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TEXTILES. The achievements of the weavers, dyers, embroiderers, and pattern designers in the lands of Islam have been acclaimed for more than fifteen hundred years. Textiles were the mainstay of many premodern societies, and they continue to be important in many modern ones. They are woven into the workings of societies in complex ways, distinguishing groups within areas and linking the practice of specific groups across significant geographical expanses. The textile culture of the Islamic world emerges as we view the influences of three strata of society-the official, the mercantile, and the local–on the products of the loom. Differences in materials and techniques, in patterns, and in palette are dictated by group needs and desires. International trade, especially with Western buyers and manufacturers, shaped the output of the premodern loom and influenced the modern one in significant ways.

Textiles in the Islamic world are first of all weavings. Products of the loom, they share the basic principles and techniques with weaving all over the world. Fibers, dyes, and patterning techniques vary over time and place, as do the social functions of the textiles. That textiles from the lands of Islam range from exquisite silk and gold velvets, to nomad wool and animal-hair bags, to sheer embroidered muslin, is not only an indication of the diversity of the loom’s production-a sign of how the loom served various groups within Islamic societies-but is also evidence of how central the art and craft of weaving has always been in the civilization of Islam.

Official society, primarily court society in the premodern period, demanded from the loom not only textiles for daily use but also weavings for magnificent display within the court, for gift-giving, and for ritual processions. One official use of textiles found at all premodern Islamic courts, as well as in the traditions of some modern governments such as Morocco, is the tradition of the khil’ah, commonly understood as a “robe of honor.” Usually more than simply a robe, the khil’ah often included whole outfits of appropriate court clothing. ‘Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, Ottoman sultans, and Mughal shahs alike honored favorite courtiers and visiting dignitaries with gifts of textiles. Elaborate silks with gold and silver threads, and richly embroidered belts, sashes and bands usually constituted the khil’ah. However, khil`ah practice varied by court and according to the recipient; medieval sources indicate that finely woven black wool garments were given to judges at the `Abbasid court, where black was the official court color. Closely associated with khil `ah was the tribute of clothing that governors of provinces often gave to the central court, a practice continued in India into the eighteenth century. The governor of Bengal, for example, sent yearly gifts of clothing and textiles to the Mughal emperor Awrangzib.

In addition to draping reception rooms, sumptuous textiles were hung along the routes of official processions in most Islamic courts. In Fatimid practice in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, white textiles, the official Fatimid color, were displayed along the route from the royal city of Cairo to Fustat for the caliphal ritual procession during Ramadan. Likewise, elaborate multicolored silks were hung along the route between C6rdoba and Medinat al-Zahra for the Umayyad caliph in the tenth century, between Fatehpur-Sikri and Agra in the sixteenth century for the Mughal emperor Akbar, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries along the main ceremonial street in Istanbul for the Ottoman sultans. Magnificence was the norm, and while contemporary writers often described such elegant display in general words of praise, they took care to describe the unique in specific terms, such as the kites carried by soldiers in twelfth-century Faltimid processions, shaped like lions and made of yellow and red textiles, puffed out by the wind through devices inserted into the lion’s mouth. Colors such as saffron yellow and qirmiz red were often distinguished because of their costliness, and fibers such as silk, fine linen, and gold and silver filament, as well as techniques such as velvet and shot silk, were singled out for the way they emphasized the sumptuous bounty of the court.

Another use of textiles shared by almost all groups, especially in the premodern period, was the fabrication of textile tents for official functions. Often very elaborate, such tents were used as mobile residences, headquarters for army commanders, and temporary retreats. Starting in the fifteenth century, rulers in the eastern lands of Islam held court in elaborate, large-scale tents set up in gardens. Timur’s tent court in Samarkand is well known, and the Mughal emperor Akbar lived in a tent city in the later period of his rule. This court “city” moved from place to place, a practice facilitated by the employment of two complete and identical tent cities, one being assembled at a new location while the other was in use. At each location, the residences of the emperor, his generals and court officials, as well as assembly halls, were placed according to a well-established protocol of spatial relationships. In the Mughal and Ottoman courtly practice, the ruler’s tent was further distinguished from those of the members of his court by a textile fence completely surrounding it. Tents used on ceremonial occasions were sometimes fabulously ornamented: for example, in the tent of the tenth century Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir, the known regions of the world were depicted in emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and seas of sapphires stitched onto the interior walls. Most official tents were woven of heavy fabric and ornamented on the inside with walls of specially woven, appliqueed or embroidered fabric. The largest collection of such official tents, in the Military Museum in Istanbul, displays tents of varying design used by members of the Ottoman court from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

The extensive demand courts placed on the looms for specific types of textiles led most imperial courts to formalize arrangements for the production of textiles. Known variously as private embroidery shops, treasuries, or ateliers, these official production centers consisted of weavers, designers, dyers, spinners, embroiderers, and printers who worked to supply the court with textiles in the materials, palette, and design required. Such textile production at the Ottoman and Safavid courts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the most thoroughly researched to date. Of course, courts in the premodern period purchased favored textiles in the marketplace, often by commissioning special designs or quality. For example, malmal khass, a special, fine-quality patterned muslin woven in Bangladesh, was made to the order of the sixteenthcentury Mughal court. In the modern period, textiles for official use are produced in the marketplace, where the quality of material, design, and workmanship distinguishes the level of use and user.

The kiswah, the name given to the textile covering of the Ka’bah in Mecca, as well as to the textile coverings of the tombs of holy people, is both a traditional and a contemporary official use of textiles. Traditionally, supplying the annual textile covering of the Ka’bah was the privilege of the government ruling the city of Mecca. In the Middle Ages, it was customary for the rulers of large empires to place on the Ka’bah several textile covers, one on top of the other, each representing a characteristic cloth from a different area of the empire. Some of these textiles were striped, others patterned or plain, but most displayed verses from the Qur’an embroidered in gold. In the twentieth century the Saudi Arabian government supplies the kiswah for the Ka’bah, commissioning the embroidery in Egypt. Similarly, textile covers for the tombs of holy people-for example, in Morocco-are also embroidered, often in gold. Men execute the gold embroidery on the kiswah for the Ka`o bah, as well as for the tombs in Morocco.

The mercantile strata of society served the urban populations both by directing the production of the woven textiles and also by making textiles from the various weaving areas generally accessible. Merchants also began to make the products of the looms available to western Europe and later to the United States. In return, these merchants made cheap foreign imports available to various textile economies. In the nineteenth century especially, these imports destroyed the livelihood of weavers and printers, especially where the East India Company participated in the market.

Textiles represented wealth in the premodern period. not only were they traded for cash, they were used as cash within the marketplace as well as in general social practice. Resist-dyed prints from India were bought in Egypt in the ninth century and stored in treasuries; velvets woven in fifteenth-century Bursa were readily bought in western Europe and given in payment for services; and China and Mamluk Egypt exchanged patterned silks, which were in turn given as gifts. All of the textile centers that participated in the long-distance trade modified the production of their looms according to the taste of the various markets. On the luxury side, textiles were woven to order by color, pattern, and fineness of weave. Many written sources from the medieval and premodern period attest to the thoroughgoing textile knowledge of the individual consumer, who commonly ordered textiles by the specific content of the warp and weft, their coarseness of fineness, patterning, and color.

Printed and painted cottons made in Iran, Afghanistan, and India for a broadly based market likewise responded to changing demand. high-quality textiles of this type-known as “chintzes” and characterized by all-over small repeat patterning of flowers, birds or plants-were made for European and local consumption from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, as cheap, printed machinemade cotton cloth, especially from Manchester, came into those regions, local weavers and printers responded to the loss of the quality market by making only coarser prints. Such quality, unsuitable for the export market, was used domestically only to line clothing and bedding.

In the late twentieth century various modern nations have revived some of the older forms of pattern-making and regional design elements as part of their support for visual linkages with the past. Embroidery in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Palestine, and stamping in Iran and India are but a few examples of the revived textile activity. Many of these patterning techniques are applied to synthetic and imported cloth. For example, the wool used for the outer robes worn by men in Saudi Arabia is woven in England; that fabric is cut and sewn, and neck and front detailing applied in the local area. In some areas the continuation of social traditions, such as tea-drinking in Morocco, supports highly specialized textiles such as the Fez-stitched embroidered circular cover for the tea tray. In Bangladesh, richly embroidered kanthas are still made by Muslim women for use as wraps, cushions, and Qur’an holders. In Cairo, tents with appliquded designs are used for funeral receptions for Muslim leaders. In many other places, traditional weaving and patterning techniques are used to fashion new kinds of objects for contemporary use.

No such wide-ranging influences are found among the products of local looms until very recent times, when nomadic tribes became settled and took on some aspects of the mercantile function, and electronic media assured a global audience. Before recent times, daily use demands of the family, the village, or the nomadic tribe dictated that the energy of the loom be used primarily to produce items whose size and shape reflected not official or trade needs but the need to store and carry bedding, food, and clothing. For the nomad, the need for light, flexible, multipurpose weaving and the demands of daily life fostered the use of woven techniques for the patterning of textiles. Floor and wall coverings, pillow covers, bags and sacks of all shapes and sizes, and animal trappings are woven on the loom. Patterns are produced in flat weaves, such as kilim or tapestry, in knotted pile, and in combinations of these, often with embroidery. Until recent times, the patterns reflected the traditions and experiences of the tribal and village groups, often distinguishing among them. The choice of fibers related to the circumstances of the group. Many groups were sheep- and goatherders and thus had ready access to wool and animal fibers, but they had little access to larger markets where cotton and silk fibers were sold. In such circumstances household textile and clothing fabric was made of wool, and cotton items were bought or traded in the market. Still other groups lived in agrarian areas where cotton was harvested, and local looms made cotton cloth for household use, with heavier weaves serving as bags, containers, and draperies, and finer weaves for clothing. If used at all, gold, silver, and silk threads were reserved for ceremonial clothing. Textiles from local looms rarely display the control and complexity of techniques and the luxury of fibers found in the weavings affected by the official and mercantile strata of society, but they are a sign of how the loom served all groups within Islamic society.


Bacharach, Jere L., and Irene A. Bierman. The Warp and Weft of Islam. Seattle, 1978. Catalog with scholarly essays about the role of weavings in Islamic society and the West.

Baldry, John. Textiles in the Yemen. British Museum Occasional Paper no. 27. London, 1982. Scholarly ethnography of dye stuffs and textile making in Yemen.

Gittinger, Mattiebelle. Master Dyers to the World. Washington, D.C., 1982. Excellent catalog of Indian dyed textiles with scholarly essays about historical and market issues, and investigations into techniques and dyestuffs.

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. 6 vols. Berkeley, 1967-1983. See especially vol. I, Economic Foundations, and vol. 4, Daily Life, which are particularly rich in detail about the textile industry and the role of textiles in the life of the medieval Mediterranean.

Rogers, J. M., trans. The Topkapi Saray Museum: Costumes, Embroideries and Other Textiles. Exp. ed. Boston, 1986. Excellent study of the textiles as well as the written sources concerning the holdings of the Topkapt Sarayi Museum. Exceptionally fine plates.

Stone, Caroline. The Embroideries of North Africa. Essex, 1985. Thorough study of embroidery focusing mainly on the traditions of Morocco and Tunisia. Richly illustrated.

Wearden, Jennifer Mary. Persian Printed Cottons. London, 1989. A small book with short but insightful introduction to chintzes. Woven Air. The Muslin and Kantha Tradition of Bangladesh. Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1988. Multiply authored, this scholarly work investigates the most prominent weaving and embroidery traditions of Bangladesh.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/textiles/

  • writerPosted On: October 28, 2018
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