Trade Textiles: Interwoven Globe 1500-1800

Coverlet, 16th cenury, China, silk, gold-wrapped silk, 84 x 79 in. Images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the first exhibition at the Met to explore the international transmittal of design from the 16th to the early 19th century through the medium of textiles. While previous studies have focused on this story from the viewpoint of trade, Interwoven Globe is the first to explore it as a history of design and highlights an important global commerce, including trade textiles, from a truly international perspective.

Golden Age of Maritime Navigation

Beginning in the 16th century, the golden age of European maritime navigation in search of spice routes to the east brought about the flowering of an abundant textile trade, causing a huge variety of textiles in a multiplicity of designs and techniques to travel across the globe.  Textiles, which often acted as direct currency for spices and other goods, made their way from India and Asia to Europe, between India and Asia and Southeast Asia, from Europe to the east, and eventually to the west to North and South America.

From India, to China and Japan

The exhibition explores the inter-relationship of textiles, commerce, and taste from the ‘Age of Discovery’ to the 19th century. From India and its famous painted and dyed cottons to the silks of China and Japan, Turkey and Iran, the paths of influence are traced westward to Europe and the Americas. Shaped by an emerging worldwide visual culture, the resulting fashion for ‘exotic’ textiles, as well as in other goods and art forms, gave rise to what can be recognised today as the first truly global style.

On show are 134 works, about two-thirds of which are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collections.  These objects are augmented by important domestic and international loans in order to make worldwide visual connections and include flat textiles (lengths of fabric, curtains, wall hangings, bedcovers), tapestries, costumes, church vestments, furniture coverings, as well as paintings and drawings.

Interwoven Globe – Exhibition Over Nine Galleries

The exhibition is divided into nine galleries, some organised by geography and others by theme. It begins with the Portuguese maritime expansion and the new textile trade they developed with China and India. Portuguese merchants recognised the superior skills of the Chinese and Indian textile workers and introduced them to European imagery so that they could create products that would be attractive to their European markets.

In addition to Portugal, Spain was one of the first European nations to master the ability to navigate the Atlantic Ocean and colonise the New World. By the 16th century, Spain controlled vast areas of South America. Works in this section are tapestries made with traditional Andean materials and techniques, and shows South America as a rich source of natural dyes that were also actively traded around the world.

Japanese Taste for Imported Textiles

The exhibition then moves on to Chinese production for East and West and the Japanese taste for imported textiles and features the types of luxurious embroidered hangings and bedcovers that wealthy Europeans coveted. Indian textiles are represented by spectacular 17th-  and 18th-century painted and dyed cotton bedcovers and hangings called palampores. Colourful and dye-fast Indian cottons became so popular in Europe that in England and France, fearing that the imports would damage domestic production, Indian fabrics were barred from domestic importation during the early 18th century and printed imitations began to be produced instead.

Asian Trade Textiles for the Church

Luxurious textiles were always prized by the elites of the Catholic Church and were used in other religious settings as well. A section devoted to trade textiles in religious contexts explores the various types produced  – European, Ottoman, Indian, Chinese – all used to create an impressive aura of ecclesiastical authority and enrich the material culture of religious practices.

By the end of the 17th century, European trade routes with Asia, Africa, and the Americas were well established, allowing information about other cultures – scant or inaccurate – to circulate, stimulating an intense interest in the ‘exotic’. To demonstrate these visions of the ‘exotic’ in imagery and attire, a fine silk carpet with unusual features from the Metropolitan’s collection is on display. Recently attributed to 17th-century Iran, the carpet confounded scholars for years who dated it from 16th century, originating from Iran to India to Istanbul, with sources of inspiration from English to Flemish tapestry.

European Expansion in Trade Textiles

By the mid-18th century, the leading mercantile countries in Europe had greatly expanded, an enriched, their empires through conquest and trade. In the exhibition, European self-perception is elegantly captured in a set of French tapestries and tapestry-covered furniture made at Beauvais for Louis XVI depicting the Four Continents; here the complete set is seen together for the first time in in a room-like setting.

Textiles and cultural conflict are examined in a section on the brutal effects of the expansion of European colonial empires from 1500 to 1800. Textiles played a key role in the slave trade as cloth was one of the key commodities traded for slaves in Africa.

Exploration of Global Textiles

The exploration of global textiles concludes with a gallery devoted to colonial North America, examining textiles imported from India and China, as well as those made in the colonies that were inspired by Asian models. North Americans were prevented from trading directly with Asia until the 1780s and before that textiles had to be acquired through European middlemen. Despite this limitation, Asian textiles were an important trade commodity and a significant source of inspiration for the design of North American domestic interiors and locally made textiles as early as the 17th century.

Many of the textiles on display have rarely or never been on public view, usually due to their cross-cultural nature, which makes them a challenge to fit comfortably in the permanent galleries of a single curatorial department. Therefore, this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to examine the beauty and sophistication of these objects from around the world and to explore  a wide range of topics, such as fashion, textile production, technology, history, and design.

Explored Interwoven Globe, 16 September to 5 January at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York NY-10028, A catalogue, $65, accompanies the exhibition. For a full list of accompanying programmes, visit the museum’s website.