Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.


Copyright 2016 by Donald Clay Johnson


The 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London brought together arts and crafts from around the world particularly those produced in the British empire. The great popularity of the exhibition documented how much people in Britain delighted in seeing the huge diversity of artistic expression from around the world. The following decades witnessed similar exhibitions in various European cities as well as contained the growth and development of museums. While Indian textiles had long fascinated people in Britain and had been eagerly purchased, museum holdings in both India and Britain of these distinctive fabrics have remained minimal. British collecting activities and resulting museum collections of textiles from India thus present an excellent example of global perspectives between an imperial power, Great Britain, and India, a colony within the vast British Empire. Given the great diversity and artistic expression of Indian textiles it is strange museums overwhelmingly confine their displays to an extremely limited variety of textile types. Magnificent as these works are, they do not represent the depth and variety of Indian textile artistic expression. Most unfortunately both British as well as Indian museum collections of Indian textiles never evolved from the time of their original collecting activities and thus rigidly preserve a tradition or canon of a century and a half ago based on the concerns and interests of a handful of collectors and museum officials. Take the case of embroidery in India. Recognized as one of the finest artistic expressions of numerous communities, embroidery has long been largely ignored in both British as well as Indian museums. Three examples point out this non-inclusion of distinctive embroidery in museums. First, the small but influential Parsi community initially rose to prominence building ships for the East India Company. Subsequently the Parsis engaged in trade and successfully competed with the British in the cotton and opium trade to China. While in China the Parsis observed distinctive embroidery techniques that so impressed them they brought Chinese embroiderers to India to teach their distinctive techniques to Indians. The transition from Chinese to Indian embroiderers within this tradition resulted in motifs and expressions suitably adapted to Indian cultural aesthetics and sensibilities. Embroidered works produced in China, for instance, contained pagodas, a motif that disappeared in works produced in India.