Textiles at the Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a small section devoted to textiles. I was taken by the description of the display rather than any particular piece. This is what the curator has written.

From outside the house-gates they heard Circe, the Goddess with the comely braided hair, singing tunefully within by the great loom as she went to and fro, weaving with her shuttle such close imperishable fabric as is the wont of goddesses, some lively lustrous thing.’

(Homer, The Odyssey)

Textile making is one of the oldest technologies. The earliest evidence for loom weaving goes back to about 7000 BC, but twisting and knotting yarn into ropes and nets was practiced much earlier.

Textiles are easier to transport than ceramics and glass. As trade items they have had a key role in the transmission of design and technique.

They can be appreciated as works of art in their own right. But our understanding of textiles is enhanced if we know about their historical and social role, and when we understand something about their making.

Clothing is more than protection from the elements. It is identified with gender, age, status, and cultural identity.

The Role of Textiles in Cross-Cultural Exchange

‘The principle riches consist chiefly of silk and cotton stuffs, wherewith everyone from Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot.’

(The French traveller François Pyrard writing from Goa, India, early 1600s)

Textiles are among the most important manufactured goods to move between cultures. Their ultimate fragility sometimes lets us forget that they start out far more durable than ceramics and glass, and they are of course more portable. In the Ancient Mediterranean world, linen and wool textiles were traded between Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Fashionable ladies in Ancient Rome dressed in Chinese silk.

Chinese textile designs also influenced the arts of Persia and Byzantium. Indian painted and printed cotton textiles were in demand in East and West alike, so much so that they became the most widely accepted currency of exchange in the Indian Ocean spice trade.

Place: Gujarat

Date: 19th century.

Materials and technique: silk, double ikat dyed with metal thread.

Dimensions: 358 x 126 cm (warp & weft).

Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them. Exodus . 26:1

The Social Importance of Textiles

The role of textiles goes far beyond a functional purpose. Dress and display fabrics are used to indicate status and rank. Patterns, techniques, and specific fibres can be associated with social, political or religious positions. They may be gender-specific or emphasise a cultural identity.

Textiles can separate sacred from profane space, and as priestly robes or bridal outfits they may emphasize a ceremonial role or state of transition.

In the past cloth making was a major industry generating wealth and prestige. Weavers’ guilds owned sumptuous houses, and in 15th-century Florence, a skilled weaver sometimes was paid more than a painter.”

Boy's coat with floral pattern (front)

Place: North India

Date: late 19th century.

Materials and technique: silk, embroidered with gilded metal thread and sequins, cotton lining, printed and dyed purple.

Dimensions: 45 x 69 cm


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