession of sultans controlled most of India until Genghis Khan attacked early in the thirteenth century and Tammerlane invaded in the late fourteenth. Marco Polo left detailed accounts of the people and industries of the coastal regions of India in the late thirteenth century. He mentioned seeing on the Coromandel Coast the finest and most beautiful cloth in all the world-buckrams like the tissues of spider webs, and he observed dyeing with indigo in the great tex­tile center of Cambay and spinning of cotton in Gujarat. Under the Sultan of Delhi (1325-1351) price controls for food, cloth, and other commodities were initiated to help fight inflation. A permit was required to buy silks, satins, and brocades, and only the well-to-do were allowed to have them. The sultan employed four thousand silk weavers who made robes of honor, hangings, and gifts of gold brocade for foreign dignitaries.

            Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, founded a new and important dynasty, the Mogul, in 1526. A series of great rulers-the greatest Akbar who ruled for the second half of the sixteenth century-governed a glorious empire where the textile arts flourished until the late seventeenth century. Some of the best accounts of Indian textiles were written by European ambassadors to the Mogul courts. Fabulous horse and elephant trappings, as well as the apparel, pillows, and wall hangings, were remarked upon. A king always wore a garment but once. There were marvelous gold brocades called kimhabs, or kincobs, from Banaras. Writers proclaimed on the sheerness of Dacca muslins, called evening dew, running water, or sweet-like-sherbert. Seventy-three yards, a yard wide, weighed only one pound. By comparison, the finest Swiss cottons ever made were at best sixteen or seventeen yards to the pound.

          European settlements appealed in India in the latter part of the Mogul period. Motivated by the desire to break the spice trade monopoly held by Venice and the Arabs, Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India by sailing around Africa in 1498, and by 1510 the Portuguese had jurisdiction in Goa on the west coast of India. For a short time they controlled the Asian trade by taking over the port of Malacca (near Singapore), where they met trading junks from China. The Portuguese carried pintados (painted cottons) east from India to trade for spices.

            Indian textiles were more important to the Dutch and the English than to the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company was chartered in 1597, the East India Company in 1600. Their ships went first to India with bullion to exchange for the cotton textiles that could be bartered for spices in the Malay Archipelago. Eventually, the Dutch gained a monopoly in Indonesia, with trade centered in Java, and the English withdrew to India to establish trading stations known as "factories." One of the intentions of the East India Company was to sell English woolens in Asia, but broadcloth was never more than a novelty in India. By 1649 the British were sending chintz (see chapter 4) and cheap cotton calico to England. Much was for reexport to America, the Near East, West Africa, and the slave plantations in the West Indies. A four-cornered trade developed. The East India Company shipped calicos to London where they were sold to the Royal Africa Company. The latter shipped them in turn to West Africa as guinea-cloth to be bar­tered for people. These slaves, and any remaining cloth, were shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, cotton, and tobacco-all cargoes bound back for England.


Contemporary Indian Textiles


            Where tradition, not fashion, rules, concentration on the aesthetic can prevail instead of mere change. Indian textile heritage has been preserved by the woman's sari, which often exhibits fine weaving, delicate textures, beautiful colors, and rich patterns (Plate 49). A formal sari might be of silk (or a cotton called jamdani), brocaded in floral patterns formed with many tiny bobbins, each holding a different color. An everyday sari could be a simple striped or checked cotton or a solid made iridescent by having the warp of one color, the weft of another. Sometimes saris are exquisitely block printed with gold or silver floral sprays or show allover spot patterns of tie-dye. Ikat is used for traditional diamond or trellis patterns.

            Embroidery is important in India and there are many regional styles. Sometimes it is the work of village women; other times it is done by male professionals. There is a vast difference between the work that reaches western markets and the fine embroidery, important for its symbolism, that was made for the courts and temples of old India.

            Phulkari (flower work) is a specialty of Punjab embroiderers. Bright-colored floss silk is worked on cotton with a darning stitch (Plate 50). Phulkari is sometimes combined with the mirror work that originated when blue and green beetle backs were sewn onto wedding garments of the hill tribes of southern India. Orthodox Hindus disapproved the practice and so pieces of mica were substituted. Eventually the mica was replaced by bits of glass or mirrors.

            A type of chain stitch is worked with a hook in Gujarat to make birds, animals, humans, and flowers in bold colors. In the valley of the Ganges plant designs are worked in white on soft fabrics using satin stitch, and near Bombay running stitches make delightful animal figures on loosely woven cotton. The cross stitch is popular all across India.

            Carpets are still made in India, as they have been for hundreds of years. Most are made with knotted wool pile on a cotton back. Patterns are strongly Persian but show a preference for naturalistic plants and animals.


