Nov 24, 2014

history of the textile trade: a gorgeous new book

If you love textiles and art history, you'll love this lusciously illustrated art book on the history of how and where textiles were traded 500 years ago.
Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800
Edited by Amelia Peck
And who better to turn to than the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press - two American cultural giants  - to compile such a gorgeous book.

The book has two parts. The first half is the most interesting! There are 9 essays by academics and curators covering everything from how textiles were produced on several continents, (which in many cases involved slave labor), to the paths that were sailed in this global trade, to the dyes that were used, traded and coveted by people all over the world.

The second half is a catalog for the Met's museum exhibition of the same name. Each item is beautifully photographed and the very first textile is a quilt made from silk that dates to the 17th century.

The cover is made from cloth (who does that anymore?) and the pattern is a replica of a blue/indigo resist textile --- a work of art on its own.

There are two maps inside the front and back cover highlighting the sailing routes to and from Europe, the Americas and Asia during these years. I find this so information fascinating. During all my years at corporate work, I was always reminded of this when I would find companies bragging about how global they are today... and talking as if they invented globalization. I always wanted to shout: People: we've been global for 500 years! 

But back to the book, one of the most interesting sections for me deals with trade with Japan. Its a fascinating essay about who Japan did and did not trade with during those years. In the late 1500s, and for many centuries later, Chinese silk was a highly sought after commodity. But China considered some of the Japanese islands to be pirates, so they would not officially trade with them. But, as the essay explains, there were some interesting 'work arounds' to these bans.

Later, in Edo Period, around 1630 Japan outlawed maritime trade with most nations, especially Christian nations such as Portugal and England who were expelled. The essay explains that the Japanese did continue to trade with the Dutch --- primarily because they were "nonproselytizing Christians." All interesting stuff... but I love the way academics explain these things. For example, the author says that the Western perception of Japan as a closed country during this time is a "presumption that lingers among non-specialists today." Non-specialists? Hmmmm.... I think she means mere mortals like you and me... hysterical. But, actually, she makes a good point. 

The other really interesting essay in this book is the one titled "Global Colors," which explains our search for the blues, yellows, reds and other colors around the world and the lengths traders would go to to get the raw materials, as well as dyed textiles, exported - mostly to Europe. By 1565, Spanish ships would trade silver (which was mined in the Americas) for large quantities of silk and dyestuffs from Asia back to Europe and Latin America.

There is also a whole section on the cochineal reds, which were made with the cochineal - a parasitic insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus. The cochineal originally came from South America, mostly Mexico and Peru, and the little bugs were collected (not easily, I imagine) and sold all over the world. The essay explains how the insects were sold by weight, and some of less scrupulous sellers often mixed tiny pebbles and other junk into their packages to increase the price. Eventually, people learned to cultivate the bug, but the most discerning dyers in Europe sought the wild cochineal for their finest products.

Other essays cover textiles from India; the Iberian trade with Latin America; Chinese textiles for Portugal; Silk trade along the seas and Turkey and Iran; and several others.

If you do nothing but look at the pictures, this book will be one you treasure. But if you have the time or interest in reading the serious literature, you will certainly learn a lot, or at least find new explanations of familiar story lines.

This would also make a great holiday gift!  Currently $40.90 on Amazon. I paid $65.00 several months ago for my copy. Also available at the Met Store - and the Met needs our support more than Amazon!

1 comment:

  1. This is so timely! This is just the thing I need for a gift for a friend.