Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Textiles of the Islamic World by John Gillow



For Christmas I got the book Textiles of the Islamic World by John Gillow, who is a well-known author, lecturer and collector in the field of textiles. First I was browsing, going back and forth just a tad too eagerly, and mainly feasting on the illustrations - gorgeous motifs and patterns - but gradually I started taking in the wealth of information. For anyone interested in textile design this book is a treasure, especially if one is interested in Islamic culture and how Islam spread to various corners of the world. The text is rich in details, e.g. on embroidery and weaving techniques, but Gillow manages well to avoid an overload of information. For a non-scholar in textile design, like myself, the book was entertaining and I can only hope to do it justice in a single blog entry. The images I snapped show just a portion of the fabrics and patterns I kept coming back to during the reading. A small portion.

Book cover: 17th-century Ottoman embroidered textile. Private collection. New York.

Right: Wedding blanket woven by the Fulani for the Tuareg, West Africa, p. 302

Textiles of the Islamic World, published by Thames & Hudson in 2013, has 638 illustrations and is divided into 8 sections, or geographical regions: 1) The Ottoman World, 2) Islamic Spain and North Africa, 3) The Arab World, 4) The Persian World, 5) Central Asia, 6) The Mughal World, 7) East and Southeast Asia, and 8) Sub-Saharan Africa. The countries within each form chapters, which Gillow starts with a short introduction before discussing regions, costumes, techniques, etc. Each chapter ends with the state of textile production in the present day. It's both alarming and saddening to read how valuable knowledge in certain countries is on the brink of being lost. War-torn areas have especially been badly affected.
Embroidered leather pot-holder + embroidered bedding cloth, Kyrgyzstan, pp. 216-7

Apart from the historic details in Gillow's book, my main interest was viewing the motifs and learning about their meaning, a topic that fascinates me. Personally, I would have welcomed much more information in the book on the symbolic meaning of motifs.

In the Muslim world the post-Islamic textiles are richly decorated and the designs are often abstract. The patterns are geometric, floral and vegetal, and some textiles have beautiful calligraphic inscriptions, especially in Egypt. The post-Islamic textile industry avoided the use of human and god-like forms. Also animal forms, with exceptions. In Iraq, for example, there are camel, cock and lion motifs, where the camel symbolises riches and happiness, the lion strength, and the cock victory and glory (p. 120). Then there are the hunting cloths from Herat in Afghanistan that depict animals and hunters.

Appliqué tent panel from Khiyammiya, the 'Street of the Tent Makers', in the Old City of Cairo, Egypt, p. 93

In Saudi Arabia the two holy cities Mecca and Medina are of great importance to Muslims. Mecca was the Prophet Mohammed's (c. AD 570-622) birthplace, the founder of Islam, who died in Medina. In the book, Gillow points out the significance of cloth related to the Ka'bah, the holiest spot in Mecca:
The Ka'bah, known as 'Bait Allah' ('The House of God'), is a great cube of black rock. Since historical times it has been given an annual cover, known as the 'Kiswa' (literally, 'robe'), of woven fabric adorned with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic and embroidered in silver thread with the name of God. This was traditionally the gift of the Caliph, and in Ottoman times was made either in Cairo or Damascus and sent with great ceremony on the annual camel caravan that left both those places with a mass of pilgrims to cross the desert to Mecca and Medina. (p. 122)

Block-printed shawl from the 19th century, Deccan, India, p. 244

As someone who is fascinated with block prints (they are so perfectly imperfect), I found the chapters about India and Bangladesh quite interesting. Above I mentioned war-torn areas. Syria is one of those countries, and I think the destruction of Palmyra hasn't escaped anyone who follows the news these days. What I didn't know, and found fascinating, is that in Syria the use of block-printed cloths dates back to ancient Rome. In Palmyra they have discovered block-printed cloth from India that dates from the time of Queen Zenobia. 'The patterns on these finds are exactly the same as patterns on contemporary block-printed cloth from Rajasthan' (p. 106). Think of it, the patterns used in the Roman colony of Palmyra in the 3rd century are still in use in India circa 1750 years later!

Left: Curtain made up of brocaded silk strips woven on draw-looms, Djerba, Tunisia, North Africa, p. 73.
Right: Mende strip-woven cloth, Sierra Leone + Hausa wrap, Nigeria, p. 295

For a long time East Africa has been on my list of future destinations (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda are on the list) and, obviously, I read that chapter with great interest. I also enjoyed comparing the textiles of Sub-Saharan Africa with the designs in the countries of North Africa (the two images above should give you an idea). Oman, on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is also on my list. The Omanis had a great influence on the culture and dress of East Africa. The spice island of Zanzibar was 'for centuries an outpost of Omani power' (p. 299), and 'a notable Muslim centre as early as the tenth century AD' (p. 296). The city of Mombasa in Kenya and the island of Pemba (Tanzania) were also part of the seaborne trading routes of the Omanis. (I didn't take photos of the textiles (mainly garments) featured in the East Africa chapter; I found the textiles shown in the West Africa chapter more appealing.)

Suzani with an embroidered pattern of floral repeats enclosed within multiple cockerels' heads, Urgut, Uzbekistan, p. 185

Early 19th-century Lakhai suzani, southern Uzbekistan, Central Asia, p. 191

Gillow's chapter about Uzbekistan in Central Asia was another one that appealed to me, especially the illustrations of suzani hangings, which are embroidered with flowers and vines. I could have photographed the entire chapter! Let me add that photographing patterns can be very tricky; sometimes there is so much movement in the pattern that it's hard to find a focal point. One of the patterns that mesmerised me was the early 19th-century Lakhai suzani in the photo above (I have posted another angle of it on Instagram). The Lakhai people live in the Surxondaryo (Surkhandarya) region, in the south-east part of the country, and 'claim descent from Karamysh, the sole surviving brother of Ghenghis Khan' (p. 190). Lakhai was Karamysh's youngest son. (Please find another example of Lakhai suzani on my Tumblr page.)

White Tekke chyrpy for an old woman, Turkmenistan + painted 'hunting cloth', Herat, Afghanistan, p. 183

I could have written a blog entry for each section of Gillow's book but opted for keeping everything in one place and not too long. The visual part of my review could give you the wrong idea of the book. As I'm more interested in the patterns and use of motifs on e.g. rugs and wall hangings, I didn't really take any photos of the garments. The book has a lot of illustrations of garments and accessories, both for men and women, which should satisfy those interested in Islamic fashion and style.

Next on my textile-books reading list are two by Gillow, African Textiles: Colour and Creativity Across a Continent (it's on my spring reading list) and Indian Textiles (co-author Nicholas Barnard), also published by Thames and Hudson. Given how much I enjoyed reading this book, I have the feeling I will feature both on the blog some other time.

Detail of a Molesalaam appliqué, Kathiawar, India, p. 242

images by me | credit: photos from the book shown here are by Luke Gillow and Tamsin Beedle, except: cover photo · Clive Loveless, London | suzani p. 191 · Longevity Studio , London | West Africa blanket p. 302 · James Austin


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