As a textile designer, I draw from decorative traditions from all over the world, often finding that what is “now” is usually a translation of what was “then.” After visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800, I was intrigued to see the connection between my own process and that of artisans and traders who collaborated, sometimes unwittingly, to create textiles relevant to their time.
Showcasing 134 works, ranging from quilts, tapestries, and bedcovers to curtains, rugs, and garments, this comprehensive exhibit illustrates how early maritime trade routes initiated a global dialogue in textiles. Products designed for export responded to the tastes and demands of other cultures, while their technical and aesthetic qualities were informed by the traditions within their countries of origin. This merging of influences led to a market rife with innovation and imitation alike.
Rendered in a range of techniques, from embroidery to weaving to resist dyeing, this showing of hybridized textiles allows the viewer to “connect the dots” between cultures. A 17th-century hanging created by Chinese artisans for the Portuguese market features the abduction of Helen of Troy through a blend of embroidery and painting. The theme and composition are clearly drawn from European sources, but certain details in the composition, like the stylized waves and phoenix motifs, betray the maker’s cultural influence.
Garments provide an even more intimate view into the narrative of trade textiles. Embroidered by Mexican artisans, a late 18th-century rebozo, a long rectangular shawl, offers vignettes of Spanish colonial life in Mexico City, including women in French-inspired gowns and European-style interiors set for tea. A jinbaori, a Japanese surcoat worn by samurai, incorporates European wool—an exotic import in a country that did not raise sheep dyed a vibrant red achieved by Mexican cochineal.
Of all the imagery I took in, the memory of a mid-18th-century, Indian-made palampore, or bedcover, stands out. The fine silk stitches, meant to imitate the brushstrokes of a traditionally painted palampore, are set against a beige cotton ground. A tree of life grows out of a Chinese scholar’s rock; its branches, laden with multicolored flowers, reach languidly to the patterned borders. In studying this nearly three-hundred-year-old artifact, embedded with Chinese, Indian, and European influences, my instincts tell me that the tree of life is worth revisiting. Perhaps, like my predecessors, I will take this motif, redraw it in my own hand, and translate it anew for a modern market.
Sumitra Mattai is a textile designer based in New York.
Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 is on view through January 5, 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.