The Fabric of India – V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles

Indian Textile Royalty

Woman’s peshwaz (detail), cotton with coloured metal foil, gilded silver strips and sequins, North India, 1800–50. courtesy © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While integral to the Indian identity through export, the textiles of India became enormously appealing from the 16th to the 19th centuries, to the wider world at large.

This autumn the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum at London has a focus on India. Its exciting festival is all about marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of their gallery named for Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), first Prime Minister of India 1947 – 1964 a central figure in Indian politics before and after its independence from the British Empire.

They will offer exhibitions and displays of some of the most important objects from the V&A’s South Asian art collection. Sacred and secular, the textiles of India are indeed a broad ranging and very extensive subject for study.

Indian Fabric Royal

Costume, Lucknow, India (made) 19th century (made), Embroidered silk with applied gold ribbon, courtesy V&A Museum, London

Demonstrating the wealth of rulers and the skills of craftsmen, surviving pieces reveal that courtly patronage produced some of the finest textiles ever made, including costume detailed with coloured metal foil, gilded silver strips and sequins.

The changing role of the various Maharajas of India and their patronage of the arts, both at home and abroad will be explored, showcasing objects symbolic of royal status, power and identity.

Paintings of grand processions will reveal how a ruler was lavishly be-jewelled and dressed, so he would give everyone else the impression of a superior being.

Thought to have belonged to the ‘Queen of Oudh’, one woman’s court costume is thought likely to have been worn at by a ‘dancer or noblewoman’ at the Lucknow Court.

Underneath the overdress wide trousers were popular in several centres of North India during the first half of the 19th century.

At Gujarat in the royal workshops weavers made elaborate silks with human, animal and flower designs.

On the Deccan plain hand-drawn and dyed cottons were royal clothing and furnishings. The imperial workshops of the Mughal Emperors favoured floral and figural wall hangings, often based on European or Iranian designs.

India 1

Tent hanging, India (north, made), early 18th century (made, Quilted and embroidered cotton in silk, courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum , London

Hindu rulers in the south of India drew on local painting traditions as well as the aesthetics of Mughal flower patterns to create courtly masterpieces.

Now on show until 10th January 2016 an exhibition The Fabric of India explores the ‘dynamic and multifaceted world of handmade textiles’.

Produced from the second millennium BC until the 18th century, Indian textiles were the most advanced of their time.

The V&A has an extensive collection documenting over 5000 years of world history, including woven, printed and embroidered South Asian textiles.

For the show some 200 objects have been assembled, highlighting the variety and adaptability of textiles in India from 3rd century BC to 21st century AD.

Silk, cotton, linen and muslins from India are some of the most popular of all the historical fabrics, which have either regained or retained their popularity.

While integral to the Indian identity through export their stunning array of textiles were enormously appealing. Colourful magical fabrics inspired great industry, evoking political intrigue and wars, although that is not the narrative here.

Magnificent tents used by royalty and nobles on the move were usually lined with handmade Textiles.

India 2

Palampore, Coromandel Coast, India (made), ca. 1700 (made), Painted and Dyed Cotton Chintz, courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum , London

Quilted and embroidered in silk this cotton made in the north of India during the eighteenth century into a fabulous hanging is thought to have been used either in a tent or on the walls of a grand palace.

One palampore, a bed-cover or hanging,  has been cut down from its original rectangular shape, presumably to fit a bed.

It depicts a type of imaginary flowering tree typical of designs used by fabric painters of the Coromandel Coast in southeast India, for furnishing fabrics commissioned by western patrons.

This famous Indian tree pattern still popular today, was printed onto cotton to imitate expensive silk.

Haberdashers, weavers and dyers, all wealthy merchants belonging to the Broderer’s company in London, developed the trade in Indian textiles with London, especially in painted or stayned and printed chintzes (Hindi for chint meaning variegated).

It was during Elizabeth 1’s reign a charter was first granted to the East India Company (1601 first trading venture) to exchange unsuccessfully, English woollen cloth for spices.

Its policy at the time was to allow its employees to also trade in other goods privately.

