Textiles Close Up Revisits the 18th-Century Textile Revolution

Participants at TCU MFA

The fifteen participants in TSA’s Textiles Close Up #2, gathered for a close look at painted and printed textiles from India and Europe on the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on October 25th. With morning coffee and introductions. After a welcome from Pamela Parmal, the David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, department head and former president of TSA, we headed for the departmental offices. The space is impressive, with a large central open area surrounded by enticing, jam-packed, floor-to-ceiling bookcases.  We gathered around two very large, long tables on which Pam and her staff had assembled a careful selection from the MFA’s renowned collection of Indian and European textiles. We began to examine these, starting with early Indian cottons. I could hardly take my eyes away from the almost pristine, 14th-century, red and blue block-printed cotton made in western India for the Southeast Asian market, but then there was an exquisitely drawn and dyed 17th-century scene of angelic musicians from southeastern India…

17th-century scene of angelic musicians

As we looked, we reviewed the technologies of indigo and mordant dyeing. Pam brought all of us into the discussion, eliciting interesting observations from participants who ran the gamut from curators, enthusiasts, and textile artists, to conservators, collectors, and appraisers. Through the day I was fascinated by the varied commentary, illuminating information, intriguing questions and lively discussion.

For myself, it was amazing to see how effectively the examples on view embodied the revolutionary transformation of global cloth production that marked the 18th century. We lingered over the range of reds achieved with mordants in South India, and collectively tried to reconstruct the multiple cycles of bleaching, washing, applying mordants, resists, and dyes. The set of skills, the patience, the labor involved, are daunting to contemplate. Then we looked at how European manufacturers, spurred on by achievements in Indian design and dyeing technology — loved for their eye-dazzling beauty and detested for their competition with domestic production — created a wave of innovation in textile technology. We saw how European manufacturers reworked Indian design concepts and color schemes to accommodate the capabilities of newly developed dyes and inventions like roller printing, driving design and color in new directions. European successes at imitation and reinterpretation, at mechanizing production to lower costs, and at garnering political support for their manufactures, left India’s weavers and master dyers in the dust. A global revolution in cloth production was set in motion, shifting the center of gravity for textiles worldwide, from singular objects of wealth and ceremony to widely accessible, affordable mass-produced goods for all to enjoy.

I was so absorbed by the cloth and the discussion that it wasn’t till the following day that I realized I’d taken no photographs. If anyone who was there has images of the setting, our group and what we saw, please post them!

By Susan S. Bean, Ph.D.
Independent Curator + Visual Arts of Modern South Asia