Floral Delight

Louise W. Mackie Curator, Textiles and Islamic Art

Long Shawl with Woven Figures and Animals
 
Long Shawl with Woven Figures and Animals c. 1885. India, Kashmir. Twill tapestry weave, goat-hair (pashmina); 354.3 x 141.6 cm. Gift of Arlene C. Cooper 2006.200

 

Water, climate, and soil enabled the early Muslims to convert parched land of the greater Middle East into verdant oases where agriculture thrived and transformed economies. Vast pleasure and hunting gardens were essential components of royal palaces, as were colorful flowers cultivated for aesthetic, culinary, and pharmacological reasons. Rose shrubs, for example, were not only beautiful and fragrant but also commercially valuable in the perfume industry.

Ancient Middle Eastern gardens survive mostly as ruins, although a few were restored during the last century. In contrast, the culture’s widespread love of flowers is well preserved in the luxury arts. In particular, flowers enrich textiles of various techniques, each made to serve specific furnishing and dress functions as evident in Floral Delight: Textiles from Islamic Lands (please see also the discussion by scholar Dickran Kouymjian of an Armenian embroidery, page 13). This exhibition offers a snippet of my forthcoming book, Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th to 20th Century, with 450 illustrations (half of them from the CMA), to be published by the museum this winter.

 

Long Shawl with Woven Figures and Animals

 

One of the rarest of these textiles is a figural long shawl from Kashmir, India, the source of coveted status symbols worn by privileged ladies throughout Europe during the 1800s. Kashmir shawls were cherished for their peerless quality: incomparable silky goat-hair fiber (called pashmina in the West), vibrant colors, durable lightweight tapestry weave, and fashionable floral designs that evolved from bouquets into composite motifs. The museum’s shawl features animals and more than 200 human figures in Indian princely scenes of drinking, smoking, dancing, and falconry. They enliven the borders and dark stripes that alternate with large elongated “paisleys,” a term derived from Paisley, Scotland, one of many European manufacturing centers that made imitations to compete with the insatiable demand for Kashmir shawls.

This extraordinary shawl, woven in labor-intensive double-interlocked 2/2 twill tapestry weave, was probably made to dazzle the jury at one of the European expositions of industrial products in about 1885; almost all other figural shawls were made in the faster embroidery technique. Woven in sections, they were expertly joined with colorful harlequin end borders.

 


Cleveland Art, September/October 2014