Woven Luxuries: Indian, Persian, and Turkish Velvets from the Indictor Collection
by Qamar Adamjee, Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, Asian Art Museum
In November 1616, King James I sent the Mughal Emperor Jahangir a gift of an English carriage lined with crimson “China” velvet. When Jahangir noticed the details of the carriage, he expressed disappoint- ment at the English king’s choice of lining textile, wondering why James I would bother with velvet from China, when James I had better velvets available near home. Jahangir subsequently ordered the Chinese lining to be removed and replaced with Persian velvet, which accorded more with imperial Mughal taste.
Diplomatic gifts like this were often highly coded messages, communicating the sophistication and status of the giver as well as the recipient. This exchange between James I and Jahangir speaks to the preeminence of velvets as luxury textiles—especially from the 15th century onwards—while demonstrating the complicated nature of international diplomacy.
Woven Luxuries: Indian, Persian, and Turkish Velvets from the Indictor Collection (on view March 13–November 1, 2015 in the Tateuchi Thematic Gallery on the second floor of the Asian Art Museum) presents 11 textiles from the late 16th–18th centuries. It’s a rare opportunity to see firsthand the exquisite artistry of these textiles and learn more about their broader political, cultural and economic significance.
The richness and scarcity of velvets (compared with other types of silk and cotton textiles) made them highly coveted in Europe as well as Safavid Iran, Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey—the three “superpowers” of the early modern Islamic world. However, velvets formed only a small part of the global textiles trade that was critical to the economic and political power held by these three dynasties. The Safavids relied on the export of raw silk and silk textiles (including velvets), while the Ottomans earned revenue from domestic silk textiles and collected taxes on Persian silks routed to European markets. India’s wealth, deriving largely from a lucrative cotton textile trade, enabled the Mughals to be significant consumers ofPersian and Turkish luxury silks, and also spurred local production. Persian and Turkish velvets circulated abroad, where they were widely admired, and impacted design and fashion. Colored and brocaded velvets for court use were made in India, Iran and Turkey, and were also imported from Europe.
Technical complexity and expensive materials—high-quality silk and gold- and silver-wrapped threads—as well as the large quantities required of these materials, the special looms, and the resulting sensuousness of the textiles made velvets very special. Velvet fabric is characterized by the short dense pile that gives it a plush feel. Skilled weavers combined the creative potential of three technical elements—cut pile (the soft areas), uncut pile (looped surfaces) and “voided” areas (flat backgrounds)—to create a play of textures, depth and light reflection. Add to this the sheen of metallic threads, bright colors from silk yarns, and intricate patterns to get a highly sumptuous, expensive fabric (that was also difficult to maintain before modern dry-cleaning methods).
Contrary to what one might expect, the primary use of velvets in Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman contexts was not for clothing, although velvets indeed served as courtly ceremonial attire and robes of honor in diplomatic gift-exchange protocols. Velvets were widely employed for furnishings—as tents, car- pets, coverings, bolsters, hangings, bags and envelopes. In Mughal India, velvets also dressed royal horses and elephants. These applications not only made velvet textiles markers of luxury and refined taste, but also fulfilled political goals by creating an impression of power, authority and success.
The velvets that survive from the 16th through the 18th centuries offer only a glimpse of their original splendor, having suffered the tests of time due to delicate materials, extensive use, climatic effects and insect activity. Woven Luxuries, however, showcases carefully preserved textiles from a private collection that retain much of their original richness. The featured velvets (6 Mughal, 3 Safavid, and 1 Ottoman) span three distinct cultural areas, offering stunning examples of the varied tastes and cultural exchange woven into these celebrated textiles.
Reprinted with permission from Asian, the members’ magazine of the Asian Art Museum.