Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


The importance of the analysis of continuous pattern and detailed recordings of the structures of lampas and velvet was driven home to me during my work on the Textile Museum's Safavid project. This resulted in "Pattern and Weaves, Safavid Lampas and Velvet" pp. 57-83 in the catalogue Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart published by The Textile Museum, Bier (1987). Practically anyone with a minimum knowledge of Iranian Safavid art and design of the 16th and 17th centuries can recognize a standard Safavid-style lampas and velvet because of motif. Therefore, why go any farther? Perhaps you don't, but if you do go far enough, you might glimpse and confirm a historian's description of an industry, the underlying aesthetic values of a certain workshop, period or movement and even the general far reaching characteristics of a culture. Studies of pattern and structure helped put the various silks called Safavid into a reasonable date sequence. I direct your attention to work now being carried on by Mary McWilliams.

Narrative content is one of the most striking features of many Safavid patterns of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Such patterns are alive with screaming birds, realistic hunting scenes and melancholic love stories. Refer to Bier (1987).

Most Safavid patterns do not have sweeping flowing movements. Compared with patterns from other cultures, they seem to lack dynamic rhythms which flow from one motif to another and lead your eye smoothly and quickly up and down the length.

It wasn't until I saw a number of Safavid patterns reconstructed as continuous lengths and then analyzed their repeats that I began to understand and appreciate their unique qualities. Safavid patterns are evenly and strongly punctuated. Motifs are most often repeated in offset positions. Your eye remains fixed on one area or motif then moves to another to be fixed again for the same amount of time and on, again and again, at an even cadence. Speaking for myself, my eye is distracted too long by an event thereby weakening the underlying rhythm of the continuous composition.

Very few Safavid silks are vertically symmetrical nor is a grid such as the ogee used very often. Bier (1987) Cat. No. 36 is now dated late 15th or early 16th century. This silk has both vertical and horizontal mechanical axes of symmetry, a combination which is very rare indeed. Since the medallions defined by the ogee lattice are stronger than the lattice itself, we focus on the offset position of the medallions.

These velvets, Bier (1987) fig. 8b, p. 68 and Spuhler (1978) P1. 178, pieces of which are in various collections, are symmetrical on vertical axes and have ogee movements. The large blossoms dominate and create their own rhythms. As seen in the reconstruction in Bier (1987) p.68, the underlying curved back vine breaks the impact of the ogee grid. Safavid designers were masters at designs with superimposed levels - more so in rugs than in silks.