            In the nineteenth century a Kashmir shawl was one of the rarest and most beau­tiful gifts that could be offered to any woman (Plate 51). The romantic appeal was enhanced by descriptions of the Vale of Kashmir, known as one of the dream spots of the earth. Isolated by the Himalayas, too remote to be of much interest to the conquerors who passed back and forth across Asia, Kashmir served for hundreds of years as a resort for India's nobility.

            Woolen blankets and shawls were woven and exported to the Roman Empire, but the Kashmir industry became famous after Zain-ul'Abidin (1420-1470 A.D.) brought in Turkestanni and Persian weavers. By the sixteenth century shawls were being hoarded as forms of wealth, and in the late seventeenth Western visitors reported seeing men wearing large decorative scarves across their shoulders. Toward the end of the eighteenth century European and New England ladies discovered "India" shawls; the soft fabric draped beautifully, the colors shimmered, and the pine patterns spoke of the mysterious East. Discerning ambassadors and sea captains carried them home, and a fashion took hold. Napoleon's officers in Egypt sent them to their French ladies around the turn of the century. Josephine owned three or four hundred Kashmirs.


Fibers and Yarns


            The fiber, called cashmere (after the old spelling of Kashmir) or pashmina (de­rived from the Persian pashm), was combed from the undercoat of the Tibetan or Central Asian goat. The goats were not raised in Kashmir; the fiber was imported from nearby Tibet. Other fiber, molted from wild sheep and goats of the high Himalayas, was specially prized for so-called "ring shawls," so fine they could be drawn through finger rings. Women picked and sorted the pashmina, then spun it into 2,500 yard lengths on crude charkhas (see Figure 2.5). The yarn went to the dyers who used some 300 tints in Mogul times, but only about sixty by the beginning of the nineteenth century, when indigo, logwood, carthemus, saffron, and cochineal were among the dyes identified by Western visitors. The delicate colors were made fast by the special waters of Dal Lake.


Making the Shawls

            By the beginning of the nineteenth century, shawl weaving involved several specialists. The warp maker cut the yarns into three and one-half-yard lengths and plied them. Then the warp dresser sized the yarns with rice water and the warp threader prepared the loom. The pattern designer made the design in black and I white, and he and the colorist dictated the colors and numbers of threads to be used to a scribe who wrote it down in a kind of shorthand.2 The weavers wound their weft yarns on many bobbins, small pieces of wood with ends charred so as not to damage the weaving.

          Tilikar (or kani) shawls were made in interlocking twill tapestry, a technique that probably originated in central or western Asia. Each shawl was woven very slowly, face down on a single horizontal loom by one, two, or three weavers. As demand grew, several looms and weavers were employed to make one shawl, a patchwork, easily identified because it would not lie flat (Plate 51).

            After weaving, the shawl was turned over to the cleaner who cut loose threads, and then it went to the mender, the rafugar, who touched up with needlework. The shawl was registered and a tax assessed. Then it was washed, stretched, and packed for export. Prices could be as high as several thousand dollars if the shawl werelarge and intricately woven. The brokers and the tax collectors, not the weavers, made the profits; the weaver was often the first to die in a famine.

            In 1803, an enterprising Armenian representing a Turkish firm in Constantinople introduced the amli (embroidered) shawl. One could be produced at a third the cost of a kani and at first they were not taxed. The early ones were exquisitely worked, but by the late nineteenth century embroidery degenerated to cheap and coarse chain stitch designs on rough cloth.


Shawl Design


            There are several stories giving the origin of the cone design associated with Kashmir shawls (Plate 51). It is at least as old as sixth century Egypt and Sassanian Persia, where it appeared as a curled leaf motif, and it is very common today. One theory is that it derived from the cone of the date palm and symbolized fertility and renewal of life in ancient Chaldea. Another theory dates the motif to the Mogul Emperor Babur who wore in his turban a jeweled ornament, almond shaped with an aigrette of feathers.3 A weaver purportedly copied it and started a fad. The motif has been said to represent the picturesque windings of the Jhelum River, the side impression of a fist (fist palm), a little onion (in Venice), the Persian sacred flame, the wind-blown cypress, a mango (Hindu Kairy), a butha (or buta, a general Indian name for flower), and a cone or a pine. In the West it is called a paisley.

            Kashmir shawl designs were mostly floral until the middle of the eighteenth century, when they began to take on the characteristic cone arrangements. Cones were rather short and fat until the 1830s, when they became elongated with slender tips. By the 1850s they were almost abstract scrolls. Many shawl designs originated in Europe, and at one time Frenchmen went to Kashmir with the purpose of improving the patterns.

            Famine struck Kashmir periodically, but never devastated the weavers as completely as in the 1870s when the Franco-Prussian War closed the French market and the fashion for Kashmir shawls died.