When I see handmade cloth, with its uneven selvedges and irregularities, I feel a kinship. My mother was a weaver. I would come home from school and find my mother weaving, warping, or winding yarn. She wove on traditional four- or eight-harness looms, wooden frames the size of a grand piano. I grew up with the household sounds (and vocabulary) of the 1700s—the whizz of a shuttle, the thump of the beater, the rattle of heddles, and the shunk of harnesses.
My mother made suitings, dress fabrics, coverlets, upholstery, shawls, tablecloths—hundreds of yards. Now eighty-nine, she wove into her late seventies when the physical labor became too strenuous. But her creations will last forever, as handwoven cloth does. The oldest known textile fibers, twisted flaxen cords from the Caucasus, are 34,000 years old. I am pretty sure that 34,000 years from now archaeologists will be baffled by evidence of a mid-twentieth century handweaving culture in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
Mom always claimed mathematical and mechanical incompetence, but weaving requires converting a two-dimensional idea into a three-dimensional process. Before throwing a shuttle—which carries the weft thread—the weaver must wind, section, and thread the warp, consisting of hundreds of long, clingy, or slippery ends (as they’re called) without breaking, scrambling, or miscounting them. Spend a childhood watching this, and no one will ever be able to pull the wool over your eyes as far as fabric is concerned.
Until the invention of the power loom in 1790, women (mostly) had to weave their own cloth—unless they were rich. Everyone needed clothes, blankets, towels, sacks, shrouds. The staggering labor and art that went into producing cloth by hand, plus its utility, prestige, and beauty made it a store of value like gold, a universal currency.
Cloth as currency is at the heart of the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s breathtaking new exhibit, “Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800,” up through January 5.
We think of the globalized textile industry mainly as a depressing contemporary phenomenon—the hollowing out of Western manufacturing, exploitation of poor Asian workers—the old Econ 101 concept of comparative advantage. In fact, textile production has been shifting back and forth between West and East for over five hundred years, and with it our ideas of design and fashion.
In 1453, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople disrupted the overland routes that had brought Asian silks and spices to Europe, setting off the search for sea routes east. In 1498, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it to India’s Calicut coast (modern-day Kozhikode in Kerala State), a region the Portuguese then colonized. Indian cotton became their preferred currency for purchasing spices in Molucca (Indonesia).
Pretty soon, Portuguese traders were getting Indian weavers and other textile craftspeople to tailor designs to Indonesian taste. The English arrived in India in 1600, followed by the Dutch. European patterns found their way east. Indian and Chinese weavers copied these for the European markets, introducing Asian design elements in the process. European manufacturers, in turn, copied or adapted Asian motifs. In the Americas, Chinese designs found their way into Mexican and Peruvian textiles via cloth brought on Spanish ships from Manila. Traders also brought dyes popular in Europe to Asia. Western motifs found their way into Japan via China.
Examples of all these cross-currents are in this vast exhibit—134 pieces, including grandiose tapestries, bedspreads, ecclesiastical garments, dresses, and waistcoats from India, China, England, France, Italy, Peru, Mexico, and elsewhere.
The Met show displays maps of the overlapping trade routes. But the patterns of influence are as hard to keep straight as a ball of yarn. (Here’s a timeline.)
Between 1500 and 1800, global trade in textiles scrambled the techniques, designs, and materials of Europe, Asia, and Latin America so thoroughly, that scholars, even using scientific analysis, can’t tell where certain textiles came from. Some seventeenth-century woven silk patterns incorporate so many influences that scholars gave up trying and dubbed them “bizarre.” Most designs in the show are clearly representational or geometric, but in one “bizarre” acqua, indigo, and gold satin, the shapes can’t seem to decide whether they are dragons, birds, or vines, anticipating the sinuousness of art nouveau.
Two sounds regularly break the quiet of the galleries: piercing alarms as viewers lean too close to uncovered pieces in the dim light and gasps of admiration at the workmanship. A gold Bengali silk quilted bedcover, commissioned by the Portuguese for export to Europe, has a galleon in the center and a border of vines and leaves. The color is uniform, but look close (taking care not to set off the alarm) and you’ll see that the puffy areas are shaded by thousands of tiny satin stitches to create a contrast to the shiny cloth.
I never learned to weave. Only one person at a time can use a loom, and in my mother’s house, that wouldn’t have been me. I taught myself to embroider, which, like weaving, connects you to a time when ordinary people made everyday things beautiful. Once I was embroidering on the subway in Toronto, where I went to university, and an old Ukrainian man leaned over approvingly: “You arre verrry in-dostrrious.” If I’d been his daughter, he would have married me off. Or maybe he wanted to marry me himself.
