From Wilson, Kax. History of Textiles, 1979
INDIAN TEXTILE HISTORY
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
THE SHAWLS OF KASHMIR
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
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
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
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.