Indian Robe

Spectacular overdress: Costume, Lucknow, India (made) 19th century (made), Embroidered silk with applied gold ribbon, courtesy V&A Museum, London

So it became inevitable a demand for beautiful oriental furnishing textiles and dress fabrics plus wallpapers, ceramics, lacquer ware, silver. Gold, ivory and fans from their private trade would far outstrip supply and expand a passion for eastern goods in the west.

Printed Border Indian Cotton

Detail: Border of Petticoat piece-goods, Coromandel Coast, India (south, made), 3rd quarter 18th century (made), Painted and Dyed Cotton Chintz, courtesy V&A, London

As might have been expected, this proved unacceptable to inhabitants of the tropical Spice Islands, and a three-way trade developed, with India providing painted and printed cottons, called pintadoes or chintes.

Printed Indian Cotton

Bed cover adapted from fabric for a skirt: Petticoat piece-goods, Coromandel Coast, India (south, made), 3rd quarter 18th century (made), Painted and Dyed Cotton Chintz, courtesy V&A, London

At first all the cargoes from the East were bound together under the generic description ‘Indian’ because they were brought out of China overland to the Coromandel Coast in India, where they were crated and shipped to England and Europe.

Indian cottons or calico named for Calicut (Kozhikode) on the Malabar coast of India, a seaside city notable as a ‘city of spices’ during the Middle Ages were immediately appreciated for their colourfast and colourful properties.

This bedcover of painted and dyed cotton chintz is a delightfully designed length of fabric, originally intended to be made into a skirt. Arcades enclose European figures and the border would hung down around the sides of the bed with the borderless top tucked in at the bed-head

The lightness of the cotton cloth was an absolute novelty. With coloured stripes or checks or painted and printed, the key to why cottons became so popular was their colourful dyes, which formed an insoluble compound on cotton, a natural fibre whose washability made it popular for window and bed hangings and bedspreads.

India 3

Rumal, Punjab Hills, India (made) 18th century (made) Embroidered cotton with silk, courtesy V&A Museum, London

Designs included coloured oriental plants, flowers, birds and butterflies.

The cloth was block printed and its colours set fast with mordants a method known in the Mediterranean world in ancient times but one that had been lost to England and Europe for centuries.

Textiles were collected for shipping by the British during the joint reign of William and Mary in England (1672 – 1702). Diarist Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) imported cottons to hang on the walls of his wife’s study.

He also recorded he had an ‘India Gown’ made of cotton, which he called ‘chinke’ in his diary.

The establishment of a locally based British cotton and silk industry began in 1676 when William Sherwin was granted a patent for fourteen years for a new way of printing broad calicoe in the only true way of East India printing and stayning such kind of goods.

The textiles were of various qualities, woven with coloured stripes, checks or painted and printed. Their instant popularity resulted in a depression and even riots in the silk and linen weaving trades.

India 5

Dress or furnishing fabric, Coromandel Coast, India (made), ca. 1715-1725 (made), Cotton, resist and mordant-dyed, courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum , London

The blame was entirely laid at the feet of Queen Mary who loved the colourful, and very appealingly designed, East India calicos. The government was then obliged to introduce two acts to restrain and at last prohibit the use of imported finished cloth

Chintz also proved popular in France, inspiring the founding of the French provincial cotton traditions. Antoine de Beaulieu a young employee of the French Compagnie des Indes committed industrial espionage to learn the secret of their dyes, discovering metallic salts, called mordents, were the key to the process. When combined with the dyes they formed an insoluble compound on natural fibres.

Huguenots, or French Protestants arriving in England in 1685 fleeing the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV expanded their manufacture in England. A document that had granted religious toleration in France meant they all fled, bringing advanced techniques of Textile production across the channel.

A length of painted and dyed cotton (chintz) made 1715-1725 in the V & A’s collection is very fine, its meandering floral pattern strongly influenced by French design for woven silks popular at the time.

They were called ‘bizarre’ because they were covered with imaginary fruits or other exotic looking objects English people did not understand. The evolution of window, bed and upholstery design in the west are closely linked to their development.