The embroidery in the Met show is gasp-inducing. Among the most astonishing pieces is a vast (142 ¾ inches x 189 inches), Chinese-made tapestry depicting the Abduction of Helen. It’s also one of the stranger cultural mixtures in design terms. Primarily embroidered, with painted faces, arms, and legs, Paris and his men are a tumble of mustachioed, helmeted Portuguese soldiers wearing what looks like Chinese imperial garb adorned with cross-eyed dragons. The buildings in Helen’s hometown, Mycenae, look suspiciously like the ones facing the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon. You can even see the chandeliers through the windows.
The Met has done an admirable job explaining the trajectory of the pieces and their influences. (For more history, I recommend the catalogue, though it’s expensive at $65.) But one question, which I overheard people asking on both my visits, the museum doesn’t answer: Who made these pieces? How many people? Under what conditions? How long did it take? Palace-size pieces such as the Abduction of Helen or an astonishing embroidered bed-hanging that is perfect from both sides must have employed entire ateliers. Were they slaves, servants, free? I couldn’t help but think about their working conditions. Did they embroider from sunup to sundown? Did they go blind? How long would it take to thread a loom or weave such fine silk? My mother used to tell me that Indian weavers traditionally wove in a small error—an incomplete repeat of a pattern element, for example—so as not to appear presumptuous to the gods.
The human scale of the pieces from Mexico and Peru came as a relief after the Asian ones. An embroidered wedding coverlet—white cotton, trails of flowers, and presumably the happy couple—is proudly signed in large letters filling a wide border: “Fabrica de Doña Rosa Solis Y Menendez, En Merida de Yucatan en Quatro de Enero del Año de Mil Sietecientos Ochenta y 6.” Made by Doña Rosa de Solis in Mérida de Yucatán, January Four of the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty-Six. The signature—a key element of the design— makes it a literally unforgettable wedding gift. Who knows whether the recipients appreciated the gesture. Pero, nosotros, sí. Gracias, Doña Rosa, for the gift of a name to honor and appreciate, amid so much undeserved anonymity.
Most of the last section of the exhibit is devoted to the Indian cottons known as chintz, printed and painted in twining flower motifs that became popular in eighteenth-century Europe and North America. Vibrant, inexpensive, and washable, they were used for clothes and hangings, the latter called palampores featuring a central tree-of-life motif. Typically printed in black, indigo, and madder on a white background, they foreshadowed mass-produced textiles. After England and France banned the import of Indian cottons, fearing competition, their own industries imitated these popular motifs themselves. (For a primer on chintz production, click here.)
The chintz section features narrow-waisted, full-skirted gowns that made me think of the late couturier Alexander McQueen’s designs. There was something subversively sexual about the contrast between the boned and fitted bodices, the meticulous pleating, the built-up hips, and the controlled explosion of the flowers.
“Textiles other than tapestries have traditionally been undervalued as works of art, overlooked sometimes because they fall into the domestic sphere, their makers often anonymous and frequently female,” writes Amelia Peck, the American decorative arts curator who supervised the exhibit, in an essay in its catalogue. In a way, the Interwoven Globe exhibit is a kind of allegory: how envy of the astonishing ability of the textile artisan spawned mass-production and put her out of business. Simply put, everyone wanted to wear and own such beautiful things. So people—men, largely—figured out how to make them cheaper, faster, if not better.
I don’t mean to glorify the drudgery side of textile production—who wants to weave burlap bags or dish towels, to say nothing of diapers? Mass production of textiles freed up epochs of time, especially for women. And yet, having watched someone make cloth for years, I feel connected to an elemental part of human history. Perhaps people who grow up on a wheat farm feel similarly about bread.
On one visit to the Interwoven World exhibit, I fell into mutual wonderment with a Scottish lady over the Bengali quilt. “How could they weave it so wide?” she asked. Instinctively, I repeated my mother’s phrase, “A handwoven piece can only be as wide as a weaver can throw a shuttle.” We looked for a while, and sure enough, found two almost invisible seams made with the tiniest of stitches. “How about that?” the lady said. “Who would have known?”
Julia Lichtblau is the Book Review Editor for The Common. Her writing is forthcoming in the American Fiction 13 anthology and has appeared in Narrative, The Florida Review, Best Paris Stories, Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere.
Photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art