We invite you to read our weekly Cultural Selection articles, which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects help to preserve, disseminate, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.
The development of artistic textiles dates back centuries, but reached its zenith between the 16th and 19th century in Central Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Iran. Luxurious fabrics like silk, brocade, wool, and velvet played a significant role in intercultural exchange, trade, and diplomacy throughout the Indian sub-continent, Persia, Transoxiana, and beyond. These fabrics, produced according to local traditions, savoir-faire, and techniques, were passed down from generation to generation along the Silk Roads. Floral and geometric patterns, motifs, and multi-colored stripes of varying widths were common. Fabrics could incorporate distinctive color schemes and decorative elements, intricately embellished with embroidery and interwoven threads. Persian fabrics, often depicting stylized tulips and hyacinths in a repetitive sequence, were created by a technique involving the contouring of silhouettes with a dark base-thread. Another technique involved running a thin metallic thread along the edges, giving the illusion of shimmering gold. Ornamental design was also very diverse. Textiles from the Indian sub-continent were renowned for their luminescence, vibrant colors, patterns, and harmonious compositions. They could also incorporate motifs that were specific to particular regions, such as “jamdani” patterns (cloth with woven flowers), which consisted of scrawling blooms and arabesques. Fabrics from Rajasthan were decorated with dots, or featured flower bouquets superimposed on white or pale pink backgrounds.
During the Mughal Dynasty, the diversity of fabrics reflected new technology, permitting an expansive range of patterns, colors, materials, and techniques. Gold-weave and silver-weave silks, referred to as “kimkhab” (brocade), developed in towns like Ahmadabad and Varanasi. Velvet embroidery with interwoven gold thread was referred to as “zarduzi” in Persian. Even today, elegant cashmere, elaborate embroidery, and delicate cotton muslins from Dhaka are prized for their excellent quality. The most exquisite silks included “butedar” (flowered fabrics), from Baluchar, “patola” from Gujarat, and “kimkhab”, a Varanesi brocade. Moreover, European influence affected weaving processes, compositional scenes, fashion, and the depiction of physical traits. This 18th and 19th-century Europeanizing trend was the result of sending diplomatic gifts to royal personages abroad. An example of European themes is visible in the velvet brocade, “The Holy Family”, presented as gift in 1603 by the Safavid king of Persia (Modern Iran), Shah Abbas I to the Venetian Doge, Marin Grimani. Exports of silk, brocade, and velvet to Central Asia, Russia, and European regions from the Indian sub-continent and Persia subsequently increased. Transoxiana, renowned for silk and part-silk fabrics like adras, produced in Margilan and Samarkand, was decorated with an “abr” (“cloud”, in Persian) pattern. Other fabrics included “beqasab”, “kanaus”, satin, and brocade. Most notable were “karbas”, “alacha”, and “zandan-ichi”, which were in high demand and exported worldwide.
Transnational fluidity of textiles, ideas, and goods resulted in international workshops producing similar fabrics. Muted color palettes used in early Persian textiles eventually expanded to include yellow, pink, and light blue. Previously, the fabric was thick cloth with a reverse side reflecting meticulous finishing. Conversely, 17th-century fabrics were thinner, adorned with larger decorative patterns and ornamental bands often enclosed in medallions, rosettes, and rectangles. Moreover, the appearance of human figures in compositional scenes (“theme scenes”), depicted court banquets, hunting sequences, and loving couples. Later, human figures were portrayed as independent patterns. Furthermore, illustrations that referenced literature by poet Nizami Ganjavi, including “Majnun’s Meeting with Laylain in the Desert”, were common and inspired by artists such as Riza-i Abbasi, and by miniature paintings of 16th-century Tabriz, and 17th-century Isfahan. Textile quality continued to transform and gain complexity over time. Stylistic variations appeared, whereas silk, brocade, and mixed fabrics were juxtaposed with velvet floral patterns. Thus, artistic textiles evolved, with extended influence in other regions. However, they never lost their uniqueness or embedded cultural elements, resulting in a diversity of designs, fabrics, and methods.