Muslin 1

Detail: Gown, India (textile, made), England, Great Britain (gown, made) ca.1800, Muslin, embroidered in cotton thread, courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum , London

During the 19th century muslin was used extensively for under-curtains or ‘glass curtains’ hung on simple rods next to the glass.

Sheer fabrics such as Muslin, have much to offer in terms of modern decoration, and have always played a part in historical decoration. At its best in white or, off white, it can also be dyed with soft pale colours working best and also embroidered.

Muslin 2

Gown, India (textile, made), England, Great Britain (gown, made) ca.1800, Muslin, embroidered in cotton thread, courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum , London

Organdie is a slightly stiffer version of Muslin, used originally as a stiffener for clothing or a lining giving firmness to the main fabric covering it. It has a more sculptural effect than muslin if used alone, and is excellent for lining silk.

Muslin was traditionally hung at windows or around beds in hot countries to filter light, to prevent insects coming through open windows and to give privacy in urban streets.

Even though tenting one’s bed with muslin can seem romantic fancy, in hot countries in particular, it is in fact exceedingly practical, shielding the sleeper from the sun or from insects and the idea of coolness and light is conveyed by its draping.

Made of cotton, exclusively in India the term translucent was applied to the gauze like open mesh fabric we know as Muslin today

Artist Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun painted France’s Queen Marie Antoinette in 1782 wearing a thin Muslin dress, a fabric she favoured above all others because it saved money.

Her different attempts to reduce royal spending at the time were not appreciated, despite some calling her attempted changes revolutionary

Josephine 1812

The hem of Empress Josephine’s skirt, detailed in an 1812 portrait of her in The Hermitage Museum, is adorned with a complex pattern associated with Indian Shawls of the period.

Muslin became popular during the Empire period in France again under Napoleon and across the channel during the Regency period in London (1792 – 1830). One gown in the V & A collection made in 1800 of very fine muslin is also embroidered with a floral pattern.

This style of frock caused concern at the time as unsuitable for the climate in England and France expect on hot days in summer.

The fashion for under the bust style frocks made of Muslin were named Empire, in honour of the style led by high born French women in the reign of Empress Josephine, who favoured wearing Muslin.

She had two motives… after the French revolution it reflected concern for spending the money of the people. Secondly she was caught up in the fashion for frocks based on those in antiquity, which was all the rage.

Josephine and her lady friends splashed their Muslin dresses with water, making it transparent to show off their figures before going out, imitating the robes worn by women portrayed in classical Greek and Roman statues admired at the time. It did lead to many women contracting pneumonia.

The neo classical movement, no less than the French Revolution, turned London into a fashion centre of the world during first decade of the nineteenth century.

c19-lady-in-shawlThis was when white became the most fashionable colour to wear, although offset by natural colours such as stone and terracotta, or brilliant ones such as lapis blue and malachite green, especially for contrasting accessories like bags and stoles.

Sheer undressing was all the rage… Jane Austen commented in a letter to her sister Cassandra 8th January 1801…”Martha and I dined yesterday at Deane to meet the Powletts. Mrs. Powlett was at once expensively and nakedly dressed…now wearing Muslin in the middle of winter in rural Hampshire demanded a certain degree of devotion to fashion, one we may find difficult to share” said Jane.

Cashmere shawls produced in the Kashmir region of India originally for men to wear became fashionable with western women. Made from the finest type of cashmere wool from a special breed of ‘Pashmina’ goat and first woven as an industry in the city of Kashmir, they wrapped them around themselves to keep warm.

As early as the 3rd century such textiles were mentioned in Afghan texts although it would be the 15th century ruler of Kashmir, India Zayn-ul-Abidin, who would be attributed with the founding of an industry, bringing in weavers from Central Asia.

When they first appeared in Britain they became a great favourite with the ladies.

Especially when copies using English sheep’s wool were made… produced by the weavers in brilliant colours at Norwich, Edinburgh and Paisley.

The latter became the name synonymous with the design of the ‘Cashmere’ or ‘Pashimina’ shawl, inspired by Indian originals.

There is a book The Fabric of India to accompany the Exhibition, which explores in great detail the materials and techniques used in their manufacture and discusses centres of production, patronage, markets and designs.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

The Fabric of India
Victoria & Albert Museum



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