Textile stories

by Mar 25, 2021

As a textile artist who is always exploring new techniques and materials, I have become increasingly interest in stories of the history of textile and its components. Perhaps it is because of that growing interest that recently two articles on fabric restoration and preservation have caught my eye.

Ancient Fabric – Dhaka Muslin

The first article this week was The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make from BBC.com and written by Zaria Gorvett (@ZariaGorvett). This piece tells the story of efforts to resurrect a fine and delicate fiber.

In late 18th-Century Europe, a new fashion led to an international scandal. In fact, an entire social class was accused of appearing in public naked.

The culprit was Dhaka muslin, a precious fabric imported from the city of the same name in what is now Bangladesh, then in Bengal. It was not like the muslin of today. Made via an elaborate, 16-step process with a rare cotton that only grew along the banks of the holy Meghna river, the cloth was considered one of the great treasures of the age. It had a truly global patronage, stretching back thousands of years – deemed worthy of clothing statues of goddesses in ancient Greece, countless emperors from distant lands, and generations of local Mughal royalty.

There were many different types, but the finest were honoured with evocative names conjured up by imperial poets, such as “baft-hawa”, literally “woven air”. These high-end muslins were said to be as light and soft as the wind. According to one traveller, they were so fluid you could pull a bolt – a length of 300ft, or 91m – through the centre of a ring. Another wrote that you could fit a piece of 60ft, or 18m, into a pocket snuff box.

Dhaka muslin was also more than a little transparent.

Excerpt from The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make

The intricate processes and resulting high expenses, combined with competition from more affordable, if inferior cloths meant a loss of demand and, gradually to loss of the specific plants and the required skills. Since about 2015, Saiful Islam had has helped lead the restoration of the plants, the skills, and the processes of producing Dhaka muslin, and bringing examples of it to its founding country. Islam and colleagues founded Bengal Muslin, a collaborative enterprise aimed at finding ways to bring back the lost fabric.

Read more of this fascinating story

Lady Mary Curzon’s Peacock Dress

Lady Curzon’s peacock dress is a gown made of gold and silver thread designed by Jean-Philippe Worth for Mary Curzon, Baroness Curzon of Kedleston to celebrate the 1902 Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at the second Delhi Durbar in 1903.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Lady Curzon’s Peacock Dress

The dress was created by the House of Worth in Paris between 1901 and 1902 using fabric made in India and embroidered by unknown Indian craftsmen. It definitely caught the attention of the world press, marking Lady Curzon as a leader of style in the same way as celebrities in the media do today.

Excerpt from Caring for Lady Curzon’s Peacock Dress -The National Trust

Caring for this elaborate and heavy dress requires special care and particular conditions. Despite extensive efforts to maintain and protect this extraordinary work, it does show some signs of wear and age, and needs constant monitoring and constant attention.

The gown currently resides at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire where historical dressmaker, and founder of the historical dress-making community Foundations Revealed, Cathy Hay, has been studying it. In 2011 Cathy began fundraising for a charity to build an orphanage in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake. She made the bold announcement that she would be recreating Charles Worth’s most lavish gown in exchange for donations. Double the target funding was achieved and the orphanage built. Cathy drafted a pattern from analyzing a similar Worth gown, closely observing the original dress and researching the time period. The fabric required for her first toile was five square meters. She also painstakingly recreated a sample of the goldwork, working alone and using the Western technique of needle and thread, but calculated it would take her thirty years to complete! Realising the original Zardozi would not have been done by one person alone, she decided to contact an Indian embroidery company. From the company’s sample done in silver and gilt plate, the work was estimated to take three weeks at a cost of £6,800.

Excerpt from All That is Gold: Recreating the Peacock Dress – The Costume Society

Why study textiles?

Textiles can tell us a lot about the people and cultures of their time. Throughout history, they have been used as symbols of class and status, sources of economic development, items of trade and works of art. They can reveal details of important events, availability of materials and even prevailing thought patterns and cultural drivers. Sometimes they reveal mysteries about how they were developed and by whom. All of these details makes the study of textiles and their historical development invaluable and inspiring.

featured image from nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall/features/lady-mary-curzons-peacock-dress

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Educator, Artist, Storyteller


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