Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


Woven in Iran during the seventeenth century, the magnificent velvet that is the subject of this paper (figure 1) testifies to the splendor of the reign of the Safavid Shahs (1501-1722). A curious blending of Persian and European elements, it features four women holding various objects against the backdrop of a flowering landscape.

The figures stand along the weft axis. The fragment in figure 1, from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, features a full technical repeat unit, measuring over seven feet in warp direction, and 28 inches, or the full loom width, in weft direction. For Safavid silk weaving, this is an enormous technical repeat unit. The velvet is woven of silk; the numerous colors of the pile are formed by the labor intensive Persian technique of pile warp substitution. The background of the design is formed of gold wefts; the ponds along the lower selvedge, of silver wefts; and selected details are embellished by silver loops. Despite the European elements in the pattern, the technical details of its weave structure leave no doubt that this velvet was woven in Iran.1 Its magnificence and extravagance suggest t,hat it was a court, and probably a royal, commission.

This paper shall examine only one aspect of this velvet, the pattern, and discuss what might be its meaning. Even more narrowly, it will only examine those elements seeming to derive from European art. The Persian elements are of equal importance, but given the theme of this conference, textiles and trade, analysis will be limited to the European, hence alien, elements.

Due largely due to the ambition and vision of Shah Abbas I (1587- 1629), a new era in Persia's relations with the West began at the end of the sixteenth century. To bypass Ottoman control of overland routes to the West, Abbas I courted and rewarded the interests of the European trading companies, particularly the English and the Dutch. These commercial relationships were to have long-lasting repercussions for the Iranian economy and culture.2 Persian art was changed irrevocably.

Abbas I's xenophile tendencies, including relative tolerance towards Christians and a genuine interest in European art and culture, were to be characteristic of most of the later Safavid Shahs, particularly Abbas II (1642-1666).

Although starting out slightly later than their English rival, the Dutch East India Company quickly made up for lost time. A national institution with vast resources, the Dutch East India Company overwhelmed all European rivals from the 1640s through 1670s.3