NEW YORK (Reuters) - Four centuries of textiles from Asia, Europe and the Americas are the focus of a new exhibition that explores the world’s first truly global market - textiles.
“Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800,” which runs through January 5 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, features 134 works, including wall hangings, bed covers, tapestries, church vestments, pieces of seating furniture, costumes, paintings and drawings.
Amelia Peck, curator of American decorative arts at the museum, said the use of textiles as currency to buy other goods created the first truly global trade.
“The exhibit highlights an important design story that has never before been told from a truly global perspective,” Peck said in an interview.
The idea for the exhibit began when an eighteenth-century textile, once thought to be American and then attributed to English producers, turned out to have come from India.
After Peck realized a market for Asian fabrics had existed in America in the eighteenth century, she studied the museum’s own collection and discovered many textiles had been made in one place for sale to people in a different place and culture.
India produced certain textiles for Indonesia that Dutch traders could trade to buy spices from Indonesians.
Peck also discovered that textiles were used to buy people.
“One shocker in doing the research for this show was reading the records of companies that traded in slaves. One amount of fabric would purchase a male human being; half as much fabric was needed to buy a female human being,” she said.
For hundreds of years textiles were carried over land, but the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire along the Silk Road and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 disrupted the paths. Europeans found sea routes to the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia and discovered exotic textiles along the way.
“When European ships went to the Far East, they came back laden with textiles. Textiles were really a huge part of what was being moved around the globe,” Peck said.
The exhibit includes textiles from China, India, Peru, Mexico, Iran, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, France and Britain. They feature birds, animals, flowers and scenes of everyday life.
Two textiles in the exhibit also depict violence and death.
A blue embroidered piece from India, done for the Portuguese market, shows people being beheaded, and a red and white printed quilt, probably made in England around 1785-90, depicts the killing of British explorer Captain James Cook by inhabitants of what are now the Hawaiian islands.
Trade textiles, which were produced by one culture to be sold to another, “often reveal a conglomeration of design and technical features,” Peck said.
In China, textile producers used traditional weaving and embroidery techniques along with European artistic methods learned from local Jesuit missionaries.
Protectionism also influenced the flow of textiles among countries during the period covered by the exhibit.
“As Europeans bought more and more of these Chinese textiles, England and France banned the imports to protect their local industries,” Peck said.
“But their local weavers and printers spent decades trying to make products that were as colorfast and colorful as the Indian fabrics, and it took until the third quarter of the 18th century before England had the technology to make the cotton fabrics which India had been weaving for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Vicki